New trial: Oxford Encyclopedia of EU Law

Image showing Oxford University press logo. Text reads Introducing the Oxford Encyclopedia of EU Law: new to Oxford University Press.

You may be interested to know about a trial we have currently running for the Oxford Encyclopedia of EU Law. From the publishers’ website:

A year ago, the Oxford Encyclopedia of EU Law (OEEUL) was launched as a new product within the Oxford Public International Law (OPIL) family. Providing high-level analysis of European Union law by specialized distinguished contributors, OEEUL articles define, explain, and analyze EU law’s key legal concepts in an accessible yet profound way. It is a source of great pride for the OEEUL team that in its first year, the encyclopedia has grown from the initial 100 entries to its current 131 articles – with the team dedicated to increasing this content by tenfold in the coming years to eventually cover the entire EU legal order.

This database is offered via the Oxford Public International Law (OPIL) platform, where we also subscribe to the Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law, and the Oxford Reports on International Law; both key resources for research and study.

The trial for the Oxford Encyclopedia of EU Law runs from 16th August to 16th October 2023, and the databases can be accessed via the E-resources trials page. Please have a look at the content provided and let us know what you think using the Trial feedback form. All comments will help us decide whether to subscribe to this resource going forward.

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Coming full circle

The ins, outs and upside downs of Digital Research Services and lessons learned in the process.

I’ve spent the past three months working as a Researcher-in-Residence for Digital Research Services (DRS) at the University of Edinburgh, marking a transition from the completion of my PhD in which I stumbled my way through digital techniques, to the next exciting step in my career pathway as a training fellow for the Centre of Data, Culture and Society. This progression was greatly assisted by the experiences I acquired during my time with DRS, brief though it was. In particular, through reflection, awareness and facilitation of digital services and the research lifecycle in general, I developed a greater understanding of what digital research can offer, but also the roadblocks we’re slowly overcoming to get everyone there.

I came into this role as an emerging scholar in digital humanities, still getting to grips with the possibilities out there and slowly recognising the value the digital world harbours – a value I had previously dismissed or simply wasn’t aware of during my undergraduate studies. It is of course very easy to stand safely on solid ground, and reject the gleaming digital world over on the other side. Yet, over the weeks I’ve spent with DRS, I’ve seen various toolkits and techniques come past that could have been so useful, if I’d only known or gone looking for them. More than once, I’ve had a ‘wait, you can do that?’ moment when investigating different options available to the academic community. We are very fortunate to have so many amazing resources available right at our fingertips, thanks to the wide range of services the University provides access to, and I can strongly encourage anyone pondering the choice to go digital to give it a try! After all, there’s nothing to lose, and in the process you might discover that there are more effective ways to share your data with others (i.e. DataShare), safer and more secure ways to store and archive it (e.g. DataStore or DataVault), and faster and more reliable methods to analyse it that won’t destroy your personal device (meet Eddie or Eleanor some time).

This however alludes to the second major realisation I acquired, which is the importance of outreach and engagement to bring researchers over to the digital side. There’s no escaping the fact that researchers won’t go looking for digital assistance if they’re unaware that it’s available in the first place. This has been a major part of my role over the summer, and I’ve come to appreciate just how difficult this is within an organisation that is as multi-layered, complex and vast as the University service support system. Not only do we want to highlight our services to the target users themselves, but we also want to facilitate beneficial bridges between various organisational teams within the University network and DRS. Yet incorporating our events, trainings and seminars into their training centres, Learn pages and SharePoint sites is no small task! Nonetheless, by doing so we can provide the missing links or training that research communities are seeking, and augment pre-existing frameworks to develop a more holistic programme, that addresses needs across the diverse spectrum of applied research. This goal has been gaining traction, so watch this space (or rather, your inboxes) for more information in the coming academic year.

Finally, the third major insight I acquired concerned the current lack of digital equity within the research community. There is a certain reluctance that particular research communities or individuals have towards digital techniques. Yet, why people would avoid using tools that could make their research easier, faster, replicable and more statistically powerful? After all, despite the higher risk, most of us would opt for motorised transport these days rather than a horse and cart. Through cross-disciplinary discussions and peer-to-peer feedback, it became clear this reluctance didn’t stem from dislike or disinterest, but rather a lack of the right skillset and knowledge to approach digital tools. I myself was fortunate to have had enough of a digital background to take the necessary steps for my own PhD project, as some of the foundational stepping-stones had already been laid for me. For those coming from zero however, this is not so much a step as a leap of faith, and nobody likes ending up stuck in the mud. Adequate information and tailored training that speaks to these concerns, introduces researchers to the tools available, and guides them through digital services is a keystone in our aim to create a ‘DRS for everyone’. This will also be reflected in the calendar of DRS events for the upcoming academic year, and if you’re curious or keen to develop your digital skillset, then make sure to check out our webpage, and social media (X and LinkedIn) for updates and information about these events.

