Defence, Duress, and Detectives: Alexander McCall Smith’s PhD

Most know the name of Alexander McCall Smith in connection with his award-winning children’s literature, but he is also a giant in the legal field, both in the UK and in southern Africa where he was born. He was co-founder of the law school at the University of Botswana, and today he holds the title of Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. But bearing in mind that he is also the author of novels which have been read by millions, it’s easy to see the twinkle of a novelist behind his engaging style of legalese, and vice versa:

“Hugh spoke triumphantly. ‘Then your position is even stronger! … It’s a promise extracted under duress. He’s ground you down — taken advantage of you; pushed you into making the offer.’”

This passage from A Conspiracy of Friends (2011, first serialized in The Scotsman) was written nearly 30 years after McCall Smith submitted his PhD thesis, The Defence of Duress, to the faculty of law at the University of Edinburgh, which marked the beginning of an influential legal career. This thesis, which came under our scanners in April, provides a unique glimpse at the background of a writer who enjoyed success in two very different careers.

His PhD thesis attempts to give some scope to the depth of complexities beneath simple questions: “How is coercion to be distinguished from influence or persuasion? Is coercion inevitably a moral concept? Is an agent who performs an act under coercion always to be relieved of responsibility for his action?” McCall Smith takes nothing for granted as he picks apart the fibres of legal principles so old and venerable they were no longer questioned.

He begins the argument by harkening back to Aristotle’s explorations on the subject.

McCall Smith approves of the ‘lenient’ attitude of modern law toward crimes committed under duress, while supporting the view that “the moral gravity of the act performed under compulsion is relevant in assessing responsibility for compelled action, as is the degree of compelling force used.”

Philosophical abstractions are accompanied by illustrative examples, such as:

In the end, he finds, there are two logical approaches toward the question of culpability in these scenarios, and each in some measure absolves the victim-cum-perpetrator:

McCall Smith’s fictional works have been praised for depicting complex truths within the simple actions required to live, and it’s easy to see how a legal background could add colour to this way of seeing the world. His books, mainly written for young adults, far from being sugar-coated or dumbed down, are complex discussions of ethical problems. Similarly we see in his legal ruminations an articulate relevance to everyday moral dilemmas. Reading this thesis, which he wrote at the age of 31, we can see a storyteller beneath the barrister’s wig — in fact he published his first book, The White Hippo, less than a year after receiving his diploma from Edinburgh.

In an interview in 2004, McCall Smith stated:

“In my books I’m increasingly going to look at that question: how people resolve ordinary dilemmas and moral issues in their day-to-day life.” (Interview in The New York Times, 6 October 2004)

I enjoyed reading this thesis, but I’ve also taken the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the powerful and charming novels which came after it.

McCall Smith’s PhD thesis, The Defence of Duress, was digitized in April by the Centre for Research Collection’s ongoing digitization project and can be downloaded from the Edinburgh Research Archive:

Gavin Willow, Project Digitisation Assistant, PhD Digitisation Project

10,385 theses down, 2,115 to go!

The Library’s project to digitise its entire collection of PhD and doctoral level theses is now entering its final phase, with the team on track to have all 17,000 volumes scanned by May and online by the end of 2018.

To date, the team has digitised 10,385 individual theses out of an internal target of 12,500 – in total, over 2.6 million pages have been scanned, making this the largest digitisation project the Library has ever undertaken. In addition to the work in-house, approximately 4,500 volumes were outsourced to Autodocs, our scanning partner, in 2017.

Robbie Burns’ Moustache: one of the 10,385 theses digitised to date. Accessible at

We have now almost completed the scanning of the 20th and 21st century collections, and the 19th century handwritten theses are due to be digitised by the end of January. The final three months of the project will then be dedicated to digitisation of the older printed Latin volumes – medical theses dating from the mid 18th to mid 19th centuries. A small collection of even earlier theses, dating from as far back as 1599, will be photographed by our colleagues in the Digital Imaging Unit.

After digitisation, the theses are uploaded to the Edinburgh Research Archive (ERA), where they are available to download for free. We have now uploaded over half of the collection to ERA, and by the end of January we will be ahead of our target to have all Edinburgh PhDs online by the end of 2018.

Theses digitised by this project are currently being downloaded over 3,000 times per month, with the most popular to date being The Social differentiation of English in Norwich by Peter Trudgill, which has been accessed almost 350 times since it was added to ERA last year. Other popular titles include Myo-Mint’s Study of the interpersonal dimension of narrative fiction with specific reference to power and control in Muriel Spark’s Memento mori and its implications for the teaching of English literature in a TEFL context (272 downloads) and Ji-Hwan Song’s Business ethics and the corporate manipulation of expressions (256 downloads).

Title page for Peter Trudgill’s PhD – The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Accessible at

We will be showcasing some of these works in an exhibition that will be running in the CRC at the end of the year. As well as telling the story of the Edinburgh PhD from the earliest 16th century disputations through to the modern, A4, typed and bound thesis, the exhibition will feature examples of interesting authors, unusual topics and highlight some of the more surprising things we have found within the humble PhD volumes.

Giulia’s recent blog post mentioned some of these – we’ve also come across items ranging from the grisly (laminated slices of human lung) to the darkly comedic (a bullet in a thesis which the author had accidentally shot himself with). And that’s not even mentioning the test tubes, vials and envelopes of mysterious white powder that have been unearthed by the team over the last two years…

A bullet. In a thesis.

Bullet in a thesis

Now that the project is entering its final phase, we are beginning to discuss how the content might best be used once all digitised theses are online. There is already strong demand for researchers for digital theses but we are keen to explore other ways that we can make use of, and open up, this large data set. In addition to work we’ve already undertaken with uploading a thesis to Wikisource, our Digital Scholarship Developer Mike Bennett is exploring how we can match digitised theses to their author pages on Wikipedia using authority records, as well as working on a tool which enables the bulk generation of Wikidata records for theses.

Keep an eye out for further updates as we enter the final stages of the project.

Gavin Willshaw (

Anti-German manifestos, cigarettes vouchers and a little girl called Gill: 3 objects found in PhD theses

When I was studying for my Masters dissertation, I kept finding dried flowers in between the pages of books I was borrowing from the library. Now, we all know that drying flowers in between books, especially library books, is a bad idea.  If the flower is particularly big, the books will struggle to close properly and the colours of the petals, through the release of moisture, will transfer on the page.  But despite all of it, I was happy to find daisies and freesias while revising, and I kept most of them. Now, I am still happy when I find objects in collection items, some of which have not been opened for almost 100 years. I have realised that all sort of things find their way in theses.  I removed cigarettes buds found in 1910s book on bronchitis, read letters and I have seen that photographs, cigar vouchers and 1970s train tickets all seem to have been used as bookmarks or place orders and never have been removed from the pages of theses. Sometimes the objects and documents found in these theses seem to be related to the creation of the volumes themselves. For example, we found receipts and quotes from 20th-century Scottish bookbinders, library notes and interlibrary loans request slips. But sometimes what we have found is more original and not necessarily related to the content or the creation of the physical item.

Here are three examples of objects that found their way in between the pages of PhD theses.

The Anti-German Union pamphlet found in a 1916’s thesis

The ‘Anti-German Union’ pamphlet
Found in a 1916 medical thesis titled The treatment of tuberculosis this pamphlet relates to racist propaganda rather than medical knowledge. The leaflet promotes ethnocentric ideas of ‘Britishness’ presenting German workers, economic trade with Germany as a threat.

 “The Anti-German Union has been formed to unite British-born men and women, without respect to party, class or creed, with the following aims and objects:

  1. To foster national ideals and to keep alive the patriotic spirit of the people
  2. To defend British freedom, rights and privileges from German invasion
  3. To defend British Industry and British labour against German competition.”

The pamphlet also includes a membership/registration form which was left blank. It was produced at the same time as the thesis was (around 1916). The AGU Later renamed ‘British Empire Union’ was an organisation instigating anti-German sentiment and was part of a bigger movement that grew after WW1 and the developing of Germany as an international power. The union promoted the expulsion of German immigrants and the obstructing of German trade.

It is not clear whether the examiner or the author itself accidentally left the pamphlet in the thesis, but at least we know that that the registration form was left blank.  I was particularly fascinated by this object because it has no relation to the content of the thesis and there is a limited amount of similar documents on the same subject in digital image repositories. It is also a statement to a very specific time in history; the document could have only been written in 1915 or 1916, and it testifies the change in aims and perspective of an organisation.

Five Embassy Cigarettes Vouchers Objects found in theses, not only provide evidence for the political atmosphere that alumni were immersed in, but they also show a change in consumerist culture and advertising.  One of my favourite discovery is ‘Five Embassy Vouchers’.
Not so common these days, cigarettes vouchers were given to smokers as a reward for their loyalty. This was a win/win situation: consumers could trade this vouchers in a store for their favourite cigarettes while companies found a way of retaining their customers.

Embassy is a cigarette brand first sold in 1914 by Imperial Tobacco. Originally branded ‘Strand’ it gained popularity in the 1960s as a coupon brand.

Five Embassy Vouchers (1960s)


Gill, 1966
The most common objects found loose in between the pages of theses are, after library slips, photographs. Some of these pictures are labelled, usually portraying graduating students; others remain a mystery.
One that we could find more information about is ‘Gill, 1966’.  This picture fell from a 1970s duplicate copy of a thesis. We are unclear which thesis she originally came from as she fell when we picked up a couple of theses from our delivery. The volume it came in (as it is a duplicate) has been certainly destroyed now, but the picture remains a unique object, one  portraying Gill in 1966, a little girl we know nothing about.

