Webinar Planning during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Using the Special Collections in Remote Learning

By Melissa Chim

Working from home during the pandemic has raised questions regarding the use of physical primary sources in a remote environment. Crafting Zoom webinars allows librarians to continue to encourage student use of the special collections room. As a reference librarian and information literacy instructor, I consider the special collections room a vital component of my instructor’s toolkit. I wear a lot of hats within our small library alongside my manager (we are a staff of two), and in all of the services we provide we always try to incorporate our special collections and archives. I encourage our Master’s and PhD level students to use the primary sources within the special collections as part of their final dissertations. Our special collections and archives room is home to many historical items related to theology alongside institutional documents, such as Board of Trustee meetings. Before the pandemic, students had the opportunity to interact hands-on with these materials as part of classroom visits to the library or by individual requests. Students were encouraged to physically handle these objects (after washing their hands!) and share their thoughts.

With the onset of the pandemic and the transition to working remotely, giving students access to this collection proved to be challenging. Although student workers living on campus kept the library open during usual business hours, my manager and I worked from home from March 2020 until that fall semester where we came into the library for three days and worked from home for two days. We had access to our virtual desktops but not to the physical collections for six months. Despite working off campus, instructors expected students to incorporate primary sources into their research. I attempted to bring the special collections to students at home using webinars. Presenting primary sources in a webinar format can inspire a student to learn more about these materials.

Some thoughts an instructor must develop when crafting a primary source focused webinar include both practical and pedagogical considerations. Practical considerations refer to the webinar itself, such as the who, what, when, where, and why. When I developed my own webinars, I focused on these three facets:

Inscription by Pauli Murray. Text reads: Christmas 1973, For Paul More, Bishop, With the prayers that some day you may be able to ordain me a Priest in our Church. In Christian fellowship, Pauli Murray
Inscription by Pauli Murray. Text reads: Christmas 1973, For Paul More, Bishop, With the prayers that some day you may be able to ordain me a Priest in our Church. In Christian fellowship, Pauli Murray
  • Sources: What sources will students find the most interesting, and what sources speak to their research topics? The first webinar I presented during the pandemic was on the history of female students and faculty members at my institution, General Theological Seminary, for Women’s History Month. I incorporated original photographs, letters, and a cookbook into my presentation. I also included a signed volume of Dark Testament by theologian and activist Pauli Murray.
  • Format:  If an instructor wants to encourage student participation, a webinar in the “classroom” format will allow students to virtually raise their hand and ask questions on their microphone in Zoom. Student participation is important to facilitate a love of lifelong learning. Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done!  A standard Zoom format will leave students in mute but still allow them to ask questions in the chat function. The latter format was what I used in my first webinar, and students flooded the chat feature allowing some great discussions to get lost in the shuffle. For my second webinar, I utilized the classroom format and I found students enjoyed the opportunity to talk with each other and ask me questions directly during the presentation rather than wait until the end.
  • Appeal to the senses: Students miss out on the tactile experience of interacting with rare books when attending class remotely, but that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t showcase the most interesting pieces in their collections. I choose books with intricate bindings will look visually appealing on screen. Instructors can also incorporate video elements. Footage of librarians turning pages allows students to hear the age of the book. I found my students were very spellbound by the sounds the book made and many said they felt like they were in the room with it! I will add a component similar to this one in future webinars to keep students engaged.

Some pedagogical considerations include diversity and information literacy. These differ from practical considerations in  that they get to the intellectual core of what it means to be a librarian instructor. These considerations focus on the ways in which students learn and communicate:

  • Diversity: Incorporating primary sources into remote lectures brings a wonderful opportunity to celebrate diversity. Incorporating diversity into webinars is often very different from opportunities to consider diversity in the information literacy classroom or at the reference desk. For example, teaching in person allows the librarian to focus on visual cues from the students (especially those for whom English is a second language)  that show that they understand, such as nodding their head. However, language barriers can become more pronounced in a virtual classroom. One trick to overcome this issue is for the librarian to encourage students to use emojis in the chat function. Creating a unified language (such as instructing students to use a smiley face to indicate understanding) can ensure no student is left behind. Additionally, Librarians can choose to highlight works in languages other than English and those authored by traditionally marginalized voices. For example, I presented a webinar on how the General Theological Seminary responded to the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In researching our Board of Trustee Minutes, I noticed that a student named Paul Ken Imai graduated in 1942. I knew that being an international student from Japan in the early stages of World War II must have come with an interesting story! I shared with students that after graduation, Paul Ken Imai fought in the Japanese army and later worked with Japanese Canadians rebuilding their lives after internment.
  • Information Literacy: Working with primary sources is an integral part of a student’s information literacy. In my classes, I like to take a two-pronged approach to information literacy: exploration and critical thinking. First, I teach students where and how to find the sources they need through our library’s catalog and databases. Next, I encourage them to think critically about the source itself, such as identifying the historical context or determining any biases the author might hold. As an instructor, my goal is to act as a guide to my students (with the catalog as my map) while encouraging them to act as their own interpreters. With the transition to working from home, I have tried to find a balance between teaching students how to access electronic sources while also making our special collections available through the use of webinars.

Students attending virtual classrooms in the future can maintain a connection to their library and its special collections without having to leave their doorstep. Webinars are an excellent way to foster student engagement while showcasing the primary sources the library has to offer. Whether in the physical or virtual classroom, librarians can continue to share their special collections rooms with students.


Melissa Chim is the Reference Librarian, Archivist, and Adjunct Instructor for Research Methods at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Her upcoming textbook co-authored with Anne Silver, History of the Center for Christian Spirituality, will be published by Atla Open Press in summer 2022.