And so finishes my three months with DRS. A great opportunity to bring a little more attention to this fantastic service within the University, a chance to help other academics push their research into new territory, and a catalyst for changing the way I will approach research in the future. In the process, I can only hope this position has facilitated a few more bridges between various CAHSS communities within the University and the world of digital research on the other side. Hopefully, with time there will be fewer wet socks and more digital successes in the future.

Sarah Van Eyndhoven
Digital Research Services

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Pseudoscience and the supernatural: from phrenology and eugenics to ghosts, deceptions and mistakes, UFOs and conspiracy theories (Part 3)

Ash Mowat is one of our volunteers in the Civic Engagement Team. Ash has been looking into the relationship between pseudoscience and unexplained phenomena. In Part 1 of this blog post, Ash explores the science of pseudoscience and the papers of the Eugenics Society held in the University of Edinburgh Archives. In Part 2, he looks at a letter in the University Archives from Arthur Conan Doyle, describing ‘psychic disturbances’. In this final part, he looks at UFOs and some material in the archives about ‘retrievals of the third kind’.

UFOs and extra-terrestrials

It is perfectly reasonable to apply scientific processes to conclude that is likely or at least probable for there to be intelligent and technologically advanced life elsewhere in the universe, even if we have as yet no evidence of even microbiological life outside of our own planet.

NASA research starting with an estimated of some 300 million potentially habitable planets in our galaxy, is using the Kepler telescope to filter through these. Some 2800 exoplanets have been identified, and by using the Drake equation a few hundred possible earth like planets calculated to have better potential for facilitating the development of intelligent life and scope for technological advances. [1]

(Image above from )

The problems posed to any communication with, let alone a visitation from, any alien life out there is complicated by issues of distance and timelines. The very nearest located potential earth like planet in over 30 light years away, and most of them farther still. Current technology and known physics prevent travel of such distances. The lightweight unmanned NASA vehicle Voyager travels at tens of thousands of miles per hour yet would still take tens of thousands of years to make such a journey. [2] Even if a piloted ship could travel at such a speed, how vast must the crew and vehicle be to avoid inbred genetic collapse over such long a time, where would all the food fuel and water come from, and what physical and psychological harms would be suffered by any such crew living their entire life on a cramped spaceship in the depths of space. Werner Herzog’s faux documentary film the Wild Blue Yonder explores some of these conflicts in an entertaining and provoking piece of art.

Aliens or indeed humans may develop better travelling technologies, but one other barrier are timelines not matching between distant worlds. Our earth is some 4.5 billion years old, yet modern humans first emerged out of Africa around 70,000 years ago. Further, we’ve only had the ability to send radio waves and later vehicles into space for some decades. Other planets may have intelligent life and technology but only for periods of time that precede or come after our own.

Perhaps the most likely, if still improbable, communication from another planet may be detected as a radio signal via NASA SETI project, and not in an actual visit to our earth by some hopefully benign aliens.  Sadly, even were such a signal received it would be so old in origin as not to permit a response to a civilisation and planted that may now be dead and gone.

To assert that UFOs have actually visited our planet is another matter, and one that requires serious evidence.

A visit to the University of Edinburgh archives on UFOs

I visited the library to view ‘Retrievals of the third kind: a case study in alleged UFO’S and occupants by military history, dated 1978’. [3]

The case study itself was forwarded with a covering letter to the then Prime Minister of Canada, the letter sent from Andrew Michrowski. The letter proposes consideration to establish a global scientific group to be established to investigate all reported UFO, and devolve this from a military jurisdiction over allegations of secrecy. The letter boldly declares “there is a vast number of scientists and technical persons (probably in the tens of thousands) who either have had contact with UFO phenomena, or who have been able to come out convinced of their existence”. There is no supporting evidence of this level of scientific belief in UFOs either in the letter or case study.

The letter also reports the former United Nations secretary general Mr U Thant to have publicly stated “aside from the proper redistribution of food, the UFOs present the most important problem in the world”.

