Teaching with collections

Students sat around a table being shown collections by an academic.

‘The Special Collections service has allowed us to provide a diversified teaching offering, greatly increasing the quality of student engagement with programmes, and enhancing the sense that students have of the distinctiveness of their programme.’ (Dr Paddy Bullard)

The University of Reading’s archive and library collections are an amazing, diverse and often surprising resource, cutting across many disciplines and subjects in their themes and strengths. We encourage their use in university teaching and learning, and work to enable this across the University of Reading and beyond.

This page outlines the variety of ways The Museum of English Rural Life and University of Reading Special Collections can support teaching with collections. The form at the bottom of this page is where you can book sessions with us.

Benefits of teaching with collections

Learning from collections takes students to the frontier of knowledge and enables them to develop key study skills such as critical reading, research and analysis. These not only feature highly on the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) subject expectations, but also strike at the heart of the University of Reading’s Curriculum Framework, academic principles and graduate attributes.

By engaging with collections students gain mastery of their discipline while developing transferable skills for further study and employment. It also enables you to diversify your teaching and offer unique opportunities to students on your modules.

‘Students drew heavily in their assessed essays and groupwork on original archival material – enabling them to do some really high-level academic work.’ (Dr Nicola Wilson)

Our offer

We offer hands-on group sessions for all disciplines using archive and library collections, as well as a wide range of digital remote teaching options. Aimed at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate students, these sessions are available for University of Reading staff and to other Higher Education institutions across the UK and around the world. We can advise on relevant collections as well as provide inductions for students accessing and researching using collections for the first time.

Sessions typically fall into two categories: the first is academic led with an introduction by collections staff as well as supervision throughout; the second is led by collection staff with an academic present.

For groups external to the University of Reading, we charge a room hire fee for onsite sessions.

‘I enjoyed learning the new ways of being able to research and how I can apply that to my course.’

‘Having an opportunity to begin to explore the wider resources we have available to us...that we do not get to encounter in other modules.’ (Student feedback)

Member of Collections staff in a teaching session

What does a session look like?

In person

A standard session lasts for two hours. Students are welcomed into one of our onsite teaching spaces by a member of the collections team. If your students have not attended a session before, we provide a standard collections induction which includes an overview of our collections, how to access them and a collections handling demonstration (10 mins). We can also offer a demonstration of searching our collections catalogue which is useful for students who will be using the collections as part of an assignment, as well as an overview of specific collections featured as part of the session.

We then provide supervision throughout the rest of the session and are on-hand to answer questions. This gives you the chance to take the lead and teach the content of the session.

Virtual options

We have the facilities to provide high-quality immersive virtual teaching support. Collections staff can connect live to virtual sessions to provide:

  • A quick introduction to the collections – this can be tailored around specific collections
  • A guide on how to access the collections
  • A live behind the scenes tour of one of our collection storerooms, enabling students to see the size and breadth of the collections
  • Show collection items on an overhead camera, complementing digitised collection content featured in the session

These are complemented by access to digitised content from the collections (see below) to provide a wraparound virtual offer to institutions across the world.

Facilities and resources

We have several rooms available at Special Collections that can be used for teaching with collections. These vary in capacity from 8 to 22 students and have AV projection facilities. As with our reading room, we do not permit bags, pens, food or drinks in the same room as collections. Full details on the teaching spaces available, their facilities, capacities and options for layouts can be found here.

We understand that students who have not worked with collections before can find the experience bewildering to begin with. That is why we have produced a host of guide videos and documents to help them navigate and access the collections. We can offer this content as part of a Tallis reading list or as embeddable content for Blackboard courses. From staff presence in sessions to the reading room, we offer wraparound support to students exploring the collections.

Our Virtual Reading Room (VRR) allows exploration of high-quality digital versions of books and documents by registered users, as well as providing galleries of images for all to explore. Highlights of the VRR include thousands of images featured in the Museum of English Rural Life galleries, as well as content from selected rare books and archives in the Special Collections.

Digital scholarship is an increasingly important factor in our work with students and we have a host of resources on offer.

Booking process

Your completed form will be sent to our team. You will be contacted about our room availability for the date and time requested first. Once a room has been allocated, a member of collections staff will contact you to discuss the details of your session before confirming it.

Please note that central timetabling does not have access to our booking system. Our spaces are used for corporate hire groups and other groups we host at the Museum. Timetabling may allocate a room for your teaching at The MERL and Special Collections, but you can only finalise a booking with us.

If you are a module convener booking on behalf of other academics who will also be teaching sessions as part of your module, please include their names when completing the form below.

To book a teaching with collections session for The MERL and University of Reading Collections, please complete the booking form below.

To book a teaching session using the Art Collections, please click here.

If you have any questions about the support we can offer you, please contact us by email:

  • Special Collections: specialcollections@reading.ac.uk
  • The MERL: merl@reading.ac.uk
  • Art Collections: artcollection@reading.ac.uk