Teaching with library material has been continuing at the Bodleian’s Weston Library for Special Collections even as provisions to protect the health of staff and readers have placed restrictions on the numbers and movement of people within the Libraries. Several of the Libraries, including the Weston Library, have re-opened to readers since August 2020.
The autumn term usually brings a large number of University of Oxford classes to the Weston Library seminar rooms to share the collections most closely connected with their studies. This year, some of those visits have continued with students arriving in smaller groups while others have gone online. The key to sharing manuscripts and rare printed material with students and wider audiences has been the provision of films and of live online interaction, through the use of document cameras and smartphones.
A document camera, or visualiser, has been part of the Bodleian master classes set-up for many years, as a means of giving participants in the room–attending in person, remember those times?–a clearer view of details to which speakers wanted to draw attention: decoration, letter forms, binding structures, even (in a good light) the hair and flesh sides of parchment.
Now the same technology enables sharing online, and we, like others in the special collections world, took up the call to action by Aaron Pratt (Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin) in his online seminar in June 2020, Sharing Special Collections with an overhead camera.
The images shared onscreen have been good enough for a Classics seminar to read Latin and Greek text and compare letter forms, and for an Art History class to examine the pages of medieval manuscripts. In the picture attached, curator Martin Kauffmann can be seen addressing a class over Microsoft Teams. In this session, the particular configuration of MSTeams (the mirroring of the self-view) made it convenient to add a second laptop, so that Dr Kauffmann could see the manuscript onscreen in the same orientation as the students saw it and also see and hear the students onscreen, to ask and answer questions.
How does this compare to in-person teaching? Interaction is less spontaneous than when students visit the seminar rooms. We are all familiar by now with the problem of talking over each other in online meetings, where the ‘raised hand’ emoji replaces our instinctive reliance on the silent cues of posture and eye contact. On the other hand, compared to the experience of crowding around books placed on a seminar table, the online platform brings an image of the manuscript equally to each student’s computer screen.
And yet, as we have learned from work for the Sensational Books project at the Bodleian headed by Emma Smith (Oxford) and Kate Rudy (St Andrews), vision is not the only way to experience books and manuscripts. Seminars in 2019 with blind and partially-sighted visitors highlighted how touch and smell are also information carried in books, and how much variety our rare book and manuscript collections have to offer.