The Magic of Special Collections


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

#AcBookWeek – Building Buzz about our Books

Forget prestige, or some desire to add to the world’s depository of knowledge: the thrumming motor beneath most academic endeavour is an enthusiasm so ardent it might be called obsession. We know our subjects so well that we realise how little we truly know about them, but that only encourages us to research more. Even when it’s a living, academia is a calling.

Liking things a lot is quite the desirable trait these days. The 21st century has seen the inexorable rise of the fan in every cultural sphere. It is now difficult to imagine trade publishing without the excitable ecosystem of bloggers generating an abundance of free publicity, for the pure love of the book. So where are the academic book bloggers? I want to see excitement about these books. I want GIF-laden reviews of A Brief History of Time and Gender Trouble. Personally, I could extoll the virtues of Ronald Hutton’s work to anybody, with as much enthusiasm as I might recommend a favourite novel. Admittedly, there are many factors that might put off the “casual” potential reader of an academic book, especially those around accessibility and the perception that the text is not “for” them. But if we return for a minute to that idea of producing books for the good of mankind, to expand our horizons: what good does it do to promote that learning only to the academy?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference on Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore at the University of Edinburgh. I listened to dozens of fascinating speakers giving papers on Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and other dry and obscure topics. The atmosphere was great: smart, passionate people engaging with academia in a lively, accessible way. There was a hashtag. There was buzz. And the whole thing was free and open to the public.

In an age of instantly available information overload, the curatorial is becoming more valuable than ever. Skimming a Wikipedia article, or reading the first page of Google results simply does not give the reader the same value as a text written by somebody who has dedicated a significant part of their career to understanding the nuances and context of their subject. Academic books can be vital, fascinating, and even fun.

During Academic Book Week, I suggest we try to harness that feeling, and look outside of the traditional audience for these books. As publishers, we have a responsibility to disseminate information, and if we can make sure it is accessible to those outside the academic environment, we should. After all, we want our books to be read.


Students’ Experiences with Academic Books: Two Perspectives

While researching topics for our Academic Book Week blog post, we ended up chatting about our own experiences buying and reading academic books during our University careers. We decided to write a wee section each, showcasing our individual perspectives on being a student and the future of the academic book.

Claire’s Perspective

Anyone who has gone on to further education will remember their first trip to the university bookshop with the entire course reading list, and the slow walk home with a full bag and a less-full bank account. Although I don’t look back fondly on this initial process, it did teach me something: That academic books are highly personable; and it’s worth it when you find something that clicks.

This for me was Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation, as part of a Scottish History module. This book features in Academic Book Week 2017’s 20 Academic Books That Shaped Modern Britain. This book talked me through Scottish history like a novel. It was great to read and made the statistics that I would normally naturally gloss over relevant. I still pick it up to read every now and again. The amount of research behind this book, like millions of others, is intimidating.

And I do think that the academic book world can be intimidating. As a publishing student now it is interesting to see the argument that this industry is on the decline, with huge digital access to books and calls for open access. However, as students, we are also being taught that this is an extremely innovative industry to work in, and that we must be at the forefront of that innovation – this is how academic publishing will survive. However there will also be those books that do shape how we see academic books. Devine gets my vote!

Rebecca’s Perspective

The publishing landscape is in a constant state of flux. This influences all types of books, from the paperback bestseller to the thickest academic tome.

Technology is, as always, a crucial factor. Due to open access policies and increased digitalisation, students are often able to access journals, as well as their set texts in eBook format, freely.

Cost is also influential. As an Undergraduate, I studied English Literature, and budgeted to afford the novels, plays and poetry collections that made up my course reading lists as I prefer reading print, like to scribble in the margins, and enjoy collecting books in general. For a textbook I’d only use for one essay, however, I’d opt for checking it out of the University library. Someone with different reading tastes than me might consider reading the majority of texts online, however.

Personally, I think that while digital innovations are good, and necessary, there will always be students like me who prefer the hard copies. I believe they can be a good investment. During my first year, I remember splashing out on the Norton Anthology of English Literature Volumes I & II, as well as the Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. I did end up using them throughout my entire time at University, however, as they are bursting with vital texts from the entire literary canon. It was also probably cheaper to purchase the anthologies, rather buying every individual text I used. Incidentally, it is W. W. Norton & Company’s best-selling anthology.

So, I think that while there are constant shifts in the way books are being published, the printed academic book will always have a place on the shelf.

#AcBookWeek – Future Partnerships in Academic Publishing


interior_view_of_stockholm_public_libraryBy Marcus Hansson under CC by 2.0

Until the 28th of January, Academic Book Week 2017 is celebrating the “diversity, innovation and influence of academic books”.

The week-long celebration has sparked discussions about the future of academic publishing, the question of open access and the possibilities of digital in scholarly publishing. As students, Academic Book Week is also causing us to reflect on our experience with academia, as well as on the value of academic libraries and resources. The latter have not only been crucial to our academic learning and achievements, but have also introduced us to groundbreaking theories and new ways of thinking.

When scouring through articles relating to Academic Book Week, one stood out as particularly informative to us future publishers. In a recent article, Christina Kamposiori from Research Libraries UK presented the views of five university librarians on the future of the academic book. We have identified a key point which we believe is relevant to those considering a career in academic publishing – including us!  

“The lines between author, publisher, bookseller and librarian may become blurred as we explore the potential for new and innovative partnerships.”

Librarians are about to become a lot more involved in the publishing process, participating in the design of academic resources and creation of content.

The digital revolution is presenting users with new ways of accessing academic content (eg. online journals, videos, and even social media). In order to provide these users with a wider array of formats, new forms of collaboration between all the actors of the academic publishing chain are likely to take place. The forging of closer partnerships may be further fostered by the increase in the number of university presses. Meanwhile, librarians have a valuable role in supporting authors during their research and providing advice. Such communication and collaboration is key in tackling the challenges academic publishing may face and in ensuring the sector stays innovative and relevant to tomorrow’s users.

Academic Book Week has brought to our attention the current issues and debates surrounding the academic book. As MSc Publishing students, we are looking forward to becoming actively involved in these discussions.

  • Make sure to read more on this issue here (Christina Kamposiori, Five Librarians Discuss the Future of the Academic Book British Academy Review)
  • Find out about Academic Book Week by clicking here
  • Head here to find out more about Merchiston Publishing’s latest publication, Innovations in Learning and Teaching

Claire & Alice

Partnership with Blackwell’s Bookshop!

To celebrate Academic Book Week 2017, we have partnered with Blackwell’s Bookshop to blog, tweet and generally make a noise about academic publishing from Edinburgh, Scotland!

Blackwell’s Bookshop on South Bridge is the oldest bookshop in Edinburgh and currently has over 250,000 titles in stock ranging from Scottish Fiction to Medical.

Blackwell’s is already an ally of ours. Jaki (Academic Manager) and Ann (Events & Connect Manager) are frequently on campus, not just selling course books, but actively working with the MSc Publishing programme team to enhance the skills of our Publishing postgrads, and show them what it really means to Publish. A. Book. That. Will. Sell!

So, all this week we will be shouting about the great academic books published and sold here in Scotland including, of course, our own recent publication: Innovations in Learning and Teaching, edited by Christine Penman and Dr Monika Foster, and now on sale in – you guessed it – Blackwell’s, Edinburgh!

Find out more about Innovations in Learning and Teaching

Find out more about Academic Book Week:

Discover Blackwell’s Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YS