The case study itself was written by Leonard H Stringfield, a published author on UFO events. In it he outlines that those involved in UFO research mainly adopt one of two positions as to what they are, either they’re a psychical or parapsychal event, or alternatively they are an actual visitation from an alien race with the advanced technology to develop vehicles that can make the immense journeys required to reach us. The author of the case study favours the latter. He misuses, at least in the scientific sense, the word theory: “there are many other provocative splinter theories…theories are free and a dime a dozen”. That might be a harsh observation to make, as theory is used more loosely in general conversation, nevertheless this is from someone calling for scientific research.

He refers to around 13 thousand reports of alleged UFO’S held with air force base in Washington but available for the public to study. Air force base established “project blue book” in 1957 to specifically investigate reports of UFOs.  It closed in 1969 during when they concluded “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge.” [4]

There was a flurry of public interest in UFOs in the USA in the 1950s[5], the period focused on in these case studies. Interest had waned in the 1960s, perhaps because of the interest from the developments in US and USSR manned space travel missions. However, the year before this case study was written, the blockbuster movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had been released and rekindled interest in UFOs.

The 22 examples in the case study are termed “retrieval of the third kind”, a term coined by its author to mean examples when crashed alien spacecraft were found and taken into storage by US military, often with the bodies of aliens themselves that had died in the incidents. The cases all focus on the US military in terms of witnesses, and occur in remote desert areas often near military bases. The author is suspicious of a conspiracy of silence “we must also take a new look at the possibility of a grand official cover up”. He includes the military, secret service agents, and the media of being involved in this.

Before detailing his twenty or so alleged incidents he states “I cannot refute the credibility of any of my informants”, but also “I do not possess single affidavit to prove that any one of my informants has seen a retrieved craft or its occupants.  I only have their testimony.”

All the testimonies are quite short and quite loosely detailed. They often share a lot of similarities, for example the space crafts are widely described as metallic, something like aluminium, and about 30 feet in length. The aliens themselves are commonly recorded as being of small stature, between 4 to 5 feet tall. Similarity could indicate consistency, but equally it could be suggest copycat reporting, or the influence of images of UFOs and aliens in popular science fiction books, television or movies.

The testimonies are a mixture of anonymous and named individuals, often employed or connected with the military.  They all report senior staff firmly warning all witnesses to remain entirely silent. Craft and, where discovered, alien bodies, were removed and placed into storage in US army bases, one testimonial citing that up to 30 aliens were held from various crash episodes. The author includes two rudimentary drawings (see below) he made of an alien face and hand, based on a description given to him by one of the witnesses of an alleged encounter with one.

There’s a lack of independent witnesses, i.e. members of the public. There’s a description of film footage taken of an alien craft, but no film itself, no photographs, no physical evidence provided of any UFO’S or their occupants. That lack of proof does, of course, fit with the author’s stance of a conspiracy of secrecy and cover ups.

Ultimately, I’m reminded of the quote by the late, great cosmologist Carl Sagan[6]: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. It seems, to me at least, that for then and know, the UFO and alien visitations to earth are best confined and enjoyed within the realms of science fiction.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories purport to identify and expose instances such as when powerful people, governments or institutions, abuse power, exert harm, and evade punishment (my definition). Sometimes genuine conspiracies do occur, consider the decades of the tobacco industry burying and suppressing evidence of the medical harm of cigarettes in an effort to evade responsibility and retain their profits.[7] Or equally actions by the Catholic and other churches to deny the existence of child sexual abuse and to protect rather that report perpetrators.

The term conspiracy theory now mostly alludes to improbable events that overlook evidence that refutes them.[8]

As an example, I was brought up to believe in an early and popular example, that JFK was not assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald alone or at all, but that he was a victim of an internal US political conspiracy to end his presidency due to his liberal views on racial equality and wishes to have dialogue with opposing Communist Russia and end the Vietnam war. [9]

Such conspiracy theories can be a form of comfort or escapism, where it is harsh and hard to accept that in a random act, a lone and unspectacular individual killed a person of power, influence and renown. There can be a desire to import that some wider actors and influences must have been involved, to make sense of such a national loss. (Not that JFKs personal, political or pioneering legacy has uniformly lived up in biographies and testimonies, but that’s another subject well explored elsewhere).

