Category Archives: Manuscript Collections

Incunabula: Fables, foliage and a female Pope

Hortus sanitatis, Fol.101 verso

I was lucky enough to be involved in the Incunabula pilot project here in the Digital Imaging Unit. This project  helped to create a digitisation workflow for Incunabula collection items using the i2S CopiBook v-shape scanner. These bound volumes are printed using a variety of early printing methods including wood block printing resulting in beautifully crafted and illustrated objects. This project afforded an opportunity to get up close and personal with these beautiful and often entertaining treasures,  that were quite literally being brought into the light through the capture of images.  

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A Stitch in Time: Mahābhārata Delivered Online

I don’t know if I have ever been more excited about a digitisation project going live:  the Edinburgh University’s 1795 copy of the Mahābhārata is now available online.  This beautiful scroll is one of the longest poems ever written, containing a staggering 200,000 verses spread along 72 meters of richly decorated silk backed paper. As one of the Iconic items in our Collection it was marked as a digitisation priority, so when a customer requested the 78 miniatures back in April 2017 it seemed like a good opportunity to digitise it in its entirety. There was just one problem: it was set to go on display in the ‘Highlands to Hindustan’ exhibition, which opened at the Library in July. This left us with only a narrow window of opportunity for the first stages of the project: conservation and photography. Continue reading

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

Michael Servetus: Christianismi Restitutio

Title:Michael Servetus een Spangiard Amsterdam, 1607.
Shelfmark: JZ 439

Bound to the stake by the iron chain, with a chaplet of straw and green twigs covered with sulphur on his head, with his long dark face, it is said that he looked like the Christ in whose name he was bound.  Around his waist were tied a large bundle of manuscript and a thick octavo printed book. The torch was applied, and as the flames spread to the straw and sulphur and flashed in his eyes, there was a piercing cry that struck terror in the hearts of the bystanders…’Jesu, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me.’ (Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr, Fulton, John F. 1953)

These were the last words of Michael Servetus, physician and theologian, condemned to death in 1553 after being branded a heretic.

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Robert Burns Manuscripts – gie us a job!

It’s the time of year for all things Robert Burns. Here in the DIU I have recently finished digitising a collection of Robert Burns Manuscripts. These are highly treasured manuscripts which make up part of our Iconics Collection. A fitting status for the bard himself. So, time raise a glass! The manuscripts comprise of letters of correspondence and poems such as Holy Willie’s Prayer, Love and Liberty: A Cantata and Address to Edinburgh. Continue reading

Victorian Veterinary Journals

Tab. II (after p.10).

The Anatomy of the Horse. Stubbs, George.

Recently I worked on digitising a small number of volumes of The Veterinary Journal from the late 19th century and late 20th century. Almost 100 years apart, the earlier volumes from 1889-1898 had some questionable advice and cures for ailments including the free use of toxic chemicals and even a few drams of whisky for a horse’s stomach ache! We view these archaic methods nowadays with humour – after all, some absurdities are expected from a late Victorian medical journal.

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Voyages of Discovery

In this weeks’ blog post we are pleased to welcome our newest member of staff, Juliette Lichman. When not working on new orders, she has been preparing old ones to go into our Open Books Repository https://openbooks.is.ed.ac.uk/ Juliette has been discovering how easy it is to get drawn in to the complex and fascinating histories of the books…

The university’s cherished Laing collection is an invaluable resource of important historical documents, and is a frequent subject on this blog. The fact that there are still so many unknown works and exciting discoveries to be made within the collection is astounding. I was lucky enough to experience this first-hand several weeks ago, during an afternoon of working through a deeply buried folder of book scans. I came across a Laing collection document that had incorrect and missing metadata. It appeared to be an unassuming manuscript (date unknown) with handwriting that was ornately scribed but difficult to decipher, though certainly English.
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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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A Lengthy Challenge: Photographing the Mahabharata


Recently I was asked to scope the digitisation of a beautiful scroll we have in our collection, Or.Ms 510, or better known as the Mahabharata. Gemma Scott, our former Digital Library intern, says that:

‘the Mahabharata tells the tale of a dynastic struggle between two sets of cousins for control of the Bharata kingdom in central India. One of the longest poems ever written, eclipsed only by the Gesar Epic of Tibet, it is said to have been composed between 900 and 400BCE by the sage Vyasa, although, in reality, it is likely to have been created by a number of individuals. To Hindus, it is important in terms of both dharma (moral law) and history (itihasa), as its themes are often didactic.’

Our scroll dates to 1795 and came to Edinburgh University in 1821 when it was donated by Colonel Walker of Bowland. It is 13.5cm wide and a staggering 72m long, housed in a wooden case, wound around rollers and turned by a key in the side. It has 78 miniatures of varying sizes and is elaborately decorated in gold, with floral patterning in the late Mughul or Kangra style. The text itself is dense, tiny, and underpinned with yet more gold leaf decorations.

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Al-Biruni live on LUNA

BookReader

We are thrilled to announce that we now have online the entire manuscript of Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, his ‘Chronology of Ancient Nations’. Al- Biruni was a famous astronomer and polymath and he completed this compendium in the year 1000. It records a vast number of calendars and chronological systems from a variety of different cultural and religious groups in the late antique and medieval periods in the Hellenic world, Central Asia and the Near East, even detailing festivals and liturgical practices.

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