Category Archives: Archive Collections

Lyell’s School of Rock

 

In November 2019 the Library excitedly welcomed Sir Charles Lyell’s two hundred and ninety-four notebooks into its Special Collections. With support and funding from leading institutions, groups and donations pledged from over 1000 individuals, this tectonic acquisition meant the notebooks were able to stay in the UK and join the Library’s existing collection of Lyell-related materials. As part of the DIU team, I was lucky enough to photograph Lyell’s notebooks, working with the world’s finest quality cameras to digitise a previously private collection into the public sphere and beyond.

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Doodles and Discoveries: Scottish Court of Session Papers

We are now well in the midst of the Scottish Court of Session Papers Phase 2 Pilot. In this stage of the project, we are concentrating on digitising three hundred volumes from the collections of the three institutions involved; The Faculty of Advocates, The Signet Library and the Edinburgh University Library. Week seventeen has passed, workflows have been tinkered with, scanner issues are being ironed out and we are gradually seeing the fruits of our labour as fascinating and soon to be accessible digital content builds up. In this blog post, project staff Joanne and Daisy report back on some of the more interesting discoveries they’ve made within these volumes.

 

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Scottish Court of Session Papers: Phase 2 Pilot

“The most valuable unstudied source for Scottish history….in existence.” Historiographer Royal, Professor T.C. Smout

It has been a while since we provided an update on our Scottish Court of Session Papers Digitisation Project after the initial pilot in early 2017 (see previous blog post here). To recap, this project consists of an expansive collection of court records from Scotland’s highest civil court. The collection is held over three institutions here in Edinburgh; The Faculty of Advocates, The Signet Library and the Edinburgh University Library (EUL), with EUL leading the project. There are over 5000 volumes made up of written pleadings of contested cases, answers, replies, and case summaries, many of which have contemporary annotations. It is almost certainly the world’s largest single body of uncatalogued English language printed material before 1900. Many of the volumes are in very poor condition, requiring conservation care, and the volumes often contain large foldouts which present many digitisation challenges.

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Living Icons: Keeping with the “Archival Liveness” of the University’s Iconic Items

Jami’ al-Tawarikh, f.14v detail

As the other blog posts that I have written for the DIU will attest to, I repeatedly find myself drawn to archival artefacts and stories that show the always “in-process” nature of archives[1]. While the word archive might initially bring to mind shelves full of preserved books and artefacts, collections kind of frozen in time and stoically telling a particular story, those working in archives will attest instead to the truly dynamic nature of archives. In fact, Tom Schofield et al. have introduced the term “archival liveness” as a concept that “promotes a view of the archive as a set of on-going professional, institutional and technical processes and precipitates a focus on the different kinds of temporality embodied within these” (“Archival Liveness”, 2015). What the idea of archival liveness gets at is that as our socio-technological, historical, and cultural moments change, so too does our ability to engage with archives. Cataloguing must be done to make an archive discoverable and searchable, but this costs time and money, and so archives exist at different stages of complete or incomplete cataloguing. Moreover, as time passes, archives typically grow, or sometimes shrink if things are lost, and they are remediated through various preservation, restoration, and, in our current digital world, digitization processes, all of which requires new forms of discovery and engagement with the archived collections. Archives are therefore always embedded within shifting networks of mediation and distribution. Continue reading

The Stories and Afterlife of Lady Grange

Stories beget stories – it’s one of my favourite things about them – and archives are built on precisely this strength. Archival collections, like those at the University of Edinburgh, do not simply store and preserve artefacts, but actually become a medium through which stories, both existing and those yet to be told, can find a voice. As these musings might already indicate, I’ve been recently reminded of the centrality of stories to archives through my time as a volunteer in the Digital Imaging Unit working on various papers related to Rachel Erskine, née Chiesley (bap.1679-1745), or, as she is more infamously known, Lady Grange.

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Scottish Court of Session Papers; digitisation pilot

At present I am working on a pilot project, digitising the Scottish Court of Session Papers. The collection is held across three institutions; The Advocate’s Library, The Signet Library and the University of Edinburgh’s Library and University Collections. The collection itself consists of circa 6500 volumes, comprising court cases which span the 18th and 19th century.

The aim of the pilot is to determine the most effect digitisation methods for these materials with a view to a potential mass digitisation project covering the entire collection. The digitisation tests and experiments I have been undertaking have raised the many challenges that such a large project would present, namely around the issue of recording metadata and which digitisation practices to employ in relation to the condition and size of any particular volume.

