Category Archives: Uncategorized

Implementing ArchivesSpace

Meeting our Needs

Since the early 2000s we have been looking for suitable software to manage our archives in a holistic manner. We began to deliver online catalogues at this time via various project initiatives, with metadata encoded as EAD/xml, but this only dealt with resource discovery and was quite cumbersome. Moreover, along with other digital developments, the work inhabited one of a number of parallel silos.

As time moved on, we got better at developing systems to move different elements of work from the analogue to the digital but were still some way off developing or finding a comprehensive, robust and sustainable way to join things up in a meaningful way. This changed when we began to investigate Archivists’ Toolkit in 2011. Although we had looked at it in one of its earlier versions, we were surprised to see how much subsequent developments had brought it quite close to ticking everything on our wish list. It was lacking a resource discovery layer but a successor product, ArchivesSpace, was already planned and would include this.

From Archivists’ Toolkit to ArchivesSpace

We therefore began looking at Archivists’ Toolkit in more detail, assessing issues such as functionality and usability but also those of sustainability and interoperability. It scored very highly, high enough for us to be able to make the business case to commit to ArchivesSpace and obtain the internal funding to sign up as Members.

The involvement of the profession in the development of ArchivesSpace has been and continues to be crucial. What has been developed is not just other people’s idea of what the product needs to be but what we as archivists actually require. Although heavily influenced by the predominant US partners and the specifics of US practice, it has been developed in way that is equally intelligible to others and easily customisable to reflect local needs and terminology.

Priorities and Impact

We originally focused on moving our behind-the-scenes work over but then switched to frontloading our resource discovery, migrating existing EAD xml files and also retro-converting a wide range of old spreadsheets, databases and similar. In terms of impact, this both provides evidence that our business case was sound but, most importantly, meets growing user expectations of what and online catalogue should deliver.

Phase one saw the delivery of nearly 17,000 catalogue records along with over 22,000 authority terms. We still have more to add, along with a whole range of management metadata about accessioning, locations etc. This will feature in Phase 2.

Because the source metadata has been drawn from a variety of legacy sources, there are issues of consistency and quality to be addressed. These are outstanding issues which could never be solved just by getting the metadata into ArchivesSpace. However, with all the metadata now in one place we can now look to quantify and rectify them. Experience told us that’s users would often rather have partial metadata rather than no metadata at all so we chose to go for a warts and all approach, only correcting what was obviously erroneous at this stage.

Community and Participation

We are proud to have signed up as the first European partner and the support we have had from a growing community of ArchivesSpace users and developers. This discussion is also two-way, with us feeding ideas back for future development.

Locally we are also more fully integrated into developing solutions that deliver all our collections online, through a suite of applications and interface that work together, improving user experience and improving how we manage the collections themselves.

Next Steps

We still have lots to do with the system to leverage the full functionality of the system and fully showcase our amazing archives collection. So watch this space.

View the online catalogue.

Read about this from a technical perspective

New acquisition: Further papers of Alexander Craig Aitken

aitken1The mathematician, statistician, writer, composer and musician, Alexander Craig Aitken, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 1 April 1895. He was of Scottish descent. He attended Otago Boys’ High School from 1908 to 1912. On winning a university scholarship in 1912 he went on to study at the University of Otago in 1913, enrolling in Mathematics, French and Latin. Studies were cut short by the 1914-1918 War however and he enlisted in 1915 serving with the Otago Infantry. Aitken saw action in Gallipoli and Egypt, and he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. After his hospitalisation, he returned to New Zealand in 1917.

On the completion of his studies in 1920, Aitken became a school-teacher at Otago Boys’ High School and the same year he married Winifred Betts the first lecturer in Botany at the University of Otago where he also did some tutoring. Then, encouraged by a professor of mathematics at the University, he gained a postgraduate scholarship which brought him to Edinburgh University in 1923. His thesis on statistics gained him the degree of D.Sc. in 1925 when he also joined the University staff as a lecturer in Statistics and Mathematical Economics. In 1937 he was promoted to Reader, and in 1946 was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics.

