Behind the scenes Collections Long read Research

The Return of the Reading Room- Physical and Virtual

Special Collections Reader Services Co-ordinator, Kate Miller writes – 

After tireless work by many people and teams across the whole of the University Library, the Reader Services team were able to resume work in the John Rylands Library in a very limited capacity, in late July. 

The initial pilot was successful, and we are now continuing to offer a limited in-person service to all University of Manchester staff and students. See here for the latest updates on the service.  

A very exciting opportunity has come from the current restrictive situation, and that is the development of a brand-new digital appointments service. We can now offer anyone the opportunity to book an hour-long appointment to view our Special Collections material from the comfort of your own home, using a visualiser and Zoom!  Read on to find out how… 

How have the Reader Services team found being back in the Library? 

After working from home for a long period of time we have now gradually started to return to the John Rylands Library as a team. This is an exciting new phase, as we have new ways of working and new and brilliant ways of engaging with our readers. We are grateful for the hard work of many colleagues across the Library, who have put in place processes to prioritise the health and safety of all staff members and readers. 

Reader Services Co-ordinator Kate Miller in the Historic Reading Room at John Rylands Library with a trolley of retrieved items
Kate Miller getting material ready for a digital appointment. 

Currently we are based in the stunning John Rylands Library Historic Reading Room. We are working in two bubbles; this means that we are working with the same set of colleagues each week as well as being connected to our other team members on Microsoft Teams.  

Throughout the pandemic we have used Teams to communicate, and this has made us all feel better connected and closer to each other. This connection has been of great benefit and has shown an improvement in the wellbeing of team members – it has also fostered greater team spirit and collaborative working. 

However, nothing beats seeing someone in person and it has been wonderful to be able to see each other once again (whilst maintaining social distance of course). 

Reader Services Assistant Angela Petyt-Whittaker retrieving a book from one of the cases in the Historic Reading Room
Angela Petyt-Whittaker retrieves some material ready for a reader. 

Angela Petyt-Whittaker, Reader Services Assistant: 

After several months of working from home, being able to enter the Library once more was a rather strange experience at first. However, I soon became familiar again with the vast storage areas and the wonderful array of collections. Being able to interact with readers in person (and on Zoom) has been really enjoyable. It is a privilege to work in the Historic Reading Room, sat at my desk sat facing the Apse – with the statue of John Rylands silently keeping watch. 

Catherine Smith, Reader Services Assistant: 

When I heard that we were due to go back into the library I was both relieved and daunted! After working from home for over four months and having hardly gone out at all due to caring responsibilities I was really nervous. I needn’t have worried at all. Kate Miller (Reader Services Co-ordinator) met us by the main door of the John Rylands Library and everything was in place to make sure we were safe and felt secure. Hand sanitiser when we arrived, then we followed the one way system to the beautiful Historic Reading Room to set ourselves up and get ready for our readers. The day went quickly and it was lovely to welcome readers and help them settle in. Everyone was brilliant and abided by the rules, face masks were on from the start! I know that this situation is not normal and it doesn’t feel like it at all, but I’m glad we are gradually returning as a team and hopefully we will go from strength to strength and become even better. I returned home after the first day absolutely shattered, but really glad I’d done it. It was lovely to see my team mates again after such a long time away. 

Ian Graham, Reader Services Assistant: 

It is over-egging the pudding, perhaps, to say that on returning to the Rylands I felt like Odysseus setting ashore in Ithaca after his long time away; nonetheless, I was very glad to be back. 

Throughout the lockdown, we contemplated various safe ways of running Special Collections once the library building reopened. Whilst safety may yield some necessary evils, adopting the Historic Reading Room as our temporary home cannot be counted amongst them. The Room was chosen as it is spacious enough for everyone to maintain a healthy distance and is quiet and nicely lit; but also, as a bonus, it is hard to imagine a working environment more pleasing to the eye. 

Our working practices have altered considerably. Some changes require little to no effort on our part; we wear masks, keep our hands clean and quarantine all materials for seventy two hours in advance of a reader’s visit. Other changes, however, are a little more onerous. With the lifts restricted to prevent contamination, retrieving materials does sometimes mean we are using the stairs to navigate the Rylands’s four floors, basements and cellars; whilst the descents aren’t too bad, the ascents can be a touch punishing, and ruthlessly highlight the after-effects of any slovenliness and over-indulgence during the lockdown. 

Despite this, it is good to have an albeit limited number of readers using the Library again. One of the pleasures of working in Special Collections is keeping company with committed, focused scholars, many of whom are engaged in ground-breaking research; after the relative isolation of working from home, and the air of stagnation it sometimes produced, this is especially welcome. It is also good to see the (masked and distant) faces of colleagues and, naturally, to be amongst the collections once more. 

How did our readers find their visit? 

Since the partial re-opening of the service, there has been a high demand to book into the limited spaces available, especially by those who are facing looming deadlines. It is a real pleasure to welcome back familiar faces and we are so grateful for everyone’s support in abiding by the measures which are in place to keep everyone safe. 

Max Maxfield – Researcher says: 

It was great to be back after all this time and there were no problems at all with the set-up. The staff were very helpful, the rules were explained clearly and the workplace organisation was more than safe. Plus, I really appreciated the opportunity to finally work in the historic reading room, the only issue I had was stopping myself from gazing at the surroundings. 

So, what are digital appointments and how can you book one? 

The visualiser and laptop set up on a table ready for a virtual appointment
The visualiser set up ready for a digital appointment.  

The way we are living and working has changed. Many of us are now extremely familiar with the use of online tools for communication and collaboration.  

When planning our reopening, we knew that we would need to make changes to ensure those researchers who would be unable to visit us in person would still have access to the collections. 

The solution seemed quite clear. We already had a visualiser in the Library and we were all familiar with using Zoom for meetings. So with the expertise of colleagues (especially Dominic Marsh, Jamie Robinson and Chris Higson), the two were connected and we can now live-stream our world-class Special Collections across the world. 

Reader Services Assistants John McCrory and Catherine Smith demonstrating altering the focus on the visualiser
John McCrory and Catherine Smith set up the visualiser ready for a digital appointment. 

Each appointment is an hour (slightly less if there are more than two participants) and we can go through the material at the direction of the researcher. Not all material is suitable for these appointments due to size, condition, content or location (we cannot yet access Main Library Special Collections) and it is always worth checking first if the material has already been digitised

So far, it has been extremely successful, and in the short time we have been open, we have helped many researchers to view material which they would ordinarily have to visit us to see. Reactions from those using the service have been positive, we’ve had comments such as: 

“it is a great kindness on your part and on the part of the UML, to be so flexible about helping overseas researchers like me during these uncertain times”  

“what a great service” 

Although this service was developed in reaction to the restrictions placed on us due to the pandemic, it is certainly something that is here to stay.  

The opportunities that come from us being able to open access to all researchers regardless of location, not just those that can visit, are huge.  

It is very straightforward to participate in a digital appointment- we are here to guide and help you at every step.  

If you are interested in arranging a digital appointment, please contact the Reader Services Team for more information. 

1 comment on “The Return of the Reading Room- Physical and Virtual

  1. Penelope Blackburn

    What a wonderful services to offer, and a great opportunity, to be born out of what has been a very difficult time for us all🌈 Good Luck to all those involved, may the ‘virtual’ reading grow from strength to strength🌈🌠 Literature, like the pages bound in a book, binds us all together whenever we are around the World🌍

Leave a Reply to Penelope BlackburnCancel reply