In a recent blog post, “Back in the Classroom: Reflections on a Year of Remote Instructional Support,” graduate assistant Kristin Hagaman considered the past 18 months of instruction in “pandemic mode,” describing what we’ve learned in our adaptation to the restrictions of distanced instruction and research services in Special Collections & Archives. A majority of our success in this endeavor was due to the people (like Kristin) we work with, who rose to the occasion and remained flexible in a time of pressure. They digitized materials according to need, handled communication with patrons and faculty, and built online modules for Canvas (our Learning Management System). However, we also benefited from the tools that were available to us.
Into the Tech of It, Into the Tech of It
At the start of the pandemic, there was a flurry of listserv emails and social media posts about the best way to share images of materials in Special Collections & Archives. That spring, we were all seeking a solution to teaching with primary sources from a distance. At the end of spring, I partnered with our Manuscript Archivist, Rory Grennan, to apply for Instructional Technology Development funding to purchase two cameras that could fulfill our in-person and long-distance needs.
We purchased two Elmo TT-12F document cameras prior to Fall of 2020, as planned. Through trial and error, practice, and an excellent video tutorial, “Sharing Special Collections with an Overhead Camera,” hosted by Dr. Aaron T. Pratt from the Ransom Center, we learned how to use the doc cams. Eventually, we could join faculty and students via Zoom to share our expertise, lead active-learning exercises, and provide stunning views of our materials. In one class, students watched as Hannah Davis demonstrated the engineering of artists’ books. In another, I made sure students could hear the clinking of the heavy chain attached to a medieval book. While the buzz of a classroom filled with excited discussion was somewhat lost in the move to a virtual space, this technology allowed us to share as much of the tactile experience of archives work as we could.
It’s a Special Collections & Archives Super Spy (Super Spy!)
Now it is nearing mid-July, and we’re looking forward to welcoming students, safely, back into our Special Collections and Archives classroom. But that doesn’t mean we’re done with the document cameras! We’ve learned so much about their capabilities over the last year and a half.
In addition to Zooming into classes, we also created videos that could be used asynchronously. In one case, I attempted to replicate a huge spread of materials for a class session on book bindings. Though I was still fairly new to the doc cam (converting a previously in-person class to online as quickly as possible), these videos provided students with examples to discuss in their class sessions.
I’m delighted to learn how useful these doc cams can be for distanced reference. One student was looking for images of a very small item – a papal indulgence from 1805. I scheduled a Zoom session with her and we examined the item together, allowing me to turn the item upon her request and zoom in and out as needed. We spent a good bit of time puzzling through the paleography together, attempting to decipher the handwritten French and hypothesizing causes of manuscript damage. It made for a very lovely afternoon, and a useful reference consultation for the student!
Examining Minute Details
For my own research (and fascination) with book history, the powerful zoom on these doc cams makes them an invaluable tool. From taking a closer look at a thread in a binding to inspecting the edges of damage in a piece of parchment, these cameras allow for far greater observation and exploration than can be done with the human eye. I look forward to the discoveries that can come from having such a tool at hand.
I hope to share more details about the capabilities of the Elmo TT-12F in Special Collections & Archives in the future. For now, we finally have two carts specifically designed to transport the cameras and their associated cords. Any ideas for cart names? We’re all ears!