Aitken’s publications include: jointly with H. W. Turnbull, The theory of canonical matrices (1932); with D. E. Rutherford, a series of Mathematical Texts; wartime experiences in Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman (1963); and, posthumously To catch the spirit. The memoir of A.C. Aitken with a biographical introduction by P.C. Fenton (1995). He made many important contributions to the many fields of his subject, particularly in the theory of Matrix Algebra and its application to various branches of mathematics. In his time, Professor Aitken was one of the fastest mathematical calculators in the world.

While at school, Aitken had learned to play the violin, and later on in life he played both the violin and viola and composed pieces for performance by university groups.  He died in Edinburgh on 3 November 1967.

Shortly before Christmas we acquired a further tranche of Aitken’s papers.  These include a number of original mathematical manuscripts, correspondence, legal documents, offprints, publications and photographs.  Amongst these is a review by Aitken of Sara Turning’s “Alan Turing”.


At the moment we still have to look through the collection, box it up and create a basic handlist.  Once this is done it will be available for consultation.

Welcome to the new Blog

We are in the process of moving our blog in-house.  Although we’ve imported all the post titles, we still need to copy over the detail. Once we have finished the migration tasks, we will start blogging again.  In the meantime you can find the old blog at

Update, 4th July – blog content successfully migrated. New blog posts will appear here soon.

Henry Duncan Littlejohn notebook found

What connects Edinburgh, forensic medicine, public health and Sherlock Holmes? Many people would be tempted to say ‘Joseph Bell’, although they would probably wonder where public health fitted in. The answer is in fact ‘Henry Duncan Littlejohn’.

Born in 1826, the son of a prosperous merchant, Littlejohn was also credited by Conan Doyle as having been an influence. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1847 and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1854.  The same year saw him take up the position with Edinburgh Town Council as Police Surgeon. In 1862 he was appointed Edinburgh’s first Medical Officer of Health. The work he undertook had a significant impact on reducing the frequency of outbreaks of smallpox and typhus.

He was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (1875-6), of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh (1883-5), and of the Institute of Public Health (1893). Awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1893, he was knighted two years later.

Littlejohn was appointed to the Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh in 1897. In the context of that post, a series of his notebooks were kept by his successors within the departmental records of the Forensic Medicine department. However when these arrived in the University Archives volume “Wounds II” was noted as being absent. Thanks to the vigilance of a member of academic staff, this missing volume has now been found and transferred to us.

We are thrilled to be able to reunite this volume with the others. the series now runs to 6 volumes in total:

  1. Infanticide I
  2. Infanticide II
  3. Poisons III
  4. Poisons IV
  5. Wounds I
  6. Wounds II

Enclosed in the third volume are (1) Examination script and (2) Letter about ‘meat pies’ from a student of Henry Duncan Littlejohn. Enclosed in the fourth volume is booklet A Case of Strychnia Poisoning by J. Allan Gray, Medical Officer of Health, Leith.

The ‘new’ volume is of a similar format to the others with notes, news cuttings and loose enclosures.

Neil Armstrong

In memory of astronaut Neil Armstrong, we are displaying the award by the University of Edinburgh to him of Doctor Honoris Causa. The ceremony took place a the British Embasy in Washington on 13 June 2008.

We hold the certificate (shown here) in the University Archives.

University Mace stolen – reward offered!

On the night betwixt the 29th/30th October 1787 the door of the Library was broken open by thieves and the University Mace was stolen from the press where it was usually deposited. The Magistrates offered a reward of ten Guineas for the discovery of the Delinquents.

So reads the inset entered between the College minutes for 11th September and 3rd December 1787.

