Engage faculty and students with digital collections

There are almost as many reasons for digitizing library collections as there are collections themselves. Public libraries may do so to curate and promote unique local history or culture. Museums, of course, want to make their treasures available for study and enjoyment to people who can’t visit the physical building. And while academic libraries have just as many, varied reasons for beginning a specific digitization project, there’s often a longer-term goal in mind: to promote study and learning around the collection.

Enhance coursework with unique materials

The American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library offers a prime example of how libraries can engage faculty and students through digital collections. The library, awarded the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize in 2022, serves nearly 7,000 students, in part, by making rare materials easily accessible. Since the 1950s, the library has collected unique resources, and its official establishment in the 1990s marked the beginning of a significant era of cultural preservation.

How can your faculty integrate your rare digital materials into their curriculum? Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Direct learning. Provide faculty with information based on current course descriptions. Get creative about how and where materials might fit into their teaching. For example, historical materials could be used for creative writing prompts or photographs as part of art projects. Or they can inform class discussions and critical thinking skills.
  • Research projects. Work with faculty to encourage students to use your library’s digital collections for research projects as primary sources. This will not only improve research skills but also deepen appreciation for your institution’s distinct assets.
  • Virtual exhibits and presentations. Inspire the reuse of digital materials (when copyright allows) as part of student or faculty presentation projects. This can help students learn to curate content, develop narratives around specific themes, and use digital tools for academic and creative expression.

Regardless of the activities, make sure you connect people back to your library’s wider resources, too.

Collaborate with partners and alumni

The American Library’s successful collaboration with external institutions, like the loan of original architectural drawings to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), demonstrates the potential for digitized content to create powerful connections. By working with the library, faculty can leverage digital collections for innovative research projects, funding activities, or alumni communications. For example:

  • Recruiting materials. If the library’s collections are particularly interesting for a specific subject or discipline, work with your institution to incorporate their value into recruiting materials. Enhancing a text-only invitation with links to exciting digital content could improve response rates and attract more talent.
  • Co-branding or sponsorship opportunities. Evaluate your collection’s potential to support partnerships. Is there a particular collection that “fits” with outside companies, brands, or groups? And would a partnership improve the brand or reputation of your institution, the faculty involved, and the partner organization?
  • Alumni connections. At some institutions, alumni organizations struggle to find meaningful content or ways to connect after graduation. You can build events, updates, and activities around digital collections that reinforce how great the alma mater is, while also improving the reputation of your library.

Spend some time identifying audiences and objectives with your faculty and other university departments. There may be many ways to leverage your digital content that can help your colleagues achieve their goals.

Promote digital diversity and inclusion

The American University also made its digital collections more accessible by adding Arabic language metadata. That approach not only enhances user engagement but also supports the university’s mission to act as a bridge between cultures. Consider working with faculty to identify materials and audiences that may be underserved by mainstream materials. How can your library’s digital collections “act as a bridge” between different communities? Even the act of presenting resources in class can help students develop critical information literacy skills, enabling them to navigate and interpret a more diverse range of sources.

Use the past to create a brighter future

Digital collections can play an important role in academic life, supporting your institution’s mission to educate and engage a variety of communities. By making rare and unique collections accessible, you don’t just preserve your rich heritage, but you offer resources that faculty and students can use to understand the past in ways that inform the future. When you think about your digital collections strategically—and connect to faculty and students in new ways—you can center these discussions around the value that your library brings to the table.