Gill, 1966

History of British Guiana 1922


Whilst systematically scanning early 1900’s theses, mostly on specific medical matters such as Insanity and Beri Beri, I came across a fascinating account of Guyana rural life in what was then known British Guiana, written in 1922 by a Mr. John F.C. Haslam (link to follow). Mr Haslam, who by his own admission, after being appointed to the Government Public Health Department of British Guiana, just 3 months later found himself as the Head of Department for the entire country.

Mr Haslam’s detailed account lays out this country’s unique geography and attempts to examine the population that inhabit this place and the various issues of housing, employment, sanitation and health that preoccupy him as Head of Public Health in 1922. Written very much from the British colonial viewpoint with a specific agenda of public health and accompanied with intriguing photographs, this theses provides an invaluable narrative and illuminates a particular time period in Guiana’s colonial past.

Mr Haslam notes from the beginning that it soon became apparent to him ‘that both the physical conditions of the country, the political constitution and social organisation of the people were peculiar if not unique’.

His first chapter entitled ‘The Country’ sets out specific facts regarding the landscape and makeup of the land. John Haslam is aware of the British’s population general ignorance of Guiana, being a far flung county, lying on the top right corner of the continent of South America, with a tropical climate lying 10 degrees of the equator, and  often confused with Demerara which forms a third of the actual size of Guiana. The 2 rivers Demerara and Essequibo, which allowed for trading posts, fertile land, helped in the creation of the sugar plantations and provide testament to the Guiana’s history of  colonisation initially by the Dutch and later the British, who gained control in 1831, right up until 1966. Guyana is still unique as it is the only country where English is the official language though the most commonly spoken language is Guyanese Creole.

Haslam, details the low lying nature of Guiana coastal areas and describes a very complex system of canals, trenches with some scattered attempts of control through damming and sluices such as the Koker, left over from the Dutch colonial times. Haslam’s vibrant description of the rainy season gives an impression of the difficulties face

‘the coast lands form a vast swamp in which cows may be seen up to their necks in water, grazing on water lilies, where lambs and pigs swim almost from birth and there are many homes accessible only by boat. At such times domestic animals, alligators and a boa constructor have been seen together on the public high road – the only dry place.’



Most of the townships and villages lie along the cultivated belt running just inland along the Atlantic coast and so these populations are faced with the challenges of the rainy season and constant flooding.  In his descriptions of the inland jungle which to Haslam appears impenetrable you get a sense of the fear of the unknown, akin to Day of the Triffids…

’In truth there is something sinister about the rank and fleshy vegetation which in a few months will cover a neglected house or obliterate a clearing’

Written from his perspective as public health governor of Guiana under direct British colonial rule, the chapter titled simply ‘The People’ provides a gripping account of the different ethnic groups as itemised by the Census and included is a table of population figures starting with ‘The Europeans, other than Portuguese’, then ‘Portuguese, East Indian, Chinese, Blacks, Mixed, Aboriginal Indians’ and lastly ‘Not Stated’.

Haslam gives an intriguing commentary on these various ethnic groups making up this diverse population, starting with ‘the true natives’ of the country, the aboriginal Indians he possibly views most favourably who are ‘on the whole shy and retiring’ and ‘they would be pleasant to work among and teachable’.  He states ‘ The Blacks of the Colony are of course quite as much foreigners as the whites’  while recognising the legacy of slavery and his interpretation of its effects.

‘After the abolition of slavery the negroes’ dislike of steady employment was very apparent. It is a racial characteristic that a man prefers working for himself for a pittance to earning good wages from an employer’

Diamond mining proved an attraction for many of these men in that it had the allure of possible wealth and independence from a traditional employer.  Haslam finds ‘ there is a happy-go-lucky carelessness and a laughing indifference about the black people which make work among them pleasant if sometimes tantalising. However his frustration from a public health view point leaks through his discourse ‘the most discouraging factor to a sanitarian working among the negroes is that while they readily assume a veneer of civilisation – smart clothes, church going and politics – they have little instinct of tidiness or cleanliness, and a filthy mass of garbage under the kitchen window gives no qualms whatever to the housewife’. This chapter is filled with such observations  sometimes  prejudiced and  often voiced in a tone that sounds decidedly out of place today, such as ‘love of children and family life and respect for age and education are factors which will maintain the East Indian people as a most important section of this colony’ however ‘the Portuguese are of more doubtful value to the country’.

Haslam obtains his figures from the  last available Census in 1921 yet wrestles with the indeterminacy of the Census figures with its many interesting anomalies, for instance with the number of husbands and wives in 1911 ‘the former outnumbering the latter by 2,847’. The recording of age alone was a perpetual problem for the Census Commissioner  with many relying on collective memories of  definitive events such as ‘the cholera year’ or ‘the fire in Charlestown’ to provide a rough gauge of time.

