Queen's University Belfast

Open international collaborative research through special collections

McClay Library at Queen's University Belfast

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"The digitization of humanities brings huge advantages to special collections in terms of access and preservation. Digitization relieves the tension around maximizing access and maximizing preservation."

Deirdre Wildy
Head of Special Collections and Archives, Queen's University Belfast

An exhibition of rare Chinese photography at The McClay Library at Queen's University Belfast in 2003 spurred the eventual acquisition of CONTENTdm®. Deirdre Wildy, Head of Special Collections and Archives, sought to harness the value of metadata to raise the profile of The McClay Library's special collections and investigate primary sources more intensively. Drawn by the flexibility of its modular system and minimal need for IT intervention, The McClay Library purchased CONTENTdm in 2012. Within two years, Queen's went for the fully hosted option to ensure ongoing independence from IT support and servers.

Since then, Queen's has digitized a number of primary sources, including photographs, diaries, 18th and 19th century texts, 20th century master's theses, and the entire run of a unique Jewish journal (the Belfast Jewish Gazette) from 1933, the only year of publication. Supported by CONTENTdm, such small collections of unique knowledge and research are gaining traction globally and raising the profile of The McClay Library's Special Collections. For Queen's, metadata sharing is the real intellectual output, which brings items together and multiplies their value, potentially creating new areas of research.

For The McClay Library, CONTENTdm has addressed very specific needs. The modular nature and support documentation makes it very easy to use to its full potential, independent of IT support. For example, CONTENTdm can support access to oral histories by combining with other resources to create a contents page for audio files. This helps the researcher effectively parachute in at the relevant point, saving significant time and resources. Also, embedded links to blogs and social media posts help staff maximize resources and provide a better platform for raising awareness, supporting research, and enabling deeper findings.

"What we have done with CONTENTdm is create a virtual reading room—you don’t always need to come onsite to study. You can apply, complete our forms, and access your particular collection of interest, wherever you are in the world."

A class dedicated to teaching students how to use the CONTENTdm interface introduces them to metadata and standard protocols for the use of special collections materials. CONTENTdm thus supports the development of historical research skills while minimizing the need to handle extremely vulnerable materials.

CONTENTdm users share a Cookbook, a repository of example code customizations. This tool provided the library staff with invaluable code recipes to help bridge the gap of basic knowledge and technical expertise around digitization protocols and outcomes. The recipes specifically enabled staff to embed a video of a documentary based on the working papers of Sir Robert Hart, a famous alumnus, further enriching the material and bringing it to life.

CONTENTdm's compatibility with WorldCat® and the WorldCat Digital Collection Gateway extends the reach of The McClay Library's Special Collections. The Gateway facilitates the addition of records for these unique assets to WorldCat, which makes them discoverable by researchers all over the world. Also, CONTENTdm's optical character recognition (OCR) feature generates searchable text transcripts as the relevant content is added.

The end result is powerful. There is now a critical mass across all subject areas, which supports internal research, teaching, and learning and facilitates ongoing discovery of previously unnoticed connections across The McClay Library's Special Collections.

Services used by Queen's University Belfast


WorldCat Digital Collection Gateway


  • Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK

Library at a glance

  • Features a superb collection of books, manuscripts, and periodicals built up over the past 160 years
  • Supports teaching and research in the arts and humanities, science and engineering, the social sciences, law, and medical professions (medicine, dentistry, and nursing)
  • Houses more than 1.2 million volumes with the iconic CS Lewis Reading Room at its heart, decorated with glass-engraved inscriptions from the author's works

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