Video Conferencing Technologies Make Rare and Special Collections Available to All

Virtual Reading Rooms now allow the viewing of valuable and antique books from anywhere in the world.
Video Conferencing Technologies Make Rare and Special Collections Available to All

Two of Australia's most significant rare and special collections libraries are now accessible in virtual reading rooms for community research and viewing and one-on-one sessions

Using video conferencing technologies and practices established during the pandemic, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney libraries are extending access to their unique special collections and archives to people who cannot attend campus.

With high-resolution cameras, the Virtual Reading Room brings collections directly to your room in one-on-one sessions. Increasing access to rare and special collections is becoming a major focus for libraries worldwide through these services.

Access to special collections is a priority for university libraries. Before now, access to supervised reading rooms for special collections items has been limited by the items' age, value, or rarity. With the Virtual Reading Room, patrons can explore special collections from any location and take a closer look at them from any device.

In addition to extending their collections to people with accessibility requirements, remote and regional communities, and international researchers seeking access to unique holdings without the significant barrier of international travel, the libraries anticipate this service will break down barriers for new audiences.

According to Donna McRostie, who serves as the University of Melbourne's Deputy Director of Research and Collection Stewardship, the Virtual Reading Room directly responds to the expectation that physical collections can be accessed in new ways.

"The Virtual Reading Room represents one step in a journey of innovation, and we will continue to evolve our service models exploring digital opportunities to break down barriers to global access and engagement with the University's unique and distinctive scholarly collections," said McRostie.

"Now, no matter where you live, you can have a Zoom session with a first edition of John Gould's Birds of Australia, a 16th-century Middle Eastern manuscript, the University of Sydney's 15th-century illuminated copy of The Book of Hours, or John Bradfield's blueprints from the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge."

Librarians and reading room staff facilitate Virtual Reading Room appointments by handling items, turning pages, magnifying specific details, and responding to questions. Bookings are available to all visitors, whether experienced researchers or curious casual readers.

The University of Sydney Fisher Library's Associate Director of Research Education Elizabeth Litting celebrated the initiative born out of pivots made during Covid-19 lockdowns.

"There are some disruptions from the pandemic that have actually been huge opportunities in disguise, and this is one of them. The Virtual Reading Room now allows us to provide access to our rare and special materials to a greater range of researchers and educators, wherever they are in the world, unlocking the potential of our collections like never before. That's very exciting." 

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