Special Collections and Innovative Teaching

by | Dec 8, 2023 | Quality, Student engagement

In the hallowed halls of the Rylands building, in the ARC at the heart of the Main Library, and in the Race Centre at Central Library, a remarkable team is quietly revolutionizing the way students engage with knowledge. Through our interview with Dr Aya Van Renterghem, we learnt of a team that bridges the gap between academic courses and the treasures housed within the university’s libraries. Their mission is clear: to make these invaluable collections more accessible to students and to foster a deep understanding of how these objects are relevant to their academic pursuits. Dr Aya Van Renterghem, with her background in languages, medieval studies, and manuscripts, brings a unique perspective to her role in the team. Her journey in Special Collections began with volunteering and has since evolved into a role that is not just about curating but also about teaching. Dr Van Renterghem and her team are committed to providing students with opportunities to interact with Special Collections in three distinct ways. 

Firstly, there is ‘Introduction to Special Collections’ where the team offers students an introductory experience. The aim is helping them understand what Special Collections are, what treasures they hold, and how to access them. This crucial foundation ensures that these collections are available to all students. 

Secondly, they run ‘Display Classes’ where in collaboration with lecturers, the team curates selections of objects that align with specific themes, subjects, or the overall grandeur of the collection. These classes also provide a material and cultural background for the objects, enriching the students’ understanding of the context. 

Finally, ‘Integrating Objects into Lessons’ has the team collaborate with academics to develop lesson plans that integrate Special Collection objects into the curriculum. These lesson plans span a wide range of subjects, and have the team match items such as a Scottish Soldier’s memoirs of the Napoleonic War to a workshop on military history, or integrate a Cholera Map of Manchester into a summer school for Public Health.  

Over the years, the team  received much enthusiasm and positive feedback, prompting them to explore ways to incorporate these objects and collections into assessments. 

Adopt an Item

One of the innovative teaching exercises the team employs is getting students to adopt an item and write 500-to-800-word blogs after their workshops, often using utilising digitized versions of the materials for reference. This exercise not only enhances their essay-writing skills but also provides students with a platform for publication on the Special Collections Medium. This approach creates a win-win scenario, as students enhance their learning while contributing to the academic community. As the course progresses, students have the chance to explore the collection for other options, allowing them to deepen their connection with the materials. 

The team’s ultimate goal is to encourage more students to engage with these collections and confidently integrate them into their academic work and trailing assessments. Much of their current work revolves around using blogs and podcasts to make these collections more accessible. Currently, the team are assessing ways in which Special Collections and the possibilities it offers for alternative assessment can provide an antidote for the concerns around A.I. in Higher Education. They aim to foster creativity with Special Collections and enhance students’ skills while altering the perception of a “dusty library”.  

With the ever-evolving landscape of education, characterized by flexible learning and digital resources, the team is well-positioned to innovate. They offer students various opportunities to volunteer and experiment with object-based learning, while also developing teaching and learning resources through flexible learning, audio, and visual materials. 

The benefits of ‘Object based Teaching’ and how we can do more.

Despite their remarkable work, space limitations in the Rylands building can hinder the team’s ability to accommodate large groups. Sessions are most effective with around 15 students, as this allows  for the best interaction with students while keeping the objects safe. Staffing can also be another hurdle as the team wishes to expand the number of object-based learning sessions with new departments. They are hopeful, however, that after the Rylands Next Chapter renovation project, the space issues, at least, will be resolved.   

Moreover, object-based teaching imparts invaluable employability skills, aligning with the current emphasis on preparing students for the job market. Through blogs aimed at either specialist researchers or the wider public, students learn to write for different audiences and how to communicate professionally online. Students can also develop their presentation skills through  presentations based on their research on the collections or items, as this is a crucial asset in various professions. Interactions with curators teach students professional communication and critical inquiry, while volunteering experiences bolster their CVs. 

In conclusion, Dr Aya Van Renterghem and her team’s pioneering work in Special Collections is transforming the way students learn and engage with priceless artifacts. By fostering innovation and employing creative teaching methods, they are preparing students not only for academic success but also for the dynamic challenges of the modern job market. In doing so, they are ensuring that the treasures of the Rylands building and beyond continue to inspire and educate generations of students to come. 


Baines, J., “Establishing special collections literacy for undergraduate students: an investigation into benefits and barriers of access”, Archives and Records, 44.1 (2023) 

See also


The University of Manchester Institute of Teaching and Learning logo

TEA is a place where we can share practice and experience around teaching and learning with colleagues, students and the wider public – how we Teach, Explore, Apply

We’d really like to hear your responses to the stories we feature – if you want to respond, please email the ITL team at teaching.learning@manchester.ac.uk, or the University’s Teaching and Learning Online Network (TALON) on Yammer is a great place for you to carry on the discussion of any practice you find really interesting.