Getting Started Teaching with Document Cameras and Original Primary Sources

By Heather Smedberg

A HoverCam document camera, on the left, captures the image of a manuscript book in the center of the photograph. The image from the HoverCam is seen on the screen of a laptop on the right.
A document camera in use. The HoverCam demonstrated here providing detail of, Journal of the proceedings of the Hon[orable] Company ship, Marq[uis] of Huntly…, by Rob[er]t Scott, 5th Officer. Hill VK211 .S3 1817 VLT. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Photograph courtesy of Heather Smedberg.

For those who teach with and about original primary sources, document cameras can be a powerful addition to your toolkit and can help you bring active learning techniques to your instruction even when a hands-on experience is not feasible. Document cameras are mounted cameras that take real-time images and/or video of an object for display on a screen, making it easier for students to see closely what you are referring to on a page. You can zoom in on details or show interesting 3D elements of books or artifacts, without having to create a slideshow of photos in advance. This live approach creates a more engaging experience. Document cameras can make a lecture hall feel smaller and used in online classes can bridge vast physical distances between students and collections. Even when a hands-on component is possible, you can use them to scaffold in useful content or skills to help students succeed during a subsequent in-class exercise or assignment. Students can also use your document camera to present their findings or lead a discussion with original materials. Document cameras often have built-in capability of capturing images or recording audio and video of your demonstration session, which can come in handy if you want to post a recording of your presentation whether for post-class assessment or to create online learning objects.

Modeling and the discovery demonstration are two lecture techniques well suited for use with document cameras to shift students closer to the center of the learning experience. Perhaps you already use modeling when you select a representative item and walk through approaches for observation and analysis, before having students work directly with materials on their own or in teams. Whether in a small or large class setting, document cameras can help all students see what you are referring to. A variation on modeling incorporates the think-aloud technique. Rather than telling students what barriers they might face with advice on how to overcome them, use the visual power of the document camera as you narrate the internal thoughts a researcher has as they encounter a new text or image, and walk through how to overcome barriers to understanding in a way the students will find useful at their level.[1]

A HoverCam document camera, on the left, captures a photograph of dolphins in a flat folder in the foreground. The image of dolphins from the HoverCam is seen on the screen of a laptop in the background.
HoverCam in use with flat materials, in this case a folder of photographs from the SIO Communications Office Records. SAC 13. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Photograph courtesy of Heather Smedberg.

Document cameras can help foster moments of discovery – a powerful component of active learning — in a large class when a hands-on session is not feasible. Bring out a set of boxes, give the students a research prompt, and then ask them to peruse the finding aid to suggest which folders they think will have useful sources. Open those folders under the document camera and turn the pages, encouraging the students to comment on whether this was what they expected or not and why. Resist the urge to provide “the answer” if they are not at first successful. Instead, prompt students to consider the hierarchy of series or to read scope and content information for further clues. By giving the students the opportunity to discover their errors and successes for themselves, you will promote a meaningful and lasting learning experience.


Resist the urge to provide “the answer” if they are not at first successful…By giving the students the opportunity to discover their errors and successes for themselves, you will promote a meaningful and lasting learning experience.

You can also have students use the document camera themselves to share their findings with their classmates, whether in a lecture or smaller class setting. One of our professors has his students select a manuscript log book, work with the item in the reading room as a homework assignment, and then during class, present from the original source using our document camera. During a visit to a lecture hall I brought along our document camera to show a letter in German between Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein and had success spontaneously asking whether any students could translate the letter aloud for the class. When a student took up the challenge, the room perked up, and he received a round of applause. I feel rather lucky this actually worked out, but I’m sure you can imagine other ways to build in student participation. In a variety of settings and approaches, this tool can help you better center and engage students and shift your presentation approach from exposition to exploration if used thoughtfully. 

