Digitally Exhibiting Textual Heritage: Investigating the Potential of Digital Technologies for the Display of Manuscripts, Printed Books and Historical Document


Royal Society of Edinburgh Workshop Grant


PI: Dr Johanna Green,

Co-I: Dr Diane Scott,

Research Assistant: Michelle Craig,

Project Objectives

These workshops bring together different perspectives/methodologies (museum studies; archives and libraries/special collections; book history; digital humanities) to share current best practice in the exhibition of textual heritage, and to collaboratively examine where the future(s) of digitally-augmented exhibitions of our archives and libraries’ collections may lie. Providing a platform to share best practice across neighbouring sectors, the projects offers an opportunity for archives and libraries to learn not just from one another, but from colleagues in the museum sector, who have extensive experience of developing, implementing and evaluating digital tools as exhibition interactives to encourage more meaningful and engaged interactions with complex exhibits. The project offers a key opportunity to discuss which established technologies are most effective for communicating textual heritage, and which emerging technologies are most appropriate for future investment. Finally, the project enables the production of a report/collection of essays, to help communicate best practice in this field.

Research Questions

The workshops provide a platform for cross-sector colleagues to examine:

1. How archives and libraries’ textual heritage is currently being exhibited across different collections/spaces

2. How digital technologies are currently used within exhibition spaces

3. How emerging technologies/approaches might transform access/engagement for different audiences

4. How archives, museums and libraries can share best practice and maximise the potential of digital exhibition techniques


Textual heritage was made to be handled: to be touched, manipulated, annotated, read. Never neutral carriers of text, the materials that transmit our textual heritage provide a window to the socio-historical contexts in which they were produced, used, altered, and abused. These unique materials are complex objects; even if we disregard their individual, lived-object biographies, we are left with substantial data concerning their physical and textual contents. This complexity is particularly striking when we undertake to display items from our textual past, either physically in an exhibition or via a digitised facsimile. The environmental conditions required for display dictate a number of immediate choices, while the physical format of books, scrolls, letters, documents and so forth as manipulable objects means that curators must choose between innumerable points of access in order that these items are seen at all. Once exhibited, these items lose various qualities that make them inherently sensory objects: immobile behind glass, or disembodied as digital pages, they are transformed as exhibits from living textual bodies into static objects. For public audiences, opportunities for encounter with textual heritage items in exhibition spaces are inherently mediated: the item is static and out of reach, the page chosen for them, and the interpretation limited.


Recent growth in digitisation has meant that increasing numbers of items from our archives/library collections are now more widely accessible. Libraries/archives are dedicating increasing permanent space to the exhibition of their collections: the National Library of Scotland at Kelvin Hall is nearing its third anniversary, while other collections, e.g. Paisley Archives, are in the process of developing new publicly accessible spaces in their new museum. Digital technologies offer these collections the chance to communicate their items in full, rather than just offer the single page for display, via Turning-the-Pages (TtP) technology and touch screen devices, which may be presented as digital interactives beside a physical document. However, there has been little opportunity for archives/libraries to evaluate the digital technologies in use within such displays and, given the limited shelf-life of both hardware and software, there is little cross-collection discussion surrounding the best value for money interactives, and the most effective strategies for communicating textual heritage digitally. These workshops provide a unique opportunity for archives/library practitioners from inter/national collections to learn from their museum sector colleagues, and from one another, about the most effective strategies for including digital resources in exhibition spaces.

Workshop Aims

While previous projects have considered some of the complexities of exhibiting the written word more generally, they have not considered the digital document as exhibition space, nor have they considered the impact and future of integrating digital technologies into the physical exhibition space for the communication of textual heritage collections. By bringing together colleagues from book history, libraries, archives, special collections, and museums, our workshops provide a much-needed space via which we can share current best practice and innovation in this area, discuss the ongoing challenges and opportunities of developing, implementing, evaluating, and preserving digital content for these collections, and investigate the future(s) of digitally exhibiting our textual heritage. These workshops aim to promote conversations across disciplinary boundaries so that we might interrogate the potential use and value of integrating digital technologies in the exhibition of textual heritage. 


Given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on collections access and remote digital technology implementation and use, the definitions of "digital technology/ies" and "exhibition space/s" will be defined very broadly to capture a range of approaches, techniques, and innovations, both pre- and post-pandemic.