My perhaps biased and certainly uninformed beliefs in this area were further instilled after watching Oliver Stone’s JFK movie in 1991. This film presented a dizzying array of plots involving the CIA, the mafia, anti- Castro Cuban groups, and revealed a colourful array of likely involved assassin cohorts. It’s a very entertaining movie, mostly due to the performances, but since I’ve read further into the crime, I now totally accept the view that the film is entirely bogus, harmful as false history, befuddled with implausible nonsense, and of the opinion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed JFK and was not connected with any others in a conspiracy to do so.

(Image above from )

Two books in particular, American Grotesque by James Kirkwood (1970) and Case Closed by Gerald Posner (1993) convinced me, at least, to accept Oswald acted alone. Firstly, the premise of all the conspiracy theories seem wholly implausible (how many hundreds or thousands of people would have to be involved in and stay silent on an event involving US Government, the Mafia, ballistic and other investigators, the majority of the actual crime witnesses, hospital and autopsy staff etc.).

Secondly, the investigator Jim Garrison who took the conspiracy case to the US courts, was exposed in both these books to have been unprofessional in dealing with often unreliable and prejudiced witnesses, in poorly asserting evidence, bias towards members of the gay community, and prone to personal grandeur and paranoia. Case Closed also meticulously, at least to me, dismisses all evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Oswald alone committed the murder, eliminating convoluted preposterous plots and distilling the facts forensically.

This is my view. Clearly, I have not seen or ready anything like all the evidence on all sides on the JFK killing, therefore it’s entirely valid for others to still pursue and doubt the official findings of the case.

More recently, Covid virus origins and related issues such as Government responses and vaccine and other interventions have become rife. The tone and views expressed in Covid debates can themselves illustrate the bridge between genuine scepticism and concerns, aside from the more unhinged and unfounded discussions. For example, Covid vaccine pioneer Dame Sarah Gilbert, has correctly asserted the right to question scientific progress without by doing so being necessarily irrational or deluded.[10]

For example, some people question the safety and long-term efficacy of Covid vaccines, given how rapidly these were developed and deployed.  To have such doubts is not evidence of uninformed thinking, as with HIV and AIDS we’re yet to have a vaccine after over 40 years (although fortunately we’ve an effective virus suppressing treatment). Distinct from such rational questioning, beliefs in a laboratory created virus deliberately spread and endorsed by Bill Gates or others, deserve neither serious attention nor credence. Worse still are the grotesque and deeply damaging conspiracy theories denying School Shootings or terrorist events despite overwhelming evidence of their occurrence, often monetising for the purveyors of such lies, and always an appalling insult to the victims and families affected.

Finally, I’d like to end on an entirely personal view on debating opposing views with others. Personally, I love to converse with those whose opinions differ from mine, and indeed relish when a point I’d not considered is raised and I consequently revise my position.

There are two categories of debate, however, that I’m reluctant to engage in: the hateful and the ludicrous. The hateful includes white supremacists and holocaust deniers, the ludicrous flat earth society believers. It can prove a draining and damaging pursuit to be exposed to discussions with such fervent believers of nonsense, especially where confronting someone wholly indisposed to change their mind. That said, we’ve a collective duty as people to always inform and educate always against all mistruths, and happily there are experts and journalist dedicated and equipped to help inform and re-educate people, who may have been groomed by others into adopting such beliefs.

[1] (accessed 3.1.2023)

[2] (accessed 2.1.2023)

[3] (accessed 5.1.2023)

[4] (accessed 4.1.2023)

[5] (accessed 4.1.2023)

[6] (accessed 5.1.23)

[7] (accessed 5.1.2023)

[8] (accessed 4,1,2023)

[9] (accessed 4.1.2023)

[10] (accessed 6.1.2023)

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New Resource: Law Library of Congress Reports (HeinOnline)


Image of the Law Library of Congress, exterior. A long white brick building with tall recesses indicating windows is shown on a sunny day. The avenue outside the building is lined with trees.

Recently HeinOnline has added the Law Library of Congress Reports to its online databases offerings. From Hein’s website:

The Law Library of Congress was established in 1832 as a separate department of the Library of Congress. Its mission is to provide authoritative legal research, reference and instruction services, and access to an unrivaled collection of U.S., foreign, comparative, and international law. To accomplish this mission, the Law Library has assembled a staff of experienced foreign and U.S. trained legal specialists and law librarians, and has amassed the world’s largest collection of law books and other legal resources from all countries, now comprising more than 2.9 million items, including one of the world’s best rare law book collections and the most complete collection of foreign legal gazettes in the U.S.

