On 27th of October, in a session organised by the Centre for the History of the Book, James Hamilton, the Research Principal of the WS Society, introduced David Laing and his history as the Principal Librarian of the Signet Library. With a strong background in the book trade and bibliography, Laing was already a leading figure in Edinburgh’s intellectual elite as a member of the Bannatyne Club and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. After his attempt, and subsequent failure, to become Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, Laing accepted a role as the Principal Librarian of the Signet Library, employed by the Society of Writers of the Signet. His appointment set a precedent in the Society history – never before had a non-lawyer been employed to manage their collections. It would set Laing on the collision course that followed and open the door towards the controversy and conflicts that followed him in his later years. His career and its impact on the Signet Library opens up a lot of questions regarding the past, present and future role of the librarian and how it could affect the way we, as scholars of materiality, “read” a library and its collections.
On the 13th of October, Sam Riviere, former Poet-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh, presented his work as the editor of If a Leaf Falls Press, a micropublishing house working with found and appropriated materials. Fittingly, the name If a Leaf Falls is itself an appropriation of a Lil Wayne lyric (the full lyric, from 2011’s “The Motto,” reads “And if a leaf fall, put some weed on that bitch”) which has come into modern Twitter parlance as a way of referring to something insignificant that is blown out of proportion. With the addition of “Press,” Riviere hopes also to evoke images of pressing a leaf, thereby preserving something that would have otherwise been fleeting.
Back in January, my partners and I sent around a survey to the postgraduate students in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures to see what the student community knew about the digital materials they were using. As it turned out, while an overwhelming number of the respondents said that they used digital materials, an underwhelming number knew anything about the process of digitisation and how digital materials come to be maintained by the library. Over the past few weeks, we’ve researched digitisation and put out some blog posts to explain some of the finer points of the process, and a short video is forthcoming.
Have you ever lost parts of your life (e.g. photos, documents, essays, etc.) because your computer let out its last sigh and shut down, not giving you a chance to save your work and memories – or to at least say goodbye? If not, either you are unbelievably lucky, or thoughtful enough to have taken preventive measures to avoid this heartbreaking experience. If you have got burnt once or twice, you probably eventually acquired the habit of zealously protecting your files by backing them up on several devices and online platforms. As computers entered our daily lives over the past few decades, most regular computer users developed strategies to safeguard their digital records from the whims of chance. Fewer are aware, however, of two other threats – the processes of decay and obsolescence.
There are many reasons why digital surrogates for physical items are made. Some digitisation projects, like the PhD. thesis digitisation project being undertaken by the University of Edinburgh, represent a sustained effort to create a focused collection of digitised materials designed for long-term access and regular use. Certain digitisation work involves the creation of digital surrogates of items specifically requested by staff or students. The team at the Digital Imaging Unit (DIU) are constantly processing requests like these, all of which require specialist skills, equipment, and a significant investment of time and money. Often digitisation is undertaken as a way of promoting heritage collections. The University of Edinburgh, and all institutions with printed and digital collections, hold items which are central to their identity. For example, the digitised iconic collections of the University of Edinburgh include Sir Isaac Newton’s diagrams in a David Gregory manuscript, an Aberdeen Breviary, and collection of Robert Burns poetry manuscripts. These items possess significant historic, cultural, and research significance, and their digital surrogates aid in building an international academic identity. In addition to cultivating an academic ‘brand’, The University of Edinburgh is constantly expanding its electronic resources through a series of ongoing digitisation efforts aimed at preserving, sustaining, protecting, and integrating the collections.