He alludes to the missing figures of the ghostly aboriginal population who for colonial administrative purposes seem to constantly elude proper documentation. His lack of encounter with many aboriginal people is interesting as he states ’only a few have been drawn into the modern life of the colony, most ‘clinging to their tribal customs and primitive mode of life and withdrawing into their unexplored forests before the advance of civilisation’.

You get a real sense from reading this of the ‘‘huge sparsely occupied hinterland’ that forms most of Guiana, occupied by these unknown tribes and how it informs a large part of Haslam’s collective unconscious in his quest of ‘pioneer sanitary work’.  Other details which grabbed my attention was his discussion of the ‘supernatural beliefs’ that still existed with the attentions of the ‘obeah man’ , a popular derivative of voodoo, that used a white “fowl cock” and even on occasion child sacrifice to fight off evil spirits and sickness.

Haslam goes on to study the occupations, housing, sanitiation,  and health of various population types, providing compelling photoographs to illustrate his points



Although his observations belong to a very different era with a different world view they merit attention through his detailed recording of sanitation, housing, education and health and general living conditions, amongst all the different groups that found themselves living in this unique part of the world under colonialisation and still living the legacy of slavery. It is Haslam’s rich commentary often falling into casual asides and sarcasm while still maintaining a profound engagement that makes it so inviting to partake of this thesis and become immersed for a short time in this little known country from one man’s unique position.

The Return of the Sailor: William Gifford Wyllie’s MD ‘War neuroses. 150 cases in h. m. navy’

The wounded soldier in the lower left angle was suffering from shell-shock [1]

2017 marks the centenary of the fourth year of British fighting in World War I. It was in August 1917 that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, later to become two of the most famous British war poets, met while hospitalised at Craiglockhart military hospital in Edinburgh [2]. Now part of Napier University’s campus, Craiglockhart was then a military hospital for officers, specialised in the treatment of patients suffering from war neuroses.

The medical treatment of war neurosis, also referred to as neurasthenia or shell-shock, was then at its earliest stage. The study of mental illnesses produced by war was often problematic, as many failed to understand, or ignored to the benefit of the war effort, that a soldier wounded in their mind was not malingering.

Our PhD theses collection includes some early studies of war neuroses which I have found fascinating. While most of the war-related studies dating back to 1918-1921 focused on gas poisoning, diphtheria, and scabies to name a few, Thomas Crisp’s PhD Thesis, awarded in 1918, focused on ‘Shell concussion, “shell shock” and allied conditions, result of war strain, or the psycho-neuroses of the war’. This was just the first of the studies of war neuroses carried out at our University: two years later, Frederick Dillon was awarded a PhD for ‘A survey of the war neuroses’ [3] and William Gifford Wyllie published his MD ‘War neuroses. 150 cases in h. m. navy’.

I digitised the latter a month ago and I found it very intriguing. Its focus on navy soldiers shifted my personal perception of WWI as a conflict almost exclusively fought in the trenches. I also appreciated the fact that it complemented the study of mental illnesses produced by land warfare, widening the scope of the study of war neuroses while simultaneously pointing out the distinctive features of war neuroses in the navy. Among the general observations that struck me more, the author points out that the incidence of serious neuroses in the navy was lower than in the infantry. I was shocked to realise that this was partly because, when a fight happened at sea and a boat was bombed or torpedoed, chances were that all the soldiers died. No survivors, no war neurotics.

Another reason why I have found this MD fascinating is that it seems representative of the shift in the perception and the study of war neuroses that took place at the end of the war. Wyllie presents warfare neuroses as illnesses produced by shock and fatigue; they have distinctive symptoms that are hard to feign and therefore allow to exclude, at close clinical examination, that patients are malingering. This went against the ill-founded but widespread suspicion that some war neurotics were impostors. The author carefully investigates the traumatic war events that caused the neurosis, but, significantly, he also considers hereditary and acquired neurotic tendencies ‘to be the most important predisposing causes towards a neurosis’. According to Marc-Antoine Crocq [4], it was a controversial matter at the time whether the neuroses were caused exclusively by traumatic events or it was necessary to delve into the patient’s personality and clinical history, not less because war neuroses seemed to question the validity of psychoanalytical theories. In this respect, Wyllie’s position seems clear: in his case descriptions, the sections ‘Family History’ and ‘Previous [Patient’s] History’ always come before ‘War Service’.

The last reason why I am writing about Wyllie’s MD thesis is that going through his case studies has been interesting – and, sometimes, moving. The cases descriptions vary in length from a few lines to a couple of pages and it is sometimes hard to understand how a person’s most traumatic, trying period in life can be summarised in such a small space and in a neutral voice. Case IV at p.56 tells the story of a gunner, aged 27, suffering from neurosis, whose first traumatic experience was a ‘premature explosion in his gun’, which resulted in ‘several members of the gun’s crew’ being ‘blown to pieces round him’. This is the extract that moved me the most:

First at Crystal Palace then at two air stations underwent several air raids which frightened him very much. Was employed in 1917 in experimenting with explosives. In July of that year after an explosion had all his clothes on fire. Got a severe shock but carried on. In Sept. the camp was set alight by an explosion, which threw the patient several yards, but he did not lose consciousness. After this he still tried to carry on.

