Posted on: 26/04/2024

Discovery Sessions: A New Model for Exploring the use of Collections in Participatory Research

By Nel Coleman Library Citizen Science Engagement Officer, Edinburgh University

Researchers chat with Eva, a co-curator, about her selection of a tiny artwork, “Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus/For so much, what shall we give in return?”


“Involvement” is the watchword of research today. The active participation of non-researchers, such as members of a certain community, patients undergoing medical treatment, or the general public can go by many names ranging from citizen science to co-production. But all share a pair of commonalities: they open the door to research by ceding varying degrees of control over a project to non-researchers, and they represent a markedly growing field that is driven by a changing funding landscape that is beginning to prioritise openness and extra-academic collaborations.

The drive towards involvement comes with a need for innovation and adaptation. Old resources need to be reconsidered from the perspective of involvement while new resources and structures need to be put in place that support all kinds of involvement in research. This is true across the board, but a new model of event that we have dubbed “discovery sessions” allows for this kind of exploration within the sphere of “Heritage” or “Special” collections. These sessions also offer the potential for hosts and members of the FLFDN to get involved in these events or adopt their models to explore new ways of utilising heritage collections in participatory research.

Institutional collections include a rich array of materials, including artworks, archival records, scientific and anatomical specimens, rare books, sound and films, and digital items. But these rich materials have often been seen as the domain of the humanities alone – a repository of primary resources for use by professional historians and artists to ground their research. Discovery sessions are a running series that strive to provide a forum in which to rethink the ways in which collections can be used in research, and just as importantly, to rethink who can be involved in their use.
The format of these settings is, quite aptly, centred on a collaborative framework. They are co-productions, in which members from a specific external community (where possible), researchers, and collections teams come together to curate an exhibition showcasing the materials selected by co-curators.



Image of FROGS Leaflet – The Switchboard Collection are part of the wider Lothian Health Service Archive, and tell the story of the first Gay and Lesbian helpline in the UK – encompassing everything from promotional material to records of the organisation. 


Discovery sessions are a fantastic opportunity to tick multiple boxes at the same time. They are networking hubs, where the lure of fascinating collections can draw together a range of attendees to network, socialise, and hopefully leave inspired with new ideas about participatory research. They are an engagement event – showcasing collections that may not often see the light of day. And importantly, they can also act as participatory activities in their own right. The selection procedure allows community members the time and the space to interact with their co-curating research partners and collections teams, helping to break down barriers between the institution and the external partners that are essential for participatory research. Done right, this can help to build long term and sustained connections that persist after a discovery session.


Join us for the next session -Citizen Science: An Evening Showcase on 5th June 2024, 18:00 – 20:00. This will be a Hybrid event  (Zoom/The Project Room 1.06, 50 George Square, Edinburgh) and is a fantastic opportunity to get together to celebrate and showcase citizen science.

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