New Frontiers of Digital Access: Virtual Reading Rooms


A working group formed by the Research Libraries UK organization has conducted an international survey on the topic of virtual reading rooms (VRR) and Virtual Teaching Services (VTS). The virtual spaces “provide human-mediated remote digital access to collections which do not depend on digitization. Through the use of live streaming via hi-res visualizers positioned without physical research spaces, scholars, teachers or members of the public can view and digital engage with an institution’s heritage and cultural collections.” Responses came from 32 institutions, primarily located in the United Kingdom but with some responses from institutions in the United States and in the European Union. 

A partial list of findings from this research initiative appear below:

  • These are emerging services, and questions remain regarding their use, audience, scaleability, and sustainability.
  • While introduced in the context of the global pandemic, the services are becoming established as bespoke research services that offer another form of remote access to collections alongside digitization.
  • There is a diverse audience for these services, one which is growing beyond the institutional users. External researchers and groups now represent the largest user group for VRR services; in terms of audience, they are largely drawn from the social sciences, the humanities and the arts.
  • While largely focused on archives and special collections in support of arts and humanities research, other materials including 3D items are presented via VRRs and VTSs, and sometimes combined with data visualizations. 
  • The use of VRRs demands a different dynamic between staff and researchers. Staff must become more embedded in the research process and serve as collaborators in the work. 
  • To be sustainable, the work requires a high level of staff support and engagement, with additional costs being associated with permanent space for support of the work, new and sometimes specialty equipment requirements, and dedicated staff time and skill sets. Ultimately, this may mean that such services will be passed on to those seeking to use the materials. 

The report concludes with the following key sentences indicating the potential: 

RLUK looks to work with its national and international partners to explore collaborative approaches to the creation and use of these services and the collective benefits which might be realised through a networked approach and through the adoption of agreed frameworks. This report is an invitation to like-minded institutions and organisations to join RLUK and its members in this process.

The full text of this report may be downloaded from: