How can we best use primary sources in a digital age?
I recently wrote a blog about how the universities of Cardiff, Liverpool and Loughborough are inspiring students to take control of their learning by giving them opportunities to work in innovative ways with digital archives. Now, I’d like to share some of the other new stories that follow a similar theme.
Here, you can read about the University of Bradford’s recent partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) on the digitised diseases project. Together, they’re creating 3D models of human bones as a rich open access resource for students and researchers studying medicine, physical anthropology and palaeopathology.
Developing discipline-specific technical skills
We were proud to play our role in laying the foundations for the digitised diseases project in 2011-13, as part of a Jisc-funded mass digitisation programme. Since then, the university has taken that work on to a whole new level. Using 3D laser scanning, computed tomography (CT) and radiography, the university and its partners are building a collection that so far comprises more than 1,600 scanned specimens and more than 1,400 descriptions.
This creates a digital dataset of more than seven terabytes and has generated a great deal of interest world-wide. In the week following its launch, the digitised diseases project had more than a million hits from 14,000 different visitors in 119 countries.
Much closer to home, Bradford’s students are using the resources – and the facilities in the university’s impressive Integrated Life Sciences Learning Centre – to investigate structures and systems in the human body and to explore anatomical specimens and models.
Masters’ students are gaining skills in analysis and interpretation of archaeological human remains that will stand them in good stead for professional or research careers. The university also has plans for new modules teaching digital imaging and visualisation techniques that will be of value to those who want to find jobs in areas as diverse as optics and animation.
It’s no wonder that the MSc in human osteology and palaeopathology scored 90% for student satisfaction in the 2015 postgraduate taught experience survey.
Students building archives for students
Less technologically advanced, but just as relevant for building discipline-specific digital practices, is the University of Hertfordshire’s story demonstrating how digital archives are used in the humanities.
Hertfordshire is empowering history undergraduates to take control of their learning by sending them to search digital archives for text and images that relate to specific questions posed by teaching staff. They use the materials that they find to create new archival collections for future cohorts of students to use and develop. This inherited learning programme aims to “leave learning resources richer than we found them”.
By and large, it puts the digital abilities that students already have to work, turning learners into creators rather than simply users of digital archives. The programme is enabling students to develop a richer understanding of how history is made and of how archival collections are created – what gets in, what gets lost or left out on purpose, what gets suppressed and why. They learn, too, how to write and present content for a diverse audience and they leave the programme with tangible outputs for their portfolios.
As one recent graduate from the programme says in the case study:
“The inherited learning project helped me develop many useful skills to add to my 'historian's toolkit' while looking for a job in an academic/heritage organisation.”
Understanding how history is made
Some people may already know something about the University of Sussex’s observing the 80s project. During 2013-14, a group of graduates and undergraduates worked with teaching, library and IT staff to create a digital collection based on original materials gathered together by library staff 30-plus years ago. They’re available to all as an open educational resource (OER).
Within the history department, the resources are widely used in teaching – notably for the module ‘1984: Thatcher’s Britain’. Project lead Professor Lucy Robinson says that, in this case, digital resources are not being used to do things bigger or faster, but to give undergraduates unprecedented access to original materials so they can get a better sense of how history is really made. Lucy points out that the process is “raw and messy” and as one student says:
“The authenticity of the sources has been maintained. As the diary entries have been made available in their original format, a number of them are handwritten and most of them are largely unedited. This leaves them open to interpretation and also offers further insight into the lives of the respondents by alluding to their age, social status or level of education."
It’s clear from Sussex’s story that the history department remains keen to innovate and to explore digital archives in new ways. You can also read about their experiments with augmented reality (AR) and social media, and find out what they might do next.
Find out more
All the case studies are available to download and If they’ve inspired you to do more with your own digital collections, take a look at our guide to making your digital collections easier to discover. It offers techniques to help you extend their reach and evaluate their use and impact.