I graduated in English Literature but my degree was actually comprised of courses across various different disciplines, like English Language, Philosophy, Classics, and Theology. The marvellous way in which literature is woven with the threads of language, religion, and culture teaches us that we cannot separate our learning into self contained subjects but, instead, we must look at the bigger picture if we want to try and grasp meaning. I took the opportunity to study manuscripts, and various Old and Middle English texts in their manuscript versions, and the insight I gained was invaluable.

I learnt that how books were, and are, made is something we must consider if we really want to understand the life of the creator, the time in which they worked, and what that meant for the longevity and influence of the writing. You might not realise that elements such as the type of paper (or vellum) used, how the book was bound, the competence of the scribe, if the book was available to the public, and even the location of where the book was kept, could have so much to tell us today.

For example, vellum (or calf skin) was very expensive. That meant that only the wealthy could afford books and they were very precious. Scribes worked for months and even years on books, carefully writing and illuminated their pages by hand before the books were sewn – a huge difference compared to today’s high speed digital printing. And think again about having access to your own book to do with as you wish– some owners made their books available to the public, only to have the illustrations (or illuminations) cut out by admiring or enterprising viewers.

So much of that textual, cultural, social, and economic information would be lost without the tireless work of university libraries who cultivate these fantastic special collections.

You may have been lucky enough to attend University of Edinburgh’s Close-up on Collections event during Academic Book Week 2017.  But if you didn’t, I want to continue to reiterate the place of rare or ancient books, manuscripts and illuminations, and archives, in academic studies across all fields. These texts are not just examples of brilliant literature and art, but they are also academic books in their own right. They are handbooks which tell us how your social standing played a huge part in the commission of a book, they are autobiographies of aggrieved scribes, they are dictionaries of dialects that may otherwise be lost, and they are histories of how books and learning became available to as many people as possible.

The magic of special collections is not just an appreciation of the hard work of librarians, archivists, curators, and restorers, nor is it the preservation of texts for the present and the future, and neither is it is the chance to experience the past, held in your own hands, and seen with your own eyes. The best bit about special collections is that they are for everyone. And I urge everyone to use them.

You never know what you might discover.

Edinburgh Napier University:

University of Edinburgh:

University of Glasgow:

University of St. Andrews:

University of Dundee:

University of Aberdeen:

These are the links to just a few of the special collections in universities across Scotland. There are many others, across other institutions, nationwide. Alternatively, you can also speak to your local library or find out more via museum facsimilies such as those at The Folio Society and The British Museum.

Photo from The National Geographic Magazine

Article by: @publishstudent