Why Should YOU Visit The Archives?

One of the underappreciated perks of attending a university like Edinburgh is the impressive collections in its archives that allow us a glimpse into the past, and to physically engage with historic materials. However, in our age of the internet, research can be conducted solely online; more and more, a student’s only reason to visit the library, let alone the archives, is for the study spaces or IT support. In the face of this, we must ask ourselves if we are losing a vital part of our research when we ignore physical, historical documents in lieu of their scans and transcriptions. 

One of the underappreciated perks of attending a university like Edinburgh is the impressive collections in its archives that allow us a glimpse into the past, and to physically engage with historic materials. However, in our age of the internet, research can be conducted solely online; more and more, a student’s only reason to visit the library, let alone the archives, is for the study spaces or IT support. In the face of this, we must ask ourselves if we are losing a vital part of our research when we ignore physical, historical documents in lieu of their scans and transcriptions. 

Approaching The Past

When we are studying history, it is easy to forget the humanity of the subjects we are researching. One of the most simple, but perhaps the most profound benefits of interacting with the physical material is to touch what they touched, see the intricate details of their handwriting, and what that may tell us about who they were. 

Different materials on which historical texts have been written

 Even the material that a text is printed or written on may tell us something important, like if the document was meant to last, to be a private communication, or a hastily-jotted note. Even the way a piece is bound, or it’s lack of binding, can give us insight into what it was intended for, how it was viewed, and how it was meant to be experienced. All this valuable insight and context is lost through digital media. 

Bindings And Presentation 

Experiencing a written work as it was meant, by the author, to be experienced, is an important consideration that is too often overlooked. Much like how a play is differently experienced on the stage versus when read, experiencing a text as it was meant to be experienced may provide different insights that would otherwise be lost. 

An impressive example of dos-à-dos binding courtesy of the National LIbrary of Sweden via Flickr

Speaking from my own expertise, as an avid collector of Victor Hugo, it is interesting to note that the first French edition of Les Misérables was originally published in ten volumes. However, if you go to buy yourself a first edition today, you might be surprised to find that many of them have magically turned into five volume sets. How has this happened? It was frequently re-bound with utmost care into new gilt, leather spines and marbled covers. By examining this disparity in the age of the paper versus the age of the covers, we can surmise that these copies are highly regarded, and the text itself holds cultural significance, as so many people have gone to the trouble of preserving them through the years.

A rebinding I did of a 1960s edition of Les Misérables

Les Misérables is also a great example of how reader reception is reflected in material culture through just how many beautiful variant copies have been produced across the centuries and the world. If one was to simply look at the text online, instead of visiting the library or archive, they would miss out on just how many vastly different and beautifully-crafted editions have been produced. This, too, can tell us about how the text itself was regarded, as well as alterations in the binding to highlight certain aspects of the text — for example, certain imagery, colours, materials, etc. 

Secrets In The Details 

The examination of physical documents has also led to incredible breakthroughs. The Archimedes Palimpsest is perhaps one of the best known examples of this. A Byzantine prayer book from the 13th century was found to have been written atop an earlier copy of the work of Archimedes, which had been scraped from the parchment to make way for the prayer book. In 1906, a scholar realised that the barely-visible treatise beneath the prayers were the work of Archimedes, meaning that the parchment has originally been a 10th Century copy of his work, making it the oldest surviving copy of the work of Archimedes. This realisation was made before the use of technology, meaning that the most important thing is not technology, but the close examination of the document by a researcher.

The Archimedes Palimpsest

The Rare And Unpublished 

Without the close engagement with these physical texts, these important discoveries would never be made. One may get lucky and find a digitised version of a manuscript with high resolution that allows them a close look but, more often than not, archives are home to texts that simply are not available anywhere else. They house the rare and the unpublished, making them an absolutely invaluable resource to researchers. A visit to the archives can expand your research into areas you may have never expected, simply through the exposure to materials that are not otherwise available. This is especially true of documents that are local to an archive. A great example of this is Edinburgh University’s extensive collection of documents relating to alumni, theses from the university, Edinburgh, and Scotland at large. The university boasts a prestigious list of past students, and not all of the student records are available online. This means that there is much to be discovered in the archives yet, pertaining to many important figures in history, and even the lesser known students who equally have something to teach us from the past. 

Notes from a lecture by Joseph Black in the University of Edinburgh archives

We Shouldn’t Leave The Past In The Past 

Ultimately, there is nothing quite like a visit to the archives to help one come face to face with what they are studying. There is no better way to approach figures of the past than to touch the very paper in which they inscribed their thoughts, experiences, and stories. The many iterations of bound texts tell us so much about how they were received, and their cultural importance. These texts also hold secrets, too, that are lost in transcriptions that strip away their physical form. The archives contain all of this and more, which is why, in the age of the internet, we must not forget the importance of being hands-on with our research, and continuing to utilise these vital institutions. 