(p.54, Case III)

The various hardships Armourer Mechanic I, aged 28 had to go through, matched with Wyllie’s scientific register, generate a tragi-comical effect, which nevertheless allows us to empathize with the patient’s suffering and attempts to ‘carry on’.

I will add a link to the digital copy of Wyllie’s thesis once uploaded on ERA.

Marco Polvara


[1] Image credit: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,

[2] Colin Water has recently detailed this fruitful encounter in an article that you can read at:

[3] This thesis is accessible on ERA at:

[4] ‘From shell shock and war neurosis to posttraumatic stress disorder: a history of psychotraumatology’, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience,

The Development Of Avant-Garde Art And Ideas 1905-1924

The film above is a review of the artworks referenced in the first three volumes of a four volume Ph.D. thesis by Ivor Davies from 1974:

Certain Aspects Of Art Theory In Russia From 1905 To 1924 In Their Relationship To The Development Of Avant-Garde Art And Ideas In The West

Continue reading

A Book of Two Halves

Our Projects Conservator, Nicole, describes a technique for repairing books that have broken in half in this week’s blog…

I have now moved full time to the conservation studio at the main library and I have started working on the Latin thesis from 1726 – 1826 which contain a number of PhD thesis in one leather binding.

The majority of this collection is in good condition with just under half needing conservation treatment before digitisation, mostly quick treatments such as being board reattachment. A small number of volumes have been rebound with a hollow and using book cloth which makes them more accessible and easier to be digitised. However, 46 volumes have broken sewing resulting in the text block breaking in half or in some cases three or four separate pieces. This has been caused by repeated use, and forcing the volumes open.

An example of a Latin thesis broken in half

An example of a Latin thesis broken in half, before conservation

Reattaching two halves of a volume can be time consuming and with such a high number we needed to find a treatment that was relatively quick but was strong enough for digitisation. The volumes could not be digitised in the condition they were in because this would cause sections to become loose and pages could easily become lost.

After some research and testing it was decided the most successful way for the volumes to be digitised was to mechanically remove the spine and consolidate the sections by relining the spine. Firstly, the leather spine was removed using a spatula. The animal glue was then softened using a poultice of wheat starch paste, and removed using a spatula. The labels were retained so they could be re-adhered after treatment.

Latin thesis, after conservation. Volume is now whole.

Latin thesis, after conservation. Volume is now whole.

Once the spine was clean four layers of medium weight Japanese paper were added with wheat starch paste. After this a layer of archival paper was added to the spine for added strength and to protect the Japanese paper. Once dry the label was re-adhered and an enclosure made out of archival board was added around the volume. This will protect and keep the spine clean when the book travels to be digitised and when on the shelf. Although the binding is back as a whole, it will be digitised using an angle support at a 90 degree angle which will put less pressure on the spine.

Latin thesis being digitised using an angle support

Latin thesis being digitised using an angle support

This blog originally appeared on the University of Edinburgh Conservation blog ‘To Protect and Con(serve)

Just my type of thesis: some notes on book production from 1915

The printed book as an artistic unity: A study of selected Incunabula as a Guide to the external production of worthy modern books
Richard Wilson, B.A. London

“The subject of the present enquiry is the external production of the printed book, viewed from the artistic standpoint, using the epithet in its broadest and best sense. It consists of three parts dealing respectively with typography, illustration and binding; and its object is to formulate rules for the production of modern books  based upon a detailed study of selected historical examples drawn from the best period of printing.”

How could one not be excited by the start of this thesis? It contains reflections on some of the most interesting topics for someone interested in art and who works in a library: typography, book history and the artistic value of printed matter. I find the circumstances of this reading also, slightly ironic. I am reading about the originality of printing whilst creating a digital copy of a book and whilst, probably more ironically, a colleague of mine is chopping, dismembering and binning some duplicate copies of other theses.

Wilson argues that book production is a branch of fine art and it is hard to disagree with him especially if we consider some of the objects held here at the University of Edinburgh (Le Japon Artistique being one of them: or if we head down to the bookshop and purchase anything published by Persephone.  It is an art form that “comes home to ordinary people in a way that painting, sculpture, and even architecture can never do”. Reading a book is a visual and tactile experience one that could not replicated in the same way with artefacts such as a Rothko painting; and digital copies cannot replicate this experience either.