The University would appear to have been without a mace until 1789. William Creech presented the College with a new one at the meeting of 2nd October that year. At the same meeting it was reported that the University been granted Arms by the Lord Lyon and that a new seal was to be made, the use of one of the city’s seals being “inconvenient and unsuitable to the dignity of the University”.

Early Veterinary students

Although our registers of students who attended the Edinburgh / Royal Dick Veterinary College only begin in the 1860s, the college itself was established in 1823. Although, unlike the University, there is no easily-identifiable published list of early students, one does in fact exist. Included in William Dick’s ‘Occasional Papers’ (published 1869) is a list of all the graduates.

The list gives their name, year of graduation and place of residence. Cornell University have a digitised copy of the entire publication at

Crowd Control

The following letter was sent, we think to Prof T. C. Hope, Professor of Chemistry, by a student in 1844. Student misbehaviour is nothing new!

Dear Sir,

You cannot but have observed, and been annoyed, at the constant disorderly contact of some of the young gentleman of your class. You have hitherto been too forbearing to take any notice of it but I trust you will allow me to prefer the request (in which I am sure the majority of my fellow students join) that you would be so kind as to endeavour, by some means or other, to put a stop to a recurrence of it for to say nothing of the great annoyance it must be to yourself.

I am sure you will agree that it really is “trop mal” that those who are anxious to pay attention to the Lectures should be prevented from doing so by the few juveniles who perch themselves on the upper seats for no earthly purpose but childishly amuse themselves during the whole Lecture by throwing paper balls and creating a disturbance to the no small annoyance of their more peaceable neighbours – Trusting you will excuse this communication.

Yours with the greatest of respect,

One of your Class

Feb’y 15th 1844

Jobs for the girls

A recent enquiry threw light on the richness of information contained in the minutes of Library Committee. The enquiry itself related to Marjory Foljambe Hall, daughter of Hubert Hall, Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office in London, who was meant to have been employed circa 1917/1918 as a Librarian at the University of Edinburgh.

As she was not listed in the University Calendar, the post must have been below that of Assistant Librarian. There was a chance that the appointment would have been noted at Library Committee, but it was not expected that there would be much detail.

On locating the relevant minute however it was found that the section dealing with Miss Hall’s appointment occupied almost a full page, giving information both on her and the method by which she was appointed.

A vacancy had occurred due the departure of a member of cataloguing staff to get married. At the suggestion of Prof. Peter Hume Brown, the Librarian, Frank Carr Nicholson, wrote to Hubert Hall on the basis that he was aware Hall’s daughter was looking for a post. The responses received from both Hubert and Marjory were read before the committee. The minutes note:

“It appeared from these documents that Miss Hall had done a considerable amount of work at the Record Office and for the Royal Historical Society, and that she had gone through a course of Library training, palaeography etc. The Committee were of the opinion that her qualifications were exceptionally good.”

She was at a salary of seven pounds per month plus War bonus of ten pounds per annum. Unfortunately her contract was terminated at the end of May 1918, following a decision to suspend indefinitely the printing of the Library Catalogue.

The enquirer informed us that Marjory went on to work at the National Library of Wales before becoming a nun.

[University of Edinburgh Library Committee, Ref: EUA IN1/COM/L1]

What’s in a Diploma?

We often get enquiries about what individual courses comprised. From 1858, the annual University Calendar is usually the best source of information on this. For example, the Diploma in Psychiatry in 1936 is summarised as follows:

The Diploma consisted of 325 hours of course time, broken into two parts.

Part 1:

1) Anatomy and the Nervous System (20 hours), Prof. Brash & Demonstrators
2) Physiology of the Nervous System (20 hours), Prof. de Burgh Daly & Lecturers
3) Psychology and Experimental Psychology (50 hours), Prof. Drever

Part 2:

1) Neuro-Pathology and Serological Methods (40 hours), Prof. Drennan & Dr. Biggart, lecturer
2) Clinical Neurology (80 hours), Prof. Bramwell
3) Clinical Psychiarty (115 hours), Prof. Henderson