Written by Andie Saint-Rouge.

Image links:

Papyrus; Vellum/Parchment; Paper; The Archimedes Palimpsest; Dos-à-dos binding; Notes from a lecture by Joseph Black

A Summary of the University Histories Internship 

Six Interns just finished up a 6-month internship at the Centre for Research Collections: Here’s what they were up to.

Our People’s History 

At the end of July 2020, six interns were hired by the Centre for Research Collections to uncover narratives of some under-represented student life from archival resources.  

These interns worked over the next five months, delving deep into both digitised and on-site records that are held by the University. They trawled through online databases; University Calendars; matriculation data; websites; newspapers; maps and lists of monuments/statues. Many complimented this research with records held at both the National Library of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland. 

The three interns working on Project One began researching links between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the city of Edinburgh, as well as wider colonial activities.  The other three interns (projects two and three) jumped into evidence of historical student life, minority groups and hidden communities. 

The project aimed to create several spreadsheets of metadata based on the research being undertaken. With a deeper understanding of what was available in the Collections and records, (and a written format compatible with online databases such as ArchivesSpace), the CRC can now make this research/data more accessible to the wider student and academic community.  

The topics that the interns were grappling with have received a great deal of media attention in recent months and with the discourse becoming louder and more prominent in our day to day lives, the student community at the University of Edinburgh has expressed great interest in learning more about the individuals who were historically associated with the institution and who have previously been underrepresented. Archivists across the world dedicate their research and careers to protecting and preserving the lives of people, their cultures; histories; heritage; customs and objects of significance. It is amazing to see funding available to allow these interns to temporarily join the Centre for Research Collections and shine a light on some of the treasures and information held within it. It will be equally exciting to see how this project develops and expands beyond these internships over the next few years. 

Project One was connected to a wider City Council review which has been systematically identifying places and objects in the city which are associated with slavery and colonialism. The interns were able to detail the archival evidence available at the University associated with these street names, buildings, monuments and statues. 

Project Two and Three focused on the lived student experience for alumni who have diverse backgrounds – in a nutshell, these interns were attempting to find the individual behind a name; a matriculation number or a newspaper article. International; female; BAME and LGBTQIA+ students were prioritised.  

The first steps taken to investigate what data may or may not be available in a vast collection – or indeed, the beginning of a search to uncover groups and narratives specifically because they have previously been hidden – can be a challenging, daunting process at first, but it was so rewarding for the six interns who took part. All found their own rabbit holes to dive into as well as the stories and/or individuals who will stick in their minds for years to come. 

Keep and eye on VOiCE social media and the ‘We’ve Got History Between Us’ podcast, as we’ll be talking to these six interns in greater detail in the coming weeks. 

Are you interested in volunteering with the CRC? 

You can keep an eye on the volunteering page here and opportunities are often posted on the CRC social media as well. With the link above you’ll find a mailing list and enquiry form or keep an eye out for the PDF list of opportunities available in the new year.  

At the start of this academic year volunteers were taken on by uCreate; St Cecilia’s Hall; the VOiCE Team; the Scottish Studies Archive and New College. Who knows what might be round the corner. 

We’d love to see you get involved. 

Are you interesting in interning with the CRC? 

Similar to volunteering with the CRC, we recommend keeping an eye on the CRC social media regarding job postings. Announcements will be made when interns are being hired with instructions on how to apply.  

In May 2021, the CRC took on a record number of Summer Interns alongside the Information Services Group, and many of these internships focused on employing matriculated students. With this in mind, the internships normally happen in between the academic year so as not to disrupt studies and deadlines. For future reference, these positions are typically posted on the Unitemps website. 

Written by Lily Mellon 

Welcome to the Centre for Research Collections 

The warmest of welcomes from everyone at VOiCE and everyone at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) – especially to the new and returning students as the next academic year kicks off.  This article is a little refresher for those returning to the CRC and a comprehensive introduction for those who are joining us for the first time!

The warmest of welcomes from everyone at VOiCE and everyone at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) – especially to the new and returning students as the next academic year kicks off. 

The Centre for Research Collections encapsulates all the University’s special collections and museums, sitting within the ‘Library and University Collections’ section of the Information Services Group. It’s where you’d head to see rare books; manuscripts; archival documents; the art collection and their historical musical instruments.  