Adobe Jenson font modeled after the classic 15th century type

Adobe Jenson font modeled after the classic 15th century type

In this early 20th century thesis the author, Richard Wilson, focuses on the ‘architecture of the book’ dealing with three perspectives: typography, illustration and binding. The typography section is particularly informative and this is what I am going to explore a bit further. Wilson starts by outlining some of the principles of typography, the division of typefaces into: Roman and Gothic; “the former is now rarely used by English or American printers for book work. It was very handsomely employed in a variety of sizes by the early printers of northern Europe as well as by those of Italy for large folios and ecclesiastical works, and careful contemplation of the best of these books is absolutely necessary for all who wish to acquire correct taste in typography; but very early in the history of printing the Gothic was superseded by Roman type though it has survived in Germany to the present day. “ 102 years later the Roman typefaces appear in our digital documents under: Bembo, Baskerville, Garamond and of course Times New Roman fonts.

Wilson then reflects on the importance of the Jensen type for history of book-making. . It is no exaggeration to say that the Old Style Roman founts of type of which there are many varieties now in use are all based more or less directly upon Jensen [Jenson]’s type which possesses the necessary quality of restfulness.

The font takes its name from its creator, Nicolas Jenson a 15th century French publisher and printer. After some experience at the Royal mint of Tours, Jenson developed his printing know-how in Germany under Gutenberg. It is in Venice that he opens a printing shop and develops for the first time the printed roman lowercase type.  The shapes and measures of this type refer even if lightly to handwriting and make the reader at ease when reading.

A careful study of late fifteenth century books emphasises, the important fact that a type face designed for restfulness must not be too precise and clean in general effect however carefully each individual letter is shaped. Machine like precision and absolute mechanical perfection tire the eyes readily as the steady contemplation of an unbroken row of area railings or of spikes upon a garden wall, two things quite perfect of their kind.[1]

Wilson argues that the Jenson convoys

a general impression of curvature which is soft, pleasing, and restful to the eye as distinguished from the sharp-edged, flat and angular impression produced by the serifs of the Modern Romans. For the eye rests gratefully upon gentle curves while it is repelled by angularity. […] In the type of Jenson and others of his period there are many small irregularities which please the cultivated eve not merely because of their “quaintness” and historic interest but because they are restful. The physical reason for this is that the changed form or slight irregularity stimulates a fresh set of nerve terminals and gives the others a rest, just as relief is found in a broken railing or an iron standard of different shape and heavier build.”

The Jenson type clearly shows that reading should be, at least visually as comfortable and soothing experience. But early modern fonts have their disadvantages too.

To the modern eye, however, this earliest of the Roman types appears in its original form to be somewhat affected while it is unnecessarily wasteful of space; and if taken as a model it requires somewhat radical adaptation in several respects to meet the everyday requirements of a generation which reads a thousand books where the people of Jensen’s time read one. This wastefulness of space was probably one of the chief reasons for the designing of the first of the type faces classed as Modern Roman which came from the foundry of Giambattista Bodoni who settled in Parma in 1768. His types have been altered and adapted in many- ways but we may truly say that as Jensen is to the Old Style Romans so is Bodoni to the Modern Romans.

Developed by Giambattista Bodoni in the late 18th century, this serif is still popular and we can find examples of its uses in the Mamma Mia! Movie poster (both for the older and newer versions) and in the Nirvana band logo (here Bodoni is slightly compressed).

Mamma Mia! movie posterNirvana logo
Space and readability are key elements of good book-architecture but so is the ‘ink’ used, when it comes to both thickness and colour.

The designer must also avoid the clumsy blackness which is so often and so mistakenly, deemed to be necessary for legibility. Many of these “artistic” founts of type have a staring effect which is not conducive to restfulness in reading.”

 The ink should not be allowed to ink on the page as texts should ideally avoid too many bold characters. The use of colour clearly helps the reader:

In the library of Edinburgh University there are two volumes of the Biblia Latina by Anton Koberger ,1487. The books are not brilliant examples of typography but, together, they show an excellent, manner, by force of contrast, the optical value of the second colour in printing. In the first of these two volumes spaces have been left for the initials to be inserted by hand but the work has been left undone as in so many other of the incunabula. In the second volume the coloured initials have been inserted by hand and the effect, in comparison with the companion volume is more than pleasing. It is distinctly helpful to the eye of the reader, for the reason already given, that the occasional occurrence of clear bright colour in the black type stimulates at intervals a new set of nerve terminals. The revival of this plan of printing in two colours in ordinary books of the present day would greatly help in the attainment of restfulness in reading.”

But the use of colour should be moderate and only reserved to titles and the initial letter of a paragraph.
“There is nothing more ineffective than the attempt to obtain variety by merely printing a headline or capital in a bright colour without increasing the weight of the letter. As a rule the incunabula set us the example of aspiring use of colour in typography; but the copy of the Aberdeen Breviary printed by Walter Chepman in 1509, now in the University Library at Edinburgh, though a splendid piece of two-colour typography, is useful rather as a warning showing clearly the disadvantage of red type for .the body of a book. The eye is at once repelled by the pages of this book which are set completely in red type.”