The Law Library produces reports on foreign, comparative, and international law in response to requests from Members of Congress, Congressional staff and committees, the federal courts, executive branch agencies, and others.

This database includes more than 3,500 reports from the Law Library of Congress on foreign, comparative, and international law—all in one easy-to-navigate collection. HeinOnline offer a helpful LibGuide which can help you explore the content further, and you can access the database itself via the Library Databases pages.

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Lyell’s Islands

Lyell Summer Intern Harriet Mack on a visit to the Cockburn Museum to see their Lyell Madeira shells

We’ve been lucky to have had Harriet Mack, who is heading into her 3rd Year of a joint honours degree in Archaeology and Classics working with us as our Lyell Summer Intern! In this blog, Harriet shares her experience – which has included a lot of island hopping!

I first learnt about the Charles Lyell collection through a deep dive into Heritage Collections website, and I really liked the bright colours of the notebooks and the interesting handwriting. I then found the opportunity to volunteer with the Lyell project, cataloguing some of Lyell’s letters. I was captivated with the life and work of Lyell and his 19th century contemporaries, and started to gain an understanding of what transcription and palaeography were about.

Starting as Lyell Transcription Intern, I had to upgrade my palaeography skills, and Transkribus helped. Switching to their Lite version enabled me to view the information differently and really helped emphasize the difficult words.

Screenshot from Transkribus, Scientific Notebook 144 page 95

I was also able to join the other remote volunteers, Drew and Beverly, online, where we could work together, bringing multiple perspectives to Lyell’s work. Later, when I encountered more difficult issues like the Portuguese place names from the Madeira notebooks, we reached out to expert Carlos A. Góis-Marques who helped to bring context to some of the notebooks. Planning was crucial and I developed a plan that could grow with me, as my skills developed and improved. I could also follow the  communal spreadsheet which enabled me to track my progress. I realised my notes also developed over time, even looking a bit like Lyell’s…

Extracts from Harriet’s own project notebook


Once I had developed my skills – it was time to set off island hopping! First stop east coast of Georgia, then the Isle of Wight, Madeira and the Canary Islands.

Notebooks 129 and 130 both cover Georgia, USA, focusing on some of the islands off the east coast like St Simons Island, and Pelican Bank. On these islands, I was introduced to Lyell’s geological observations particular to islands, the environmental impacts, fauna and flora, and historical contexts. In America especially, Lyell’s observations of the workings of the islands mix into his observations on slavery, race, and indigenous people.  

I then moved on to Notebooks 212, 213, and 214, with some of the contents being based on the Isle of Wight – which is where I’m from, adding a layer of expertise. I know the places he stayed along the West coast, at the Needles, Freshwater Bay, and Hamstead. Lyell noted the difference in geological specimens and rocks either side of the chalk ridge of the island, allowing him to suggest that south of the ridge – with marine specimens – was part of the Paris basin and had been exposed to the sea. North of the chalk ridge he found land specimens suggesting that it was originally connected to the mainland of the United Kingdom.  

I wanted to know more about Lyell’s interest in the Isle of Wight, and took time to search more. I found that as early as Notebook 3 page 108-109, he notes reading about the Isle of Wight in Camden’s Brittania, leading me to find an online copy of the book and an early map. This really excited me as it gave an insight into what map Lyell could have used. I also established that Lyell visited the British Museum and consulted a Charter dated 949 AD. This charter told of King Eadred giving 1 hide (mansa) on the Isle of Wight to his gold and silversmith Ælfsige. This charter is one of the earliest primary sources I had seen, referring to the Isle of Wight as Vecta Insula, a Latin name given by the Romans. 

Camden’s Britannia, : Newly Translated into English: With Large Additions and Improvements· Publish’d by Edmund Gibson, of Queens-College in Oxford. ProQuest, UMI, 1695. Print. Page 1048-1049

Isle of Wight Charter, MS Harley 436 f. 76v








Lyell’s drawing of a Phoenix dactylifera, Madeira January 1854, Scientific Notebook 189 page 60



After looking into Lyell’s travels to the Isle of Wight, I hopped on to Madeira and the Canary Islands. Lyell’s study of these islands runs to 12 Notebooks dating January – August 1854, and contain his work alongside Georg Hartung (German geologist). I found they were more complicated, however, once I gained more context, I found they were the most enjoyable to work on. Lyell arrives in Funchal and the Notebooks relate his developing thoughts on formation and volcanic theory in response to his contemporaries such as Élie de Beaumont. The Notebooks include both geological and nature notes, with a large focus on shells and volcanic formations. One of my favourite drawings from this book is the Phoenix dactylifera (Date Palm). Lyell lists the shells he is collecting at Porto Santo and Madeira, such as Buccinidae. It was then really special for me to visit the University’s Cockburn Museum, and see some of their Madeira shells.  

