Digitisation During a Pandemic: New Approaches to Providing Access for Teaching

When the COVID-19 pandemic changed academic life, the University of Sheffield Library was in a strong position to continue to offer many of our services.

Screenshot of NFCA webpage
Screenshot of NFCA webpage

We already provided access to almost a million eBooks, and over 60,000 journals, and were ready to provide online support.

We are also proud of our online archival and rare book resources. The National Fairground and Circus Archive Digital makes over 77,000 images available online whilst Special Collections and Archives Digital offers over 7,000 items online.

Even so, the new situation still brought new challenges for us regarding digitisation, particularly in how we could continue to provide access to as yet undigitised resources that the academic community relies upon for their teaching and research.

In this blog, I’d like to explore how the library tackled one particular challenge – how to ensure material from our Special Collections and Archives was still available for teaching in the new term.

As already noted, digitisation is not new to the team. We have specialists in this area who routinely add material online, provide a reader request service and have completed a number of large-scale digitisation projects.

However, restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19 did raise a new set of circumstances. Usually, we like to welcome groups of students to our reading room, along with their lecturers, to introduce them to archival material and rare books relevant to their course unit.

Indeed, we know that welcoming them into the reading room makes individual students more likely to return to use our resources in future research.

There is a thrill to the materiality of the archives and rare books we hold that can only be experienced by seeing them in person.

Unfortunately, due to issues with the building and the swiftly changing circumstances of the pandemic, we were aware this may not be immediately possible in the new term.

Therefore, digitisation became the most obvious solution to providing access to material for teaching. 

Western Bank Library, home of Special Collections, Heritage, and Archives

The first step was to set up a working group to ensure we could identify the material required by academics and establish processes to provide access to it.

The group brought together people from across the library, including from Special Collections, Heritage, and Archives; Faculty Engagement; Library Digital Services; Scholarly Communications for copyright expertise; and Library Learning and Teaching Services.

The team was led by The Associate Director, Digital Strategies, Research and Engagement. We then began to discuss with academics which material they wished to use for teaching in the following year.

This task was made easier by the existing relationships between academics, Faculty Engagement and Special Collections, Heritage, and Archives.

It was also a great opportunity to promote the collections’ use in teaching and raise awareness of the availability of digitisation. 

Whilst discussions continued with academics concerning which collections they wished students to access, we started to consider some of the other issues that arise as part of any digitisation process.

Copyright can sometimes be a barrier to sharing our collections. This is particularly the case when considering what content we can upload to share worldwide online.

This has led the library to recently develop a risk assessment framework to help us decide which material can be added to Digital Special Collections and NFCA Digital.

In this instance, the copyright experts in the group were able to quickly reassure us that providing access would fall under the Section 32 Illustration for Instruction copyright exception.

This meant we could go ahead with providing access to students and academics, after making them aware that they should not share the images or make them available online. 

Data protection was another issue the group worked together to consider. Usually, if a collection contains personal information as defined by the Data Protection Act 2018 we prefer material to be consulted in the reading room.

We like to explain to researchers in person their responsibilities under the Act and ask them to sign a data protection agreement. 

Some of the material selected was relatively recent, dating from the 1990s and containing personal information.

We did encourage academics not to select material that contained particularly sensitive information. We carried out a sensitivity review, which was followed by a data protection risk assessment, before allowing access to the material. 

We received assistance with this from the University Records Manager and Archivist and the Head of Data Protection and Legal Services. 

It was helpful to get the input of the group on how we should tackle informing people about their data protection responsibilities remotely and what evidence we should keep of this process.

We decided to ask students to complete a google form based on our usual data protection agreement. The form informs them of their responsibilities under the Act and provides a record of their agreement linked to their university email account. We will only provide access to the material upon completion of the form. 

This links to another technical issue. What is the best way to provide access to the material? Usually, we would email scanned images in response to individual requests or put images online as part of our programme of digitisation.

But in this case, we were providing access to material including personal information and still in copyright, so we wanted to make sure access was closely controlled.

The Library Digital Services team reviewed a number of options and it was decided that providing access through a university google drive was the best solution.

It would be easy to set up, access would only be provided once students had signed the data protection agreement and permissions could be set to encourage people not to share material.  

The Special Collections and Digital Preservation Coordinator carrying out digitisation

The group also provided an opportunity to improve some of our existing procedures. We developed new file naming conventions for the scans produced.

We also reviewed what metadata should be collected and considered how to show the context of the material to students who may not be familiar with using archival collections.

We explored alternative approaches to creating the scans, including filming collections. In this instance, we decided to produce high-quality scans as the best solution, but we will continue to develop other methods of digitisation to provide a wider range of options for researchers in the future.

We received positive feedback from academics concerning the access digitisation provided. Dr David Forrest, Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching, and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies commented on the digitisation we carried out from the papers of Barry Hines.

“Teaching British working-class film, television drama and literature at Sheffield means that the work of Barry Hines is mainstay of our curricula.

Kes and the novel on which it was based A Kestrel for a Knave are iconic works of post-war British culture, and our students have always been incredibly excited by the opportunity to call upon the Hines papers in their studies.

The archive offers them an opportunity to gain an insight into Hines’s working practices, and helps to authenticate and make tangible their research – specifically the layers of research that shaped his creative practice and the moments of his life that influenced his published and unpublished outputs.

In digitising materials from the collections for the students, our library colleagues ensured that this valuable dimension of their learning was preserved.

In some ways, sharing select excerpts from the collection from the students also helps to demystify archival research and will hopefully whet their appetites to return to the collection when they begin to develop their independent projects, and when we look towards a future with fewer restrictions. “

Dr David Forrest

Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies

In some ways, sharing select excerpts from the collection with the students also helps to demystify archival research and will hopefully whet their appetites to return to the collection when they begin to develop their independent projects, and when we look towards a future with fewer restrictions.“

The working group has now been wound up, but the work it started continues to develop. We will continue to use the new and improved processes.

Our next step is to restart our digitisation on-demand service. We are also making plans to open up the reading room again.

However, with the COVID situation constantly changing, we are aware it may be necessary to rely on digital access again in the future.

We hope to continue working in collaboration across the library and have plans to establish a group to consider strategic digitisation projects in the near future. 

Angela Haighton, Head of Special Collections and Archives

For more like this, head to our Unique and Distinctive Collections blog page!