In the rest of the thesis Richard Wilson talks about line spacing, optical round and flat lines, incunabula’s binding and illustration. But I thought I would concentrate on the timelessness of types here. Created in the early modern period, discussed artistically in 1915s and still present and used in current times, fonts emerge in many forms of printed and digital matter. They are often taken for granted and yet they make such a difference to our reading experience.

I was struck by the originality of this thesis, it is hard to find early discussions of book production focusing primarily on aesthetic value of the item.

Considering aesthetic as a main factor. I wonder if Richard Wilson would have been ‘repelled’  by how OCR and file reduction degrade the quality of the reading experience.

Wilson’s thesis will be available on ERA soon, please give it a look.

Early uses of the Jenson type found in Wilson's thesis

Early uses of the Jenson type found in Wilson’s thesis

Sample letters of Bodoni font

Sample letters of Bodoni font

[1] I wish it was still acceptable to write like this in academia

Images of early Islamic architecture: a record of destroyed antiquities in Iraq and Syria


Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

The aim of our PhD thesis digitisation project is to make available the unique research of the University of Edinburgh. This research has a greater significance when, within the pages of the theses, we uncover photos of places and buildings that no longer exist; our collection becomes important for the future preservation of world cultural heritage.

In the past year a great deal of research has been undertaken on collecting images of Palmyra that date to a period before it was damaged (in 2015), as well as of other Syrian archaeological sites.[1] Much of this work depends upon using archival images of the areas in question, often from personal collections. Such images can aid with digital, and perhaps eventually physical, reconstructions. Some of the items that we have scanned as part of our thesis digitisation project, and that are now available on ERA (Edinburgh Research Archive, by ‘Abbū ,1973 and Al-Janābī 1975), also include images of buildings destroyed or damaged in past few years, not just in Syria but also in Iraq.

In the last year much media attention was given to those buildings and archaeological sites which date to the pre-Islamic era, such as Palmyra. However, many early Islamic structures and sites have also been subject to destruction, although these are often less well publicised. Furthermore due to the turbulent situation in the areas in question it can be rather difficult to ascertain if a building has been destroyed or when damage took place.

Although there may be little that can be done to prevent this destruction, we can ensure to properly look after and maintain documents relating to the artefacts in question and make them publicly available so that these can be used for digital reconstructions. This blog will focus, in particular, on those early-Islamic buildings destroyed in 2013/14 in Aleppo (Syria), Samarra (Iraq), and in Mosul (Iraq).

Fig. 23, Al-Janabi.

Mosul. Mausoleum of al-Imam Yayha ibn al-Qasim.

The two theses mentioned above and dating from the 1970’s, contain images of buildings in these areas: The Ayyubid domed buildings of Syria by ‘Ᾱdil N. ‘Abbū (1973) and Studies in Mediaeval Iraqi Architecture by Ṭāriq Jawād Al-Janābī (1975). Both theses present a catalogue of monuments. In the first the Ayyubid dynasty is examined over the period from AD 541-1260, focusing on the areas of Damascus and Aleppo. The second thesis covers the time period between the 6th and the 8th centuries AD and areas ranging from Baghdad, Wasit, Mosul, Al-Kifil, Kufa, Basra and Amadiya. The contents of the first chapter are wide ranging, reading: the Saljuq period, the Abbasid Caliphate during the 6th to 7th centuries A.H., the Atabikids of Iraq, the Mongol invasion and the Ilkhanid Period, the Jalairids.

Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

The types of monuments discussed in both works include: madrasas (koranic schools; some of these built at the request of the Sunni madhab),[2] turbas, mosques, ribats, minarets, palaces and mausolea.

Aleppo. Al-Madrasa al-Halawiya.

These works are so important for preserving the past because they include many good quality photographs, including of the type of minor decorative details that are difficult to reproduce accurately, such as wood and stucco windows and façades.[3]

Samarra. Mausoleum of Imam Dur.

Samarra. Mausoleum of Imam Dur.

Fig 171b (Al-Janabi)

Mosul. Mausoleum of Imam Bahir.








Mosul: mausoleum of Imam Bahir.

Mosul: mausoleum of Imam Bahir.

Fig 170a (Al-Janabi)

Mosul. Mausoleum of Imam Bahir.












To highlight the importance of these works a selection of photos from the theses are included, depicting buildings that are now damaged or destroyed. In Aleppo: the Al-Sultaniyeh mosque and the madrasa Al-Halawiyah. The Imam-al-Daur in Samarra. In Mosul: the masjid of al-Imam Ibrahim, the mausoleum of Imam Bahir, that of al-Immam Muhsin, the shrine of al-Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim, and that of al-Imam ‛Awn al-Din (known as Ibn al-Hasan).