Managementconservation and visitor access to all these collections are based on the sixth floor of the Main Library (George Square campus), with many branches and associated institutions making up parts of a larger institution (for example, think St Cecilia’s Hall; The Scottish Studies Archive; the Digital Imaging Service and the Lothian Health Services Archive). You can search a great deal of the material online

The CRC often supports teaching and research with the collections, so you might be lucky enough to end up there for a lecture. Alternatively, do you want to find a historical figure or locate a family member who was associated at one time with the University? The CRC Reading Room is the place to start.

Accessing the CRC 

As COVID-19 restrictions have eased, access to the CRC has returned.  

At present, sources can be viewed in the Reading Room Tuesday-Friday, 10am till 4pm (with later closing times on Tuesday and Wednesday).  Additionally, a silver lining of COVID-19 has been virtual access to these collections (on Mondays). Both Virtual and on-site access is by appointment only. Try to get in touch with the CRC a week in advance to make sure that sources can be brought out of storage in time for you to work with them.

Follow the Centre for Research Collections on social media and you’ll be able to keep up with all the new events, exhibitions, blog posts and announcements. For example, check out the collecting COVID-19 initiative, the Walter Scott Exhibition (for the 250th anniversary) and at the end of August 2021, the University of Edinburgh Museums launched their month long #welcomewow campaign. This aimed to raise some greater awareness of the collections and services available to be explored.  

You can still work through their amazing back catalogue of selected objects and stories highlighting some hidden gems available on your doorstep. 

Want to get involved in all things Library and Museums on a weekly basis? Want to stay up to date with CRC events AND get to know people in the wider community? Want to do this all for free!? Then after you’ve checked all the #welcomewow objects, you should consider attending weekly events from Prescribe Culture. 

Prescribe Culture  

Prescribe Culture is open to everyone and is a growing social prescribing/mental health initiative. Their #T30TV (Take 30 Together Virtual) series started in May 2020 to promote community, access, social connection and non-clinical support for mental well-being during COVID-19 restrictions. Despite an easing of restrictions, T30TV is still meeting every week to “visit”, engage and interact with heritage organisations across the globe and in July 2021,Prescribe won the Arts and Culture category of the tech4good award.  

Prescribe Culture is run by Ruthanne Baxter, the Museums Services Manager at the University. Last month, she took the members on an amazing variety of experiences fromprevalent superstitions in the Highlands/Islands to stories of the Dunkirk “little ship”. Virtual meetings also allow the group to travel far and wide but from the comfort of their own homes, so at the end of the month a trip to Museum Fallero in Valencia was possible. The remaining September event came from a prescribe culture member and St Cecilia’s Hallvolunteer. Having already completing an intriguing project on Phoebe Anna Traquair back in March 2021, the volunteer presented information on their investigation into slave trade profits and the building of Saint Cecilia’s Hall. Next month you could join Prescribe for book club; a return to Valencia; a heritage share and a visit to the family home of Winston Churchill. 

Prescribe meets every Wednesday and Friday (normally 1-2pm) over Microsoft Teams.Check out more about the initiative here including a link to sign up to the mailing list! 

Written by Lily Mellon.

Virtual consultations at the Centre for Research Collections

Virtual consultation appointments are now offered by the Centre for Research Collections as an alternative to viewing archive material in-person in the CRC reading room. This service offers an accessible and inclusive way to explore the collections for new users looking to gain an insight into working with archives.

Special collections archives often seem exclusive to experienced professionals in academia and heritage and closed to people outside of these traditional groups, in particular to young people. The CRC’s virtual consultation sessions with the User Services Team open up the University archives and reduce the traditional barriers to accessibility, which often prevent more people from making use of the diverse collections first-hand. These sessions have introduced me to the collections and allowed me to consult material for my own research project over the summer break, whilst I am away from Edinburgh, and gain valuable confidence and experience in working with archives.  

The simple process of finding, requesting and consulting material from the CRC in a virtual session, whether for academic projects or general interest, eliminates the ‘mystery’ of using archives and opens up the resources for all to use. The ArchivesSpace and CRC online resources allow users to discover and search the collections, ranging from medieval manuscripts to the Lothian Health Services archives, and should be the starting point for any research inquiry (https://archives.collections.ed.ac.uk/ and https://collections.ed.ac.uk/). The collection overviews and organisation tabs hold the details of the specific items and documents in each collection, and here you can find the collection, name and identifier needed to request material.  