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Panoramas and Portraits: 1860’s China

Following on from a visit from the Confucius Institute in September, it was agreed we should digitize our volume of photographs from Lord Elgin’s 1860 military campaign in China. Our former volunteer Caitlin Holton has already blogged about this album so you can read more about this fascinating set of photographs and their controversial history here

http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/diu/2016/04/26/lord-elgin-records-19th-century-china/

We are very pleased to say that the complete set of photographs can now be found on LUNA, including the large fold-out panoramas. These proved quite challenging to capture, most needing to be photographed in 2 or 3 sections and stitched back together in Adobe Photoshop. Furthermore, the length of the fold-outs made it difficult to evenly light the photographs, while at the same time preventing shine. However, these old photographs show that panoramas are not a modern invention of smart phones and clever stitching software, they have been effectively produced since the earliest days of photography.

Below are some of my favourite images, and the full collection can be found here http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/3n0c83

Susan Pettigrew, Photographer

 

Around the World in 90 years- the Story of Historic Leith Improvement Scheme Photographs

When Fraser Parkinson first contacted us about the collection of historic photographs of Leith that he had been entrusted with, my colleagues and I at the Centre for Research Collections were very excited. The photographs were taken to show the slums of Leith prior to the ‘Edinburgh (Leith) Improvement Scheme of 1924’, where large areas were to be cleared and rebuilt. Fraser tells us that:

‘The Town Council Minutes of 3rd April 1924 propose the demolition or reconstruction of ‘certain houses, courts, and alleys unfit for human habitation’.

The concerns of William Robertson, Medical Officer of health for the City and Royal Burgh of Edinburgh, were that the

‘narrowness, closeness and bad arrangement, or the bad condition of the streets and houses, or the want of light, air, ventilation or proper conveniences or other sanitary defects are dangerous or injurious to the health of the inhabitants of the buildings in the said Areas, or of the neighbouring buildings.’

The scheme involved large-scale demolition in this area of Leith, and the re-housing of most displaced residents out-with the areas covered by the scheme.

These photographs were taken as a record of the area at this time by the City Council.  They provided the photographic evidence of the conditions that presented significant risk to public health at this time.’

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Getting Reacquainted with Robert Burns Through the Laing Collection

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The most important manuscript collection at the University of Edinburgh has long been acknowledged to be the Laing Collection. This treasure trove was donated to the University of Edinburgh in 1878 by David Laing (1793-1878) and contains a startlingly vast array of texts and artefacts. To gloss this diversity only briefly, the University’s description of the Laing collection attests that one can find more than 100 Western medieval manuscript books, a 9th-century Koran, over 3000 charters, manuscript poems, texts, and letters written by Robert Burns (1759-1796), the lovely illustrated “Album Amicorum” (book of friends) by Michael Van Meer (?-1653), and poetry by Elizabeth Melville (1582-1640). Even the handlist for the collection is itself an archival artefact of sorts, having been drawn up in 1878 at the time of the bequest and bearing traces of additions and corrections made over the years since.

As important as the Laing collection is though, I’ll admit that until a couple of months ago, I didn’t know much about it and I certainly hadn’t spent any time delving into what it has to offer. I’m an English literature PhD here at the University of Edinburgh and my research focuses on archives, digital humanities, and, in particular, the study of idiosyncratic texts, like concrete poetry and scrapbooks. I like that these works challenge traditional literary classifications and give some pause when users must decide how to read them, digitise them, or otherwise interpret them. These interests led me to volunteer with the DIU, where I have been working to enrich the descriptive metadata of digitised items from the University’s Special Collections and Library holdings. This is also what finally led me to the Laing collection.

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Lord Elgin Records 19th Century China

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One of the works in the ECA Rare Book Collection that places us firmly in a place and time in history is a book of photographs taken around the time of the notable expedition of Lord Elgin, James Bruce, to China on a diplomatic mission and military campaign. If one does not know much about Chinese history, which I must admit I know little of, you might view this image at first glance as simply another beautiful view of Chinese landscape and architecture. Upon further reading into the life of the 8th Earl of Elgin and the Old Summer Palace, as well as the photographers whose works are featured in the album, it becomes a much different story. One of these photographers was the talented Felice Beato who was known for photography that created images of war as a continuous process. He documented each stage of his subjects, including gruesome scenes of the aftermath of battles and seizes. This method provides great insight into the progression of Lord Elgin’s presence in China as many images fit into his timeline. Although the above photograph taken in 1860 seems to show a sturdy structure overlooking a stunning mountain range, it does depict a cultural landscape that was near the end of its time and one that was extremely vulnerable at the time. The caption for the image tells a snapshot of the gruesome story. The caption reads “View of the Summer Palace, Yuen-Min-Yuen, showing the Pagoda before the burning, Pekin. Octr 1860.” This could easily be one of the last photographs of the site before its infamous looting and burning on October 18, 1860. Many of the items taken from this event are still held today in the UK and other prestigious museums in Europe, although there is an ongoing conversation of where these works of great art and cultural importance belong.

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