There are a team of people working together to write an upcoming exhibition on Lyell, and via my deep dive in Madeira, I was able to draw their attention to Notebook 191 page 3 and detailed sketches of Cape Girão on the south coast.  This page stands out as having colour in-depth notes, and impressive detail. Its good to know this Notebook page  will now be included in the exhibition. 

Lyell’s drawing of Cape Girão, Scientific Notebook 191 page 3

I found that my place recognition was drastically improving. Google Earth was extremely helpful, revealing the terrain and magnitude of Madeira and the Canary Islands in 3D. This not only improved my modelling skills, but also unlocked an environment that was virtually unchanged from that which Lyell was observing. Using Cape Girão as a starting point, I could match drawings to Google Earth and established that Lyell’s sketch in Notebook 191 page 3 was most likely drawn at sea to give Lyell the fullest image of the cliff face. 

Google Earth (Version, Cabo Girão, Madeira: Latitude: 32.6322222 Longitude: -17.00583333333333

Whilst looking at the Madeira notebooks, there was a name that was repeated throughout that was initially unknown and difficult to decipher. That was until Notebook 191 p.110 where Lyell finally wrote the full name down as Johan F. Eckersberg, a Norwegian painter, who was in Madeira at the same time as Lyell, and as the Notebooks evidence, interacted and may have even advised Lyell’s sketches.

View of Funchal, Madeira. Johan Fredrik Eckersberg, 1854, Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, The Fine Art Collections, NG.M.03396

Eckersberg completed many paintings of Madeira, recording what the Island looked like whilst Lyell and Hartung were there. By connecting Eckersberg’s artistic realism to these geological travels, the landscape and environment can be better understood.  

Notebooks 194195 cover La Palma and have some of the most recognisable landscape drawings. One that stood out to me was Lyell’s drawing of La Palma’s Caldera from Tazacorte. This one was much easier to locate on Google Earth as it had specific peaks, so I was able to be more accurate in terms of angles and direction.  

Google Earth (Version, Tazacorte, La Palma: Latitude: 28.6475 Longitude: -17.92277777777777

Notebook 195 page 40, Lyell’s view of La Palma Caldera








Over 10 weeks, I have visited 7 islands with Lyell, and completed the transcription and summaries of 25 notebooks. This internship has really opened up my understanding of 19th century geology and Lyell’s contribution to this emerging science, as well as just how connected society was.

Thank you Harriet for all of your hard work during the Summer! By utilising both old fashioned tools – lists, note taking, reaching out to experts and finding contemporary sources and art – alongside 21st century ones such as AI and Google Earth, you’ve really been able to explore Lyell’s islands and make them much more accessible for the future! 

Read More

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Pseudoscience and the supernatural: from phrenology and eugenics to ghosts, deceptions and mistakes, UFOs and conspiracy theories (Part 2)

Ash Mowat is one of our volunteers in the Civic Engagement Team. Ash has been looking into the relationship between pseudoscience and unexplained phenomena. In Part 1 of this blog post, Ash explores the science of pseudoscience and the papers of the Eugenics Society held in the University of Edinburgh Archives. In Part Two (of three), he looks at a letter in the University Archives from Arthur Conan Doyle, describing ‘psychic disturbances’. 

Part Two: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A letter describing “psychic disturbances”

I paid a visit to the University of Edinburgh archives to view a letter from the creator of Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle. [1]

A black and white portrait photograph of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1876 to 1881. He had an interest in paranormal events and by 1887 had made public that he was a spiritualist. [2]

The letter is in response to an unnamed individual and is undated, and discusses reports of “psychic incidents”. He acknowledges that the events described to him by the letter’s recipient as being “consistent with those that break out so often in what are called poltergeist hauntings”.

He refers to “most famous case” in what is now known as the Epworth phenomenon of 1716, incidents of knockings and other disturbances lasting several months, with implied validity given the family status (Reverend Samuel Wesley, and son John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church). [3]

He then makes reference to the “most important still” events at Hydesville New York state in 1948, the episodes affecting the Fox sisters from 1848. [4] Once again, the chief reports were of mysterious knocking and others sounds, allegedly being generated by a spirit that could answer yes and no questions with a tapping sound.

