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 (

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)

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:

Thesis scanning project: six months in!


Friday 28 October marked the end of the first quarter of the Library’s PhD digitisation project, with over 3,000 theses scanned to date.

After a challenging first few months, the project is now very much up to speed and the team have exceeded initial scanning and processing targets. At the end of the first quarter, 706 unique and 2,464 duplicate theses had been scanned, 29% and 27% respectively of the in-house target for the whole project. Added to this, several thousand theses are due to be outsourced, with options being explored for their digitisation.

The team has focussed on the twentieth century collection, which is largely typed (and therefore can be OCR-ed), A4 in size and single sided, although, as you will see from the team’s project posts to date, content and structure vary significantly. Following scanning and processing, the theses are uploaded to a bulk import section in ERA and then transferred to their relevant School by the Scholarly Communications team.

A few highlights since the project began:

  • We welcomed two new members to the team: Pete joined the digitisation team in August and Nicole began working as the Project Conservator earlier this month.
  • We purchased a second Kodak document scanner, allowing us to double the speed at which we are able to destructively scan duplicate theses. On just one day in September, 46 duplicate theses were scanned (still a team record)!
  • In August the team took on responsibility for the thesis scanning service, which allows readers to pay a fee for the completion of a rush order:
  • We have come across some very interesting and diverse images in the thesis collection, and hope to provide a small exhibition of these images in the main library in 2017. More details to follow!

If you would like to learn more about the project, or to arrange a tour of the set up, please do get in touch.

Gavin Willshaw | Digital Curator and PhD Digitisation Project Manager | | @gwillshaw

First batch of digitised theses available on ERA!

We are pleased to announce that the first batch of approximately 80 PhD theses is now available online through ERA, our online institutional repository!

The theses have initially been uploaded in a bulk import and will be redistributed by cataloguing staff to appropriate collections before the next upload in August.They all date from 1900 to the present day and include handwritten and typewritten PhDs; all typed theses have been OCR-ed and are searchable by keyword.

The collection covers a broad range of academic subjects, ranging from explorations of disease through to microbiology, chemistry and histories of the Middle East. Some of the most popular, and slightly unexpected, topics include:

We will continue to add more theses to the collection throughout the project – access them all at:

Meet the Project Digitisation team!

We’re now almost two month’s into the PhD thesis digitisation project. Find out a bit more about the project digitisation team below!

The Project Digitisation team: Michael Logan, Paul Choi, Fiona Mowat, Aoife O'Leary McNeice, Giulia Giganti

The Project Digitisation team: Michael, Paul, Fiona, Aoife , Giulia


I am Fiona Mowat and I have worked at Edinburgh University since 2009 in various different capacities, including as a Shelving Assistant and as a Rare Books Cataloguing intern. Having recently completed my PhD in Roman Art and Archaeology, I am keen to expand my knowledge in the fields of Library and Museum Collections and in particular Digitisation – this connects to my archaeological fieldwork experience and speciality in finds processing and imaging.

I love to catalogue and really enjoy enabling library users to discover material that they had no idea existed. It is great, in this role, to preserve other people’s PhD theses in an electronic form so that their research is discoverable and will continue to make a scholarly impact many years or decades on!


I studied English and History in University College Cork and later pursued a Master’s degree in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Society at the University of Edinburgh, from which I graduated last year. Throughout my studies I benefited hugely from digital collections, be it an eighteenth-century travel guide or a student magazine from the early twentieth century. During my studies I worked in different roles in different libraries, handling material as diverse as ephemera from the recent independence referendum to musical instrument mouthpieces.

The theses we are working with are equally diverse, ranging from polar exploration to potato tubers (a surprisingly popular topic), I am excited to be part of the team digitising this diverse and fascinating collection.


I have always (academically and professionally) worked closely with heritage and library collections. Before starting this post at here at the University, I worked at the National Galleries of Scotland as a digitisation assistant, seconded at the National Library of Scotland and volunteered for a variety of cultural organisations.

Digitisation gives you the unique opportunity to work with both the physical and digital items; it exposes you to the breadth, uniqueness and heterogeneity of the collection. I am looking forward to understanding what collections and artefacts, such as PhD theses, can tell us about, not only academic subjects, but also practices of the university, topic-trends and gender.

So far we have digitised all sorts of work, from thesis on the chemical qualities of potatoes to ones on the evolution of foot-binding in China. A particular favourite of mine is Raymond Mills’s ‘The Effect of Urbanisation on Health in Sierra Leone’ from 1962, as it contains maps and rare photographs of Sierra Leone’s landscape.


My name is Paul and this is my first post for the University of Edinburgh. Being a graduate from the University of Glasgow, my MSc was in Information Management and Preservation, which makes a snappy abbreviation of IMP. IMP is actually an Archives and Records Managements qualification, HATTI at the School of Humanities had the foresight a few years ago to include digital preservation into the course. This naturally involves many aspects of digitisation. Particularly relevant to this project was the 2D digitisation module.

Considering the move towards digitisation replacing traditional cataloguing work, or absorbing it, what is interesting is how Edinburgh University will utilise these digitisation workflows developed in this project for future work.


I’ve arrived at the Digitisation Project having spent six years within the University Library, working in various teams and on different projects in the Main Library and other sites. The project is different as rather than working with what’s already there, we’re seeing new technologies arrive and the job start to build around them.

PhD thesis digitisation project begins!

Stock take completed, equipment purchased and staff in place: the digitisation of the Library’s PhD thesis collection has begun!

In January 2016 we secured funding to complete the digitisation of the Library’s PhD thesis collection. 10,000 PhDs are already accessible through ERA, our online institutional repository, and this project will digitise the remaining 15,000, thereby making unique Edinburgh research available to all.

Since January we have undertaken a full inventory of the collection (a big thank you to Paul, Aaron, Laura, Aoife, Ruby, Michael, Gillian, Joanne, Marco, Christina, Lorna, Ralph and Danielle), bought scanning equipment, PCs and furniture, and transformed one side of the Library Annexe work room into a fully functioning mass digitisation workshop.


Stock take underway at the Main Library and Library Annexe

Perhaps most importantly, this Monday we welcomed Paul Choi, Fiona Mowat, Giulia Giganti, Aoife O’Leary McNeice and Michael Logan to the Projects & Innovations team as Project Digitisation Assistants. This new team will spend the next two years digitising the collection by scanning theses and performing a number of pre and post scan processes.

The collection dates from the early 1600s to the present day and includes theses of varying sizes, styles and formats. Duplicate theses will have their spines removed using an IDEAL 4705 Guillotine and will then be fed through the 100-page-per minute Kodak i4250 document scanner. These copies will be recycled, freeing up around 500 linear metres of storage space in the Main Library building.

Kodak i4250

Kodak i4250 document scanner

Unique theses will be scanned manually using a Copibook Cobalt flatbed scanner and any items in poor condition will receive conservation treatment.


Copibook Cobalt book scanners

Following scanning, digital images will undergo several post-processing procedures, such as de-skewing, cropping and de-blurring,and will also be OCR-ed to enable keyword searching. Fully processed files will be uploaded to ERA as searchable multipage PDFs.

We’ll be setting up a project blog and aim to provide regular updates – in the meantime, please contact if you have any further questions.