The Archive in Cyberspace: online teaching with Special Collections materials

Posted on: 9 March 2021 by Dr Phoenix Alexander in March posts

front cover of Arthur C Clarke's Amazing stories
Issue 1 of Amazing Stories. Special Collections and Archives, PX1000.A4281

Dr Phoenix Alexander is the Science Fiction Collections Librarian at the University of Liverpool Library, where he curates the largest catalogued collection of science fiction in Europe. During the 2020 academic year, the Library’s Special Collections and Archives department was closed to all researchers, and it became necessary for the archivists and librarians to think of innovative solutions to make the collections accessible in digital spaces. This blog post talks about some of the ways in which Phoenix and his colleagues approached the challenges of teaching with special collections materials during a pandemic.

'Research in special collections and archives brings with it the unique pleasure of physically encountering history. This can take many forms, from reading the intimate letters of authors, examining annotated manuscript drafts, handling objects and ephemera, to making often surprising discoveries about your subject. This material embodiment of the past is seemingly irreplaceable in an online environment—or is it?

For the Fall 2020 semester I taught on two modules—'Genre Definitions' and 'Science Fiction and/as the Archive'— as part of the English department’s Science Fiction MA. The latter module, as its title suggests, is all about giving students the opportunity to handle archival materials with an eye to building familiarity and generating original and unexpected research questions drawing on the largest catalogued collection of sf in Europe.

Given that Special Collections and Archives were closed for the duration of the seminar, it became vital to think of creative ways to bring the material out of the stacks/reading room and into virtual space. Using an iPad on an adjustable stand, a laptop, and Zoom, I was able to simultaneously discuss objects with students and present them a top-down view—facilitating handling tutorials—that engaged both theoretical and practical approaches to the materials. However, this still didn’t quite capture the experience of discovery and independently directed study characteristic of work in special collections and archives.

Separating the materials into four categories—zines and periodicals, correspondence, printed materials and manuscript typescripts—I digitized around fifty images to form an online 'archive' that was accessible to students via the virtual learning environment, Canvas. This allowed them to generate their own research project within a fairly substantial body of material. Adopting a flexible approach to assignments allowed students to create their own projects, alighting on materials that most interested them, which resulted in a variety of original final research papers.

Front cover of Octavia E. Butler's Wild Seed
Front cover of the US edition of Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed, published in 1980.

Naturally, such materials were login-protected and only accessible to the University community. Thinking to broaden the outreach of our collections, the SCA team built several online exhibitions over the past year to showcase recently acquired and/or recently processed materials from our collections. A highlight from the Science Fiction Collections is the Arthur C. Clarke library, acquired in December 2019. Our online exhibit showcases some standout items from the library (including a personal typewriter used by Clarke!) and gives a non-specialist viewer a comprehensive overview of the life and career of this remarkable author.

Even further beyond the physical space of the library, Liverpool is now part of the Science Fiction Collections Libraries Consortium (SFCLC): a group of special collections libraries with significant holdings of science fiction, fantasy and horror materials. Meeting monthly, the group aims to cross-promote, collaborate and build on each institution’s strengths. To give just two examples of this: Texas A&M University are contributing high-quality scans to feature in the Clarke exhibit, and the group is planning a lecture series titled ‘Mirror Talks,’ that will allow librarians and curators to present on the various strengths of their holdings. This content will be shared across multiple social media platforms.

Technological innovation has long been a characteristic of science fiction. Special Collections and Archives—at Liverpool and beyond—have been challenged to make their collections encounterable in virtual space during this challenging year; in the future, and even in non-pandemic times, perhaps augmented or virtual reality tools can help bring archival materials even closer to publics across the world.'


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