It would be very interesting to know the date of this letter of Doyle’s, as by 1888 the Fox sisters had admitted that they had faked the entire events.

In the letter Doyle remarks, without further explanation, “it is when the female child is approaching the age of puberty that this phase of psychic phenomenon is most violent, although occasionally a lad is at the centre of this strange source. “This is a puzzling statement to say the least and not exactly scientific.

Intriguingly he mentions an incident when he was personally able to intervene to stop such a psychic disturbance. “Last month where a home was almost uninhabitable, I was able to offer some advice and the nuisance was brought to an end. “ It would be interesting had he been able to give details on what his solution entailed.

He concedes that there are some reports in the field that are either faked or otherwise invalid, such as when the child “is either through the force of suggestion or out of pure mischief begins to stimulate the phenomena….an unprejudiced judgement is needed in such circumstances. “

It is notable that he says that an unprejudiced judgement, rather than scientific proof, is required. Looking at the history now, it seems strange that such an educated man as Doyle would have embraced spiritualism. Indeed, even at the time there was scepticism and reported faked incidences. However, whatever our academic achievements, we are all open to adopt beliefs that may not live up to scientific rigour. His famous creation Sherlock Holmes famously said “If you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however implausible, must be the truth”. In the absence of any firm evidence to support such psychic events, it appears in this case that not enough elimination was carried out.

An interesting insight into Victorian spiritualism, specifically that of celebrated medium Daniel Douglas Home, is explored in University of Edinburgh report by Peter Lamont of 2004. [5]

In this fascinating history, the author refers to a “crisis of evidence” whereby those who were sceptical that séances were genuine events were yet confounded when such “phenomena was ostensibly validated by scientists.” Such phenomena in his appearances included apparent levitation of people.

Home appears as anomaly, as unlike most mediums he is reported never to have charged for his services. Further we hear, “ in 25 years of conducting services, he was never caught cheating, despite many attempts to catch him, he was tested more thoroughly than any medium in this period, and he convinced many non-spiritualists in the existence of a natural (which became known as psychic) force”.

Home attracted formidable followers and patrons, and took a formal stance of exposing and denouncing fake spiritualists. Examples like this can indicate why a qualified Physician like Arthur Conan Doyle might yet be persuaded by spiritualists, although his declared belief in them came later in 1887 than with Home’s practices, as he’d retired by 1876.

The interesting conjecture of this post is a switch on the role of evidence. In that if no-one, despite extensive contemporaneous and subsequent testing, has been able to confirm that Home’s displays of psychic events were simply tricks and been able to explain how they were achieved, does this mean his séances have any weight as actual evidence that they were genuine?

[1] 5.1.2023)

[2] 6.1.2023)

[3],_Epworth(accessed 7.1.2023)

[4] 6.1.2023)

[5] 6.1.2023)

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New resource: Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge

In January the School of Law was fortunate to host the book launch event for Professor Folúkẹ́ Adébísí’s Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility. 

Cover image of the book Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge. The book title and author information is located in a blue box on the centre-left of the cover. Behind is an image of cracked earth meeting green branches and foliage which are growing from the right edge of the cover.

From the publisher:

The law is heavily implicated in creating, maintaining, and reproducing racialised hierarchies which bring about and preserve acute global disparities and injustices. This essential book provides an examination of the meanings of decolonisation and explores how this examination can inform teaching, researching, and practising of law.

It explores the ways in which the foundations of law are entangled in colonial thought and in its [re]production of ideas of commodification of bodies and space-time. Thus, it is an exploration of the ways in which we can use theories and praxes of decolonisation to produce legal knowledge for flourishing futures.

This text is now available via DiscoverEd: Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge: Reflections on Power and Possibility.

If you’re interested in requesting material like this that you think would be a valuable addition to the Law Library, you can complete the Request A Book (RAB) form. Alternatively if you’re interested in the library securing access to subscriptions or expensive items that you think would benefit teaching or research, contact us by email ( to discuss your idea!

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CHDS DAMS Internship Experience

Shelves containing old books from University of Edinburgh Library's Special Collections. Shelves are behind glass which has the phrase 'Thair to Remain' and the dates 1878, 1962 & 1967 stencilled onto the glass.

