Category Archives: Library

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The university’s cherished Laing collection is an invaluable resource of important historical documents, and is a frequent subject on this blog.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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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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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

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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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Grand Tour Slide Show

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy.

Some time ago we digitised the hand coloured glass slides in the Cavaye collection, but we didn’t have time to do the much larger black and white part of the collection. So when our project photographer John Bryden, found a bit of spare time, we were delighted to have the remaining slides completed.

The whole collection is wonderful, apparently from a Grand Tour of Europe around the turn of the 20th century. I suspect that many of the slides were bought on the trip, much like we buy postcards today. Some of them were probably only lovingly hand tinted on return to Britain- in one of Palermo the tinting appears to be half finished. Continue reading

Instrumental Challenges

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Last week saw the start of a new project- photographing many of the University’s Musical Instruments while they are in storage at the Library during the re-development of St. Cecilia’s Music Hall. These images are planned for use in the new museum space, in printed materials, for social media and interactive Apps. The only guidance we have been given is ‘coffee-table book’ which gives the DIU team huge scope for interpretation and creativity. As the project progresses we hope to bring 3D photography into the mix, but for starters, this week the musical instruments team brought me 3 items for some studio shots.

The first was a Triple-fretted clavichord, possibly Flemish and c1620 (ref. 4486). Although this piece was quite simple and unadorned, it did have a bright red ribbon woven through the strings and the keys made a beautiful pattern, so I decide on a detail shot to highlight the mechanism.

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The second item was a Rahab from Western Malaysia, c1977 (ref. 2101). This was a far more ornate and colourful piece. In fact, I was torn- both the front and back of the instrument presented interesting features to photograph, but how to get both sides at once? While at the Rijksmuseum conference Malcolm and I were impressed by their use of a black reflective surface in the photography of fashion accessories (see https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/formats/accessoires/index.jsp?lang=en). Malcolm suggested that we might be able to get a similar effect using a piece of black velvet and some glass, so I set up the studio to try it out. In the end I chose an angle looking down on the instrument that allowed details of both the strings and the red woollen back to be seen, however, the reflection adds further interest to the shot.

The final piece presented quite a different challenge. It is very rare that an object comes to us that leaves me scratching my head, but the ‘Jingling Johnny’ or Chapeau (ref. 6110) certainly did. A large, top heavy shiny brass instrument covered with dangling bells and fragile metalwork set atop a stick- how to keep it upright and perfectly still? The many shiny surfaces indicate that we will need to build a light tent to minimise reflections. This was clearly going to require some thought and planning, so we reluctantly decided to return this one to the store to reconvene another day!

In the coming months we will keep you posted on the projects progress.

Susan Pettigrew, Photographer

Monsters & Maps Printed under the Watchful Dog

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Last week Mercator’s beautiful Atlas sive Cosmographicae found its way into the DIU, only after it arrived did we discover that it was actually his 503rd Birthday, a fact celebrated by google with a Google Doodle http://www.google.com/doodles/gerardus-mercators-503rd-birthday.

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Explore the Geology with LUNA

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Last week we were very excited to see a new LUNA collection go live- ‘Geology & Geologists’. This brings together images from the CRC’s Lyell collection (a wonderful mixture of correspondence and drawings), Arthur Holmes Geology medals, as well as recent images from The Cockburn Museum, School of GeoSciences. The Cockburn collection contains photographs of past Professors, and historic photos of the department as well as plates of fossilised fish.

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3 Additions to the LUNA Book Reader Collection

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We kick off 2015 with the addition of 3 new Book Readers added to LUNA. The first two are both music manuscripts that came down to the DIU as part of the Readers Orders trolley. It is not often that we receive volumes to be digitised in their entirety this way, so it seemed a good opportunity. As a result we spared a bit of time to do the additional work to prepare them for the book reader software after the High Resolution images had been delivered to the customers. Continue reading