Document cameras can either be affixed to an existing instructor station, mounted in the ceiling above for a larger display workspace, or portable for use on any surface. They come in a range of sizes, processing speeds, optical qualities, fields of vision, that can all impact performance. Each brand tends to have dedicated software that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. The Boston College Libraries host a useful guide to educational technology including the popular-but-pricey Elmo model, and other more portable models, and includes practical instructions for set-up and use. A web search for other brands and models will also help you find such guidance, and your library or educational technology department may have a model for check out and training support as well.

In a variety of settings and approaches, this tool can help you better center and engage students and shift your presentation approach from exposition to exploration if used thoughtfully.

Within Special Collections & Archives here at UC San Diego, we have a small seminar room-style classroom with no fixed instruction station, and those of us who teach often do so in rooms elsewhere in the library or visit campus classrooms. The availability of document cameras is far from assured. So, for our first foray into using document cameras, we selected a portable model from the San Diego company HoverCam, that could work in a variety of classroom environments. I could download the browser plug to use with whatever instructor pc or laptop is present in the room I am visiting, but I bring my laptop for the convenience of having the software pre-loaded. Smaller models with a fixed focus ratio like ours do have a limit to the size of document they can display. For larger drawings or maps, a smaller document camera really does not work well at all. Seeking a solution to size limitations I consulted with our Electronic Services Coordinator Matt Peters, who suggested affixing a standard webcam to a movable arm, an approach with the added advantage of being incredibly economical. He suggested using the free OBS software, and wrote up these helpful step-by-step instructions. I now have a pair of tools – one that is easily portable with software built in and another that requires more time to set up, but is great with all sizes of materials.

A HoverCam attached to a moveable arm, in the center of the photograph, captures an image of a large map of San Diego County. The image captured by the HoverCam is seen on the screen of a laptop on the right.
A HoverCam attached to a moveable arm for use with larger size materials, such as this Map of San Diego County. Photograph courtesy of Heather Smedberg.
A HoverCam attached to a moveable arm, on the left side of the photo,, captures an image of a large map of San Diego County. The image captured by the HoverCam is seen on the screen of a laptop on the right.
A closer view and different angle of the San Diego County map in order to see the detail possible when using a document arm attached to a moveable arm. Photograph courtesy of Heather Smedberg.

There are a few elements to consider in physically using the document camera:

  • Practice. Applying new tools without good prep can do more harm than good, and practice will improve your confidence. 
  • Moving between different sized items and setting up with cradles can be awkward and may well change the focus ratio of the camera. Do a dry run with the particular materials for each class in advance.
  • Turning pages quickly or moving your hands under the camera can lead to a feeling of seasickness in those watching the screen, as the camera tries to keep up with what it is supposed to focus on. 
  • Look at the screen as much as possible during your presentation to make sure the image is in focus, zoomed in sufficiently, and oriented correctly. 
  • Have a cart or table nearby for the extra things you’ll need to account for – different sized cradles, snakes, notes, or just a place to rest one item when making room for the next.
  • Students are likely to be nervous about presenting, about handling the materials, and about using this tool. Be prepared to give them quick instructions and possibly jump in. 

Practice. Applying new tools without good prep can do more harm than good, and practice will improve your confidence.

Of course,  just like with any class session using original materials, you’ll need to pick good model materials, try to anticipate what might confuse students and send you all off path, plan prompts in advance, and be ready to embrace a spontaneous discovery path and change course to engage with student inquiry. If all of these ideas are new to you, you might want to start by using the document camera with a teaching approach you’re already comfortable. Or, if you’re familiar with the tool already, stretch your teaching by trying a more dynamic and engaging techniques. 


[1] For an older, but useful article that provides useful “think-aloud” prompts for that could be adapted to primary source literacy topics, see: Lapp, Diane, Douglas Fisher, and Maria Grant. 2008. “’You Can Read This Text—I’ll Show You How’: Interactive Comprehension Instruction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 51 (5): 372–83. doi:10.1598/JAAL.51.5.1.


Further Reading:


Have you found exciting ways to incorporate document cameras into your teaching, or do you have particular camera models you find success with? Share in this forum thread.


Heather Smedberg is the Reference & Instruction Coordinator for Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library, and a member of the RBMS Instruction & Outreach Committee.

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