To request your chosen material and arrange a virtual consultation with the User Services team, email the CRC at is-crc@ed.ac.uk.* The virtual sessions are held over Teams, using a high-quality camera to capture a digital image of the primary material. A CRC staff member collects and handles the material and camera, acting as your ‘hands’ in the reading room in turning pages, zooming in and out and taking pictures. Whilst there are of course many benefits to consulting material and taking pictures in-person, the ability to screenshot and keep a digitised record of the primary material through the online sessions is a really valuable additional method of research, especially at this current time.  

These virtual sessions have made possible my own research project with the CRC, by providing a thorough introduction to the type of work involved in special collections, both as a service user and provider. I am currently researching the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women collection to learn about the women who first campaigned to study at and graduate from the University. In these sessions, I have looked at class register books for the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association classes, correspondence between Association members and university staff, photographs of early female students and annual reports of the Association. None of the documents within this collection have yet been digitised or made available online, and the ability to consult the contemporary sources via the CRC service has been essential to my research into this important period of modern women’s history, and the history of the University itself. 

Whilst people may prefer to consult material in person when we return to normal life post-covid, the ability to access the collections virtually and without geographical and accessibility barriers really makes the case for the virtual sessions to remain a service offered by the CRC. Beyond allowing researchers outside of Edinburgh to consult the non-digitised material, the online and accessible appointments and resources open the door for new groups to discover the collections. The CRC archives hold such diverse collections across all disciplines, and it is so important for younger people and students at Edinburgh to have the confidence to access and make use of these brilliant resources. The support and advice offered by the experienced staff members at hand ensure that these virtual sessions are a great and informative entry point to new users in gaining experience and confidence in researching collections.  

* Please note, requests should be limited to six volumes at a time and give seven days advance notice for the CRC staff to find and gather your material. 

Written by Milly Giles 

Meet the VOiCE 2020-2021 Team!

Hi everyone! We here at VOiCE are incredibly excited to get our first newsletter sent out and wanted to kick things off by introducing ourselves a little. So without further ado, and in no particular order:

lily, a young woman with short hair

Lily is currently undertaking a Masters by Research in Scottish Ethnology. Ethnology focuses on identity; traditional practices; community; belief systems; heritage; oral testimony and is connected with the Scottish Studies Archives in George Square. For her research, Lily is interviewing people about their experience of working-from-home during COVID restrictions and how this may have altered their relationship with domestic space. Being a part of VOiCE means that Lily gets to work closely with the Collections and Archives despite the COVID disruption and is excited to work on all the content creation that VOiCE is planning. Lily is based at the Edinburgh waterfront, drinks too much tea and doubled her board game collection during the March lockdown.

tess, a young woman with long hair and big smile

Tess is currently a fourth year English Literature and Classics student at the University of Edinburgh, but she originally hails from the sunny island of Singapore. She is borderline obsessed with fantasy and science fiction literature, and is focusing on the way mythology is used in modern fantasy literature for her dissertation. She is also a big fan of ancient Greek Art and Archaeology, especially from the Hellenistic era. With regards to her museum interests, Tess is passionate about the decolonisation of museum spaces as well as creating new ways in which the public can interact with exhibits that encapsulate inclusivity and celebrate all cultures. Working with VOiCE has given Tess the chance to work in Collections engagement and outreach, despite the current COVID-19 situation. She is especially excited for the upcoming podcast and creating an online presence for VOiCE. Tess is located in Central Edinburgh, and spends most of her time trying to hit her 2021 reading goal of 100 books and drinking Proper Hot Chocolates from Uplands Roast.

evie, a young woman with long hair and big smile

Evie recently graduated from Durham University with a Masters in International Cultural Heritage Management, having previously studied History at the University of St Andrews. She has volunteered at several museums and heritage sites in Scotland, including the National Museum of Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum and the Georgian House. Evie is fascinated by anything antique or obsolete and is particularly interested in the debate around restitution and repatriation in the heritage sector. Contributing to VOiCE enables her to pursue her love of research and collaborate with likeminded people. She lives in Edinburgh and in her spare time enjoys painting furniture, playing the clarinet and going on long walks.

catherine, a young woman with long hair and smile

Following her graduation from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in History, and a subsequent traineeship at the National Records of Scotland, this year Catherine began a Masters in Information Management and Preservation at the University of Glasgow. Alongside her current studies, she works part time as a Library and Information Services Assistant at Heriot Watt University, while working on a number of voluntary projects, including contributing to the work of the VOiCE team. She is looking forward to the collaborative process of producing exciting VOiCE content, with the hope that it will aid effective outreach and engagement relating to the University’s collections and services. It will also be a great opportunity to further explore some of her relevant interests, which encompass all things information and collections management. Catherine lives in Glasgow and over the various lockdowns has enjoyed going walking and cycling, working on cross stitch projects, and completing numerous jigsaw puzzles.