Over the past 6 months, I have had the pleasure of working with the Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service team as a DAMS (Digital Asset Management System: software used to manage digital heritage collections)  Assistant, working to build the foundations for the migration of these collections from the current DAMS (LUNA) to the new Digital Collections Platform (Archipelago). Read More

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Stories To Tell: South Asian Heritage Month

From 18 July to 17 August it is South Asian Heritage Month, a chance to celebrate and raise the profile of British South Asian history, arts, culture and heritage. This year’s theme is #StoriesToTell, celebrating the stories that make up the diverse and vibrant South Asian community.

Sometimes, to understand your own story or those of others, you have to look back and in this blog post we are highlighting just a small number of digital archives you can access through the Library that allow you to learn more about South Asian history and the stories that have shaped our present and future.

South Asia Commons (formerly South Asia Archive)

Read More

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CRC: A Space Odyssey – Day in the Life of a Collections Management Technician 

My name is Jasmine, and I’ve been working here at the University for five and a bit months as the Collections Management Technician. I’m the other half to Robyn Rogers’ role as Collections Care Technician, whose fantastic blog post about her recent work you can read here, and I work directly with the Appraisal Archivist and Archives Collection Manager, Abigail Hartley, whose equally wonderful blog post was featured last month.  

Abigail did a great job of defining appraisal and the challenges to the archivist when it comes to choosing what material to preserve. The archivist is often put in the position of assessing the ‘value’ of the record, a thorny process which comes with a number of ethical challenges. Thinking through these problems, it might seem easier to suggest that we simply keep everything we receive. If we get to keep everything, we don’t have to think through complicated questions, like what is the purpose of the record? And what is the purpose of the archivist? After all, if something has found its way into the archive, isn’t that an implicit statement of its value? Why appraise at all? 

Colour photograph of a cardboard box with the lid off. Inside are folders, papers and photographs.

The process of sorting through material in boxes to first determine what is inside them is the first stage in the appraisal process

An important part of the role of the Conservation and Collections Management team is making collections accessible to researchers. Having tens, or even hundreds of copies of the same record makes life more difficult for cataloguing staff who must list the material, for reading room staff who must retrieve the material, and for researchers who must select, request and interpret that material. But accessibility to researchers is not the only issue if we leave records unappraised. Unfortunately for us, archives are real, tangible spaces with limited amounts of physical room. If records aren’t appraised, we run the risk of running out of space for collections very quickly. Even a digital archive which may appear to have an infinite amount of space is usually hosted on servers, which cost money and can have a significant environmental impact.

Because we are dealing with paper records, in a physical building which does have limited space to house its collections, it’s crucial that we do appraise our records. Doing so ensures that we have enough physical room to safely and securely house all our existing material and continue to expand and develop our archive holdings so that we can support learning, teaching and research. Mapping our existing spaces and finding areas where we can shuffle or rehouse collections to free up more room has been another part of my role. The appraisal work Abigail and I are undertaking will hopefully allow us to increase the free space we have available.  

Appraisal aside, space management can be a complicated affair. We have to work together across teams to ensure all the right people are aware of archives arriving into our stores, identify space for it to be housed, and ensure the space is suitable for the material by making sure shelving is pitched at the correct height and appropriate preservation measures are in place. Sometimes it can feel a bit like playing Tetris. 

Colour photograph of white metal shelves, three in total. On the top two are six cardboard boxes, three columns of two. The third shelve has three boxes, two on top of eachother then one in the centre.

Space management is much easier when all your collections are housed in neat, standard sized boxes, with all the shelves pitched at a standard height, but archives rarely arrive in beautiful acid free standard sized boxes. Sometimes our archives contain objects, like clocks or even chairs, which can’t be housed in a predictable nicely stackable container. Often, archives arrive in large boxes like bankers boxes which take up more space and aren’t suitable for the material’s long-term preservation. Looking at our collections and seeing where we could rehouse materials has been another part of my role, one which I’ve shared with our Collections Care Technician. Space management isn’t all appraisal work – sometimes a simple re-boxing can save a surprising amount of space. 

Appraising collections and managing space in the stores can feel like an overwhelming task in an institution with such vast holdings, and there are lots of tough questions to answer, but the work is incredibly rewarding. Turning an unwieldy bankers box full of loose papers into a manageable archive box which we know contains material researchers can use is gratifying work, and it’s great to be part of the chain of hardworking staff who turn the records we receive into material researchers can use.  

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