Advantages and Affordances of Online Special Collections Instruction

By Rachel Duke and Rory Grennan, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries

In Spring 2020, many special collections instructors immediately discovered the detriments of meeting learners online. Aside from variances in technical aptitude among instructors and learners, we lost some favorite affective aspects of in-person visits to our repositories — the sights, smells, and feels of rare books and archival documents, the impact of reading room ambiance, the reaction of an archival novice encountering something cool and new.

However, in our work providing instruction services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FSU Special Collections & Archives Instruction Group discovered advantages hiding among the restraints of online learning. They may not completely make up for the loss of atmosphere and human presence, but many are beneficial enough to keep in our repertoire going forward.

Working With Digital Objects

Online instruction has, of course, prompted heavier use of the digitized and born-digital resources in the FSU Digital Library as substitutes for non-digital learning objects we would normally employ in an in-person session.

Image shows a screenshot of a webpage from the Florida State University Special Collections online repository. The webpage shows a tan colored cuneiform tablet centered on a black background.
Figure 1: “List of Beer Rations…

Unlike most of our non-digital items, digital copies can be closely examined by as many online learners as we like, with no worries about mishandling fragile or precious items. This is especially an advantage for smaller collections items we regularly employ in instruction, such as cuneiform tablets, which are a challenge to share among several learners at once.

Digital objects also facilitate asynchronous access; learners who miss a session or want to follow up have direct access to the same session materials. This advantage is in contrast with in-person sessions, where follow-up would typically require the effort of contacting the course instructor and figuring out how to facilitate a visit to one of our reading rooms, a series of tasks that may pose a challenge to someone who has missed the orientation.

For sessions with primary source literacy objectives, digital surrogates provide an opportunity to discuss the multiple iterations in which a primary source may exist. As other scholars have noted, digital materials also lend themselves well to discussion of how digital repositories are curated around intellectual property, biases in collecting policies and personal expertise, and staff time and other resources. This of course lends insight to the nature of non-digital collections as well.

Meeting and Engaging Learners Online

While interaction and student engagement alters in the move to virtual spaces — losing some of the spontaneity and “buzz” of classmates’ exclamations and inquiries in a shared moment of examination — there are benefits to virtual Special Collections & Archives visits. In the past, pre- and post-visit assessment of student experiences provided data about session impacts. The move to online spaces like Zoom allows for formative assessment, via pre-set or spontaneously generated polls, of comprehension and progress between segments of class sessions.

Ongoing chat conversations permit students who might be reticent or unable to participate verbally to weigh in on the subject at hand. We learned that virtual sessions work best with a designated “chat checker” who could raise comments and questions from the chat to incorporate into the discussion. This role has been fulfilled by the course instructors, teaching assistants, library colleagues from outside Special Collections & Archives, and even one or two student volunteers. Linking out to Google Documents, Slido Polls, Padlet, and other content sharing platforms enables class-wide collaboration in content creation and visual representations of the relationships between materials, including thought mapping and timelines. Employing a gamified approach to discussion via tools like Kahoot allows students to generate hypotheses and then join peers to defend their assertions.

Information transfer is a concern when we teach skills that students need to be able to replicate on their own.

Information transfer is a concern when we teach skills that students need to be able to replicate on their own. With in-person instruction, segments on discovery tools are typically rolled into sessions with materials interaction, where students are without computers and merely observe the exhibited skills. The online classroom allows us to demonstrate search strategies in finding aids, the catalog, and our digital repository, followed by activities where students engage with discovery tools on their own devices. This narrows the gap between learning context and practice, and provides space for reflection and discussion, empowering students to carry skills forward into their research.

Asynchronous Delivery of Learning Objects

Our COVID-19 response resulted in the development of modules and other learning objects within Canvas, a Learning Management System. In the past, our access to students typically began upon their arrival in our spaces at the library. Our “embeddedness” in their Canvas courses allows us to incorporate materials for asynchronous engagement prior to, or in lieu of, a trip to Special Collections & Archives.

Pre-visit assignments have enabled us to “flip” sessions and prepare students for their time with materials. We can boost familiarity upon arrival by asking students to review our “SCA Toolkit,” a module with video demonstrations, links to our finding-aid databases, the Special Collections & Archives website, guidelines for visiting, contact information, and faculty office hours. This general information packet replicates (and surpasses) handouts we used to provide to students before they left a visit, but the module can be plugged into the navigation of the course Canvas site and can’t be lost or misplaced.

A session was cancelled outright recently due to a member of the instructor’s household coming down with COVID-19. We were able to quickly adapt the session to an online and asynchronous format using digital surrogates. In the past, we might have attempted to schedule students last-minute for individual researcher visits, leading to challenges for reading room attendants serving students who 1) frequently do not remember their instructor’s name, 2) aren’t certain of the materials they should have seen in class, and 3) may not achieve the intended learning objectives through unguided engagement. A purposefully-designed asynchronous activity dodges all these obstacles.

In the Long Run

Pandemic conditions have also forced our instruction team to implement some “someday” goals. We’ve always aspired to better document our session plans, to improve our discovery tools training, and to better integrate with FSU’s learning management system, and a hard pivot to online instruction in 2020 necessitated improvement in all these areas.

In making changes swiftly, we were forced to put perfectionism aside. We settled for “good enough” with the understanding that good pedagogy is reflective and iterative. The Summer 2021 phase of reflection and iteration resulted in the decision to lean into the approaches we adopted under duress because they are effective for many of our recurring learning objectives. While we aren’t yet in a “post-pandemic era,” we will carry forward lessons learned from it, and continue to explore which instruction services belong in which setting.

This isn’t a “silver lining” outcome to the pandemic; there is no silver lining to a virus inflicting such enormous damage on our lives and loves. And in some circles, the debate regarding the value of virtual instruction over in-person instruction continues despite what we’ve learned over the past two years: that privileging in-person instruction alone ignores that in-person and online approaches each have advantages and disadvantages for different pedagogical aims. As course instruction at Florida State University has moved to in-person and hybrid modes this Fall, and we navigate social distancing and the preferences of individual course instructors, we continue to find advantages and affordances in having a footprint in Canvas courses and meeting learners remotely. While we might have chosen a different learning opportunity, the lessons of the “mandatory online instruction period” will resonate for much longer than the pandemic.

Rachel Duke is the Rare Books Librarian at Florida State University Libraries, where she is responsible for the development and management of rare book collections. As Chair of the Special Collections & Archives Instruction Steering Committee, Rachel works with departmental and other library faculty to develop active and experiential learning assignments to promote primary source literacy.

Rory Grennan has served as Manuscripts Archivist with Florida State University Libraries since 2015. He has over a decade of professional experience in academic archives. His research interests include efficient and effective archival processing, archival literacy and instruction, and intellectual property in archives and manuscripts.