martha, a young woman with long hair and big smile

Martha is a third year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh. She loves the work of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, and has recently discovered her obsession for Elizabeth Bishop. She was excited to be taken on as a volunteer for VOiCE since an elective course at the University led her to find out about the world of collections, curation and museum management. She is keen to improve the connection and dialogue between the University Collections and the student body through her volunteer role. In the future, Martha would like to try her skills in researching for and developing exhibitions.

connor, a young man

Connor is a 2nd year History and Archaeology student at the University of Edinburgh; his interests include Interwar queer history, forensic archaeology, and trawling through genealogical archives. Volunteering in his teens – as a National Trust Room Guide – led him to realise that hey, actually, getting to share interesting Collections knowledge with the public is really fulfilling! and he hopes to volunteer physically in museums again in the future. Working on the VOiCE team has him excited to pursue his love of research in the collections and develop engaging social media content to share, such as the VOiCE blog, and any hidden gems from the Student newspaper archive. In his spare time, Connor enjoys tattooing his own legs, collecting cool rocks, and watching old westerns with a mug of chilli chai.

daisy, a young woman with long hair and big smile

Daisy is a recent History graduate from the University of Edinburgh and a current Masters by Research student. She is fascinated by 20th century US history, particularly the intersection of culture and politics during the ‘tumultuous decade’ of the 1960s. Alongside her studies, Daisy works part time as a Student Helpline Assistant for the Information Services Group at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Copy Editor and Committee Member of the History, Classic and Archaeology Retrospect Journal, peer-reviewing academic articles on a weekly basis. Contributing to VOiCE offers the opportunity to explore the modes of historical dissemination, which Daisy is eager to engage in. She considers herself a Bob Dylan aficionado and as a lover of music, looks forward to the return of live concerts.


Hello and welcome to the newsletter! As a general introduction, we thought it might be helpful to run through a few things FAQ style in order to clarify the scope and purpose of the newsletter, as well as the areas of the University on which it focuses.

[NOTE: This information pertains to both the new VOiCE newsletter and the blog that you’re currently reading! Each month, all newsletter content will be posted here, as well as any extra bits and pieces that we couldn’t fit.

The best way to keep up to date is by signing up to the newsletter here, which will send it straight to your inbox. You can follow this blog too by hitting the “follow” button at the bottom of this page; and be sure to check our VOiCE social media accounts to see content posted by us here at the newsletter team!]

Whilst the emphasis here is on the overarching service of the CRC, in future issues we’ll be looking at specific areas of the service, so watch this space to find out more! Without further delay…

What is the CRC? 

The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) is made up of the University’s Special Collections and Museums, including rare books, manuscripts, archives, art and historical musical instruments. It encompasses everything relating to the University’s unique and significant collections, including management and access. 

What does the CRC do? 

Fundamentally, the purpose of the service is to preserve, promote and provide access to the University’s collections. Activities that contribute to this mission include assisting with enquiries, conservation, academic and community engagement, acquisitions, digital imaging, collaborative projects, cataloguing and licensing, exhibitions, research, support and training.  

What types of collections are held by the CRC? 

At an overarching level, the University’s Collections fall into the categories of rare books and manuscripts, archives, art, digital archives and preservation, the musical instrument collection, the Lothian Health Service Archive, and images produced by the Digital Imaging Unit. More information about each of these can be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/crc/collections 

Where is the CRC? 

As part of the Library and University Collections area of the University’s Information Services branch, the CRC is located on the 6th floor of the University of Edinburgh Main Library.  

Who can access the CRC’s services? 

Usually, staff, students, researchers and members of the public can use the collections held by the CRC. If you are not a member of the University with existing access to the Library, you can normally register as a reference reader. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting limitations surrounding access, new membership is currently being limited. Updated information on joining the Library can be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/using-library/join-the-library/members-public 

In what other ways has COVID-19 impacted the CRC? 

The CRC has also introduced additional restrictions during this time. Details regarding visitation can be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/cultural-heritage-collections/crc 

Where can I find more information relating to the CRC? 

Firstly, the website is regularly updated and hosts a vast amount of information. It can be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/cultural-heritage-collections/crc

Secondly, the service has a range of social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, details of which can be found here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/crc/content-for-reuse/crc-on-social-media.

 Additionally, the Library and University Collections Blog provides insights into collections, projects, services and exhibitions. This can be found here: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/index/.

Finally, (and most importantly) our hope is that this newsletter (and blog!) will provide a space for communication relating to the operation of the CRC, its relevance, projects, updates and services, so stay tuned! 

Written by Catherine Alexander

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