Virtual reading rooms make rare and special collections available to all

The University now provides digital and remote access to rare and fragile collection items through the Virtual Reading Room.

Two of Australia’s largest rare and special collections libraries are now available for the community to view and research online, with digital access to collection items being provided in one-on-one, real time Virtual Reading Room appointments.

The University of Melbourne and University of Sydney libraries are working together to increase the use of their unique special collections and archives by extending access to people who cannot attend campus, using video conferencing technologies and practices established in recent years.

A Virtual Reading Room uses high-resolution cameras and video conferencing technology to bring collections directly from the reading rooms to your own room in a one-on-one online session. Libraries around the world have begun to use these services to increase access to their rare and special collections when visits to the library have not been possible.

The university libraries are enthusiastic about making their special collections more accessible. The age, value or rarity of special collections items have previously limited access to in-person, supervised, reading room environments. The Virtual Reading Room will allow patrons to take a closer look at special collections from any location and is available to people who cannot attend campuses in-person.

The libraries anticipate the service will break down barriers for new audiences, extending their collections to people with accessibility requirements, people and community groups in remote and regional areas, and international researchers wanting to access unique holdings without the significant barrier of international travel.

Donna McRostie, Deputy Director, Research and Collection Stewardship at the University of Melbourne said the Virtual Reading Room directly responds to an increase in expectations from the global community for new modes of access to physical collections.

“The Virtual Reading Room represents one step in a journey of innovation, and we will continue to evolve our service models exploring digital opportunities to break down barriers to global access and engagement with the University’s unique and distinctive scholarly collections,” McRostie said.

"Now, no matter where you live, you can have a Zoom session with a first edition of John Gould’s Birds of Australia, a 16th century Middle Eastern manuscript, the University of Sydney’s 15th century illuminated copy of The Book of Hours, or John Bradfield’s personal blueprints from the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge."

Virtual Reading Room appointments are facilitated by experienced librarians and reading room staff who can handle the item, turn the pages, magnify specific details, and respond to questions and requests. All visitors are welcome to use the Virtual Reading Room, and bookings are open to everyone, from experienced researchers to curious casual readers.

Associate Director Research Education Elizabeth Litting, from the University of Sydney Fisher Library, celebrated the initiative born from necessary pivots made during the height of the pandemic.

“There are some disruptions from the pandemic that have actually been huge opportunities in disguise, and this is one of them. The Virtual Reading Room now allows us to provide access to our rare and special materials to a greater range of researchers and educators, wherever they are in the world, unlocking the potential of our collections like never before. That's very exciting,” said Associate Director Litting.

For more information, visit the University of Melbourne's Virtual Reading Room website, and the University of Sydney's website.