Aleppo: the Al-Sultaniyeh Mosque

Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

Aleppo. Madrasa al Zahariyeh

Also known as the Al-Sultaniyah Madrasa, this 12th century building incorporates several rooms around the courtyard known as the Madrasaa al Zahariyeh. It was destroyed on December 7th 2014.[4]

Aleppo: the Madrasa Al-Halawiya

Aleppo. Al-Madrasa al-Halawiya.

This Byzantine cathedral became a madrasa (Koranic school) in the 13th century. Attempts were made in 2013 to protect one of the wooden niches dating from this time. However this work had to be abandoned due to the conflict in the area.[5] The building was damaged recently in the same incident that destroyed the great mosque, with which it shared grounds.[6]

Samarra: the Mausoleum of Imam al-Daur

Samarra: the mausoleum of Imam al-Daur

Samarra: the mausoleum of Imam al-Daur

Dating from 1085, this Shia shrine was destroyed in October 2014.[7]

Mosul: Masjid of al-Imam Ibrahim

Mosul. Masjid of al-Imam Ibrahim.

Mosul. Masjid of al-Imam Ibrahim.

This building now appears to be destroyed in satellite photography.[8]

Mosul: the Mosque and Shrine of al-Imam al-Bahir

Al-Janabi Fig. 172.

Mosul. Mosque of Imam Bahir.

This shrine was likely destroyed in September 2014.[9]

Mosul. Mausoleum of al-Imam al-Bahir

Mosul. Mausoleum of al-Imam al-Bahir

Mosul: the Mosque and Tomb of al-Imam Muhsin

Mosul. Mosque and tomb of al-Imam Muhsin (al-Madrasa al-Nuriya)

Mosul. Mosque and tomb of al-Imam Muhsin (al-Madrasa al-Nuriya)

Also known as the madrasa al-Nuriya, this 11th century site was likely destroyed between December 2014 and December 2015.[10]

Mosul: the Shrine of al-Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim

Mosul. Mausoleum of al-Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim

Mosul. Mausoleum of al-Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim

This 13th century Shia shrine located on the Tigris riverbank and was destroyed as of July 2014.[11]

Mosul: Shrine of al-Imam ‛Awn al-Din (known as Ibn al-Hasan)

Fig. 169b, Al Janabi.

Mosul. Mausoleum of Imam ‘Awn al-Din.

One of the few structures to survive the Mongol invasion of Iraq, this 13th century shrine was reportedly destroyed on the 25th of July 2014.[12]

While it is impossible to undo the damage wreaked in some of the most archaeologically rich parts of this world, and there is frustratingly little that can be done to reverse the far greater loss of human lives, it is perhaps a small comfort to know that in some way we may contribute to the future preservation and potential reconstruction (digital or otherwise) of important monuments that are now lost.

Bibliography and further information

‘Ᾱdil N. ‘Abbū (1973) The Ayyubid domed buildings of Syria, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Ṭāriq Jawād Al-Janābī (1975) Studies in Mediaeval Iraqi Architecture, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

UNESCO on the ancient city of Aleppo:

UNESCO on Iraq: and

Monuments of Mosul in danger:

Blue Shield Press on monuments in Syria and Iraq:

A recent conference was held at the University of Edinburgh on Syria (between the departments of History, Classics and Archaeology, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).


[1] Some recent examples of this work: and

[2] see Abbu (1993), p. ii.

[3] Al-Janabi, (1975) chapter VI; and Abbu (1973) sections 4, 5 and 8.

[4] and and


[6] and



[9] Current satellite image:

[10] Current satellite image and

[11] and and

[12] and and

PhD Theses Conservation

My name is Nicole and I am excited to be in my fourth week as the new digitisation project conservator working on conserving the PhD theses before digitisation. The PhDs I am working on range from 1750–1961 and are mostly bound. The volumes vary in size and material. The earlier volumes are bound in leather and hand written, while the later volumes are bound in book cloth and typed.

At present my time is split between two locations for conserving the PhDs: the Library Annex and the Main Library conservation studio.

So far I have mainly been working on the medical PhDs which include some beautiful and what must have been very time consuming drawings. The volumes also house many photographs and x-rays, including the x-ray of a shilling swallowed by a patient!

My current conservation work focuses on the volumes which had been flagged up by the survey carried out prior to my arrival. The treatments I have undertaken so far include surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot using Klucel G in IMS, inner joint repair to reattach loose or detached boards, minor paper repairs and reattaching damaged spines to volumes using a hollow made from archival paper.

Detached spine on bound volume

Detached spine on bound volume

The aim of the conservation work is to stabilise the volumes for digitisation and to ensure the text and imagery are visible. On occasion rehousing is needed, made out of archival board.

Thesis to be rehoused

Thesis to be rehoused

Keep an eye out for updates on this project!

Nicole Devereux, Projects Conservator

This blog was originally posted on the To Protect and (Con)serve blog of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections conservation studio: