So Now What? Lessons from a Year of Virtual Special Collections Visits

Like so many others, my introduction to remote teaching was an abrupt and rapid process of trial and error. I started as the curator of the University of Florida’s rare book collection in the summer of 2019. I spent the next semester and a half establishing connections with faculty and bringing courses in to do in-person instruction: single sessions per course, often a combination of show and tell and hands-on activities and discussion. In mid-March, as warnings became more dire, I had a group of thirty students coming in to the collections to see a facsimile of the Codex Murúa, a 16th-century Mesoamerican manuscript, and discuss its materiality. The instructor wanted the whole class to get up close with the facsimile and two other 16th-century books, and rather than cancel the visit this seemed like the ideal setting to jump into Zoom instruction on extremely short notice.

After finding a conference room in an adjacent library, I set up the books and made an unfortunate discovery. The only webcams we had available (borrowed from our desktop computers) had no autofocus. Luckily, since the professor was discussing from the same room, I was able to spend most of the session hovering the webcam and tripod around the books, and I’m pretty sure that we were able to pull things off without making anyone seriously motion sick. After a few more experiments that semester, I led a grant team comprised of small group of my colleagues in UF’s Special and Area Studies Collections. We’ve spent the past year investigating a variety of technologies, borrowed and bought, to give students up-close access to our materials and provide content for community groups who would normally have visited in person.

Our virtual visit videos were edited in Adobe Rush and eventually uploaded to Microsoft Stream to generate captions

Throughout the year, most of these “virtual visits” involved pre-recorded video segments. Since webcams were harder to come by than toilet paper, live-streaming materials didn’t really become possible for us until well into the Fall semester. Our earliest visit videos were set up much like smaller versions of in-person presentations—I would consult with instructors to find a group of three to five objects relevant to the course and a narrative thread that ran through them. Videos ran from 15 to 25 minutes, and I sent them to instructors in advance of the discussion along with questions for the group to consider before logging into Zoom.

This video was produced in October 2020 for an outside group, and was recorded on a GoPro with a USB microphone (hidden off camera).

By the start of 2021, we had brought in higher resolution webcams, as well as a larger document camera, which let us incorporate books from the videos into live Zoom discussions. These extra options allowed us to pre-record less, edit more, and experiment with different ways of filming. Our spring videos dropped to twelve minutes on the high end and six on the low, and we were able to make more versatile use of the content. All told, over a dozen of these videos reached students at UF and around the state of Florida, with some featuring in campus activities, book displays, and on our YouTube channel.   

Our equipment needed to be mobile, and I was able to use its storage cart and an elevated monitor to flip between cameras in Zoom.

This past July, classes started to enter our buildings for the first time in over a year, and all signs we’ve received from the University (still) point to the expectation of regular, in-person instruction in the fall. So what becomes of the cameras, microphones, and video editing equipment?  Even with practice, the time that it takes to create and provide content in advance is significantly more than the effort of setting up an in-person class, or a Zoom class for that matter, and it’s much less forgiving than open-ended discussion. But I don’t plan to abandon the videos entirely. The main advantage that I’ve found to sending courses content in advance is that it aids student learning over and above what a repeat visit could offer, and made me think much more critically about the ways that I design student activities in the collections.

This was a recorded in February 2021 with a DSLR on a tripod. Recording in different spaces and balancing background music was still a work in progress.

Going forward, video introductions offer us solutions to two barriers to active learning that existed prior to March 2020. The first obstacle is space in our library, which has always been at a premium. Even for classes that are able make it to our reading room, a group of 30 students (or even 15) could not interact with a single facsimile volume at the same time during a hands-on session without some sort of technology helping them, and we can’t permanently build technology into the room we use for instruction. We can now perform the same sorts of discussions that would previously have needed a dedicated seminar room, or (as we did this month) offer hybrid options to instructors whose students might not all be able to attend comfortably. For those who can’t make it on Zoom, take-home activities around exhibits and collection items have given us the chance to participate alongside other libraries in campus events as we hadn’t been able to before.

By far the largest barrier to active learning is the time required to contextualize and introduce materials which the class may not have time to fully explore, and which they are likely encountering for the first time. Even with planning, the introductory portion of a visit limits the amount of time that students can spend with the materials, especially in cases where class periods last less than an hour. Pre-recording material (in whole or in part) and embedding it in course sites allows us to introduce not just the content of the object but how it moves and behaves as a physical object, as Emily Spunaugle and Megan Peiser emphasized in their post earlier this year. Even a brief video can scaffold in-person assignments and activities, and give students something they can return to quickly over the course of the semester. This should lead to more, rather than fewer, students looking to come back to the reading rooms and use the collections. 

This was the last video we produced (in April 2021) in order to add a digital component to a display in our main library.

In terms of designing lessons, scripting and filming has shown me how much I was relying on more material for flexibility and spontaneity, rather than intentionally building it into the questions I asked. After this year’s experiments, I’m proposing that my department create a series of five-minute “Object Lessons,” where each curator picks an object that they love to teach with and one material question it best illustrates. The first part of the lesson introduces the item, the second uses one or two examples to pose and illustrate the question, and the final part offers options for its further investigation by placing it in its historical and cultural context. Since the learning curve for making and recording videos is steep, asking other curators to start from where they are most comfortable and focused should help with the scripting process. My hope is that with a small library of these lessons we can embed one or more in the canvas pages of courses who plan to visit, and introduce the students to general topics in material culture, research practice, and the history of a particular genre or period before they encounter the object, or one like it, in person.

Building virtual elements into our instruction program can make our materials more approachable, and make our students more comfortable and creative in using them. Below I offer three ways that I plan to integrate pre-recorded content with in-person instruction in classes this coming year, along with the exercises that inspired them. Recording material has its limits, and we shouldn’t push the technology—or ourselves—where it doesn’t want to go. As we’ve worked through different ways of meeting people wherever they are this past year, it’s become clearer than ever that we shouldn’t expect our students all to be in exactly the same place.

Sample Uses for Pre-Recorded Content

Jumping-Off Points

For one of my favorite lessons from 2020, a class on Northern Renaissance Art, I filmed an introduction which included a book of hours printed in Paris in 1498. I wanted the class to discuss something concrete about the book, so I also sent still images from two contemporary books produced in the same city which had digitized by other institutions, one being a manuscript illustrated by the artist who designed the borders and miniatures for the print books. In class, students broke into small groups to discuss how the composition and illustration of the different copies and editions of the book of hours compared to each other, and how artists’ work filtered through different intermediaries.

A Flipped Classroom with Course-Specific Collections

This approach ties digital content more closely with the assignments of a course, with an in-person visit in the middle. Two courses in the Spring 2021 used a similar group of rare materials on seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic piracy. One was a small seminar geared towards thesis research methods and the other was a much larger freshman class where students were given the option of using special collections materials to compare and contrast historical and popular conceptions ideas of piracy.

I shared the same introductory video for both, but for the larger class we built a wider digital collection of materials, along with a brief PowerPoint presentation to introduced them to the students. For our in-class session, we gave the students a choice of three short primary sources from different categories and collections (such as a 1958 map of shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico) that we could analyze and discuss in a small group, in essence doing a scaled-down version of their final assignment.

Instead of using curator time for a show and tell visit, we were able to provide further scaffolding for a course’s assignment. The larger freshman course will be taught each semester for the next five, and can be added to or modified without having to be made up from scratch. Even if we show materials in person, having content and context available through the Canvas platform (and not just on a cart in the reading room) should make it easier for students to return to at different points during the semester, especially when the time comes to do their assignments.

Bonus Tracks

These are single videos or standalone activities that can be launched from a website or QR code. For our finals week, we designed an activity which we called Dive into Tunnel Books, where students could make their own books using pre-cut pieces. Our conservation department put together the kits, I recorded a context video, and the curator of our Book Arts collection, who teaches book arts in our School of Art and Art history, recorded a tutorial video. We posted both videos to YouTube but embedded all of the content for the lesson on a page of our website.
The webpage with the activity portion can be hidden if we don’t want it to appear, but the videos are still publicly available and can call attention back to our collections. As a bonus, exercises like these can be scheduled, filmed, and produced on a schedule independent from the semester, when it might be possible to secure help from students with skills in video or audio editing, and where partnerships with other departments or institutions can develop.

                                                                                                Neil Weijer, University of Florida