A role for ‘Libraries of the Future’ in the UK: digitisation via research-based learning

The Guardian newspaper in the UK has today published an education supplement devoted to JISC’s ‘Libraries of the Future’ theme. This reflects excellent communications work by JISC, whose Annual Conference was held last week in Birmingham, with OCLC as its main sponsor.

Malcolm Read, JISC Executive Secretary. Flickr image by James F Clay

Several of our UK RLG Programs Partners are mentioned in the various articles. The British Library’s 19th century newspaper collection, made available free to universities with JISC funding, is mentioned. Sheila Cannell, Library Director at Edinburgh, is quoted on the subject of library design, and an article which profiles the changing world of library directors features Jean Sykes (LSE) and Anne Bell (Warwick).

One of the most interesting articles, indeed, describes a collaboration – funded with a two-year grant from the University’s Education Innovation Fund – between the Library of the University of Warwick, and its department of French Studies, to assist in the digitisation of a large collection of 18th and 19th century French plays from the Library’s Modern Records Centre. The approach to digitisation employed here seems to belong to a new category: not ’boutique’, in which a special collection or subset thereof is singled out and funded for digitisation, nor ‘industrial’ – the Google, OCA or Microsoft approach, in which digitisation starts at the beginning of a large collection and works indiscriminately through to the end, nor on-demand, where a user’s request leads to individual items being digitised. The approach being taken with the Marandet Collection was research-based learning led, from within an undergraduate programme.

Students chose a group of undigitised plays from the collection (in this case plays from the period 1799-1815), and focused upon it in order to produce essays analysing themes drawn from the literature and history of Napoleonic France. The plays were digitised by the Library, with the students being responsible for the quality of the finished digital resource, and the resulting essays (if marked highly enough) were then placed online by the Department in an ejournal created for the purpose (not in the Library’s nascent institutional repository, however, which – like most in the UK – will include only student work at PhD level). What is of particular interest in this approach is the requirement for students (final-year undergraduates) to appreciate the digital curation of a research collection, at the same time as showing evidence of scholarship in the literature and history of the period. The idea of learning how to do research is thus extended to include the process of documentary preservation via digitisation, which happily has the added benefit of adding to the digital corpus within a discipline. The course lecturer, Katherine Astbury, describes the project in the University’s Interactions journal. ‘The first stage for students will be to identify a corpus of plays from within the Marandet collection … These will be digitised to provide a permanent resource for researchers world-wide. The students will thus gain experience of research-based practice by selecting texts from the Marandet collection for preservation through digitisation and then be responsible for overseeing the preservation process to the finish: checking the digitised content, uploading them and adding to what is a very scant body of secondary material by writing on their selected plays’. Warwick is to be commended on the imagination which led to this remarkable project which advances digitisation, scholarship among junior researchers, and research in the period of Napeolonic France, in one fell swoop.

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