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Scanning history

Since May 2016, the University Library has been working on its largest ever digitisation project to make available online its entire collection of 27,000 historical PhDs. With the project aiming to have every thesis online by the end of 2018, we take a look at the progress made so far.

A photo of a blizzard taken during the early days of Antarctic exploration
A photo of a blizzard taken during the early days of Antarctic exploration, from 'Eosinphils and Stress' by H.W. Simpson (1959)

To undertake this work, a digitisation unit has been created at the University Collections Facility at South Gyle, with a team of staff scanning, processing and making the digitised collection available online and open-access on the Edinburgh Research Archive, which is the library’s institutional repository.

Crucially, all typed and printed PhDs are processed using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, meaning the completed PDF files are keyword searchable.

To date, over 4,500 theses have been scanned, the majority of which are from the 20th century period. But the collection spans 400 years from the early 17th century to the present day, so we are really looking at the work of students throughout most of the University’s history.

Gavin WillshawDigital Curator

Incredible images

The apparent conformity of the black, A4 bound volumes hides a diversity of fascinating images and ideas.

Since starting the project, the team has come across incredible pictures of now-destroyed buildings in cities such as Aleppo, Palmyra and Baghdad; stumbled across rich and vibrant photographs from India in the 1980s; and unearthed evocative scenes of blizzards and the fight for survival during the early years of exploration in Antarctica.

These findings and many more are being documented in the project blog.

Read the project blog

Notable alumni

Isabel Emslie Hutton on a Serbian postage stamp
Isabel Emslie Hutton on a Serbian postage stamp

The team has also found PhDs by a number of alumni who have gone on to become famous authors, politicians and scientists, and to contribute greatly to their areas of expertise. As well as the PhDs of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and author Alexander McCall Smith, the project has also unearthed fascinating but lesser-known research and stories. This includes that of Isabel Emslie Hutton, a pioneering Scottish doctor whose work in Serbia during the First World War is so highly regarded that the country honoured her with an official stamp in 2015.

Your thoughts

If you are an author of a PhD thesis from the University of Edinburgh, we would like to hear your thoughts about the online availability of your work. Please contact the Library’s Scholarly Communications Team to discuss this further.

Email the Scholary Communications Team

Future work

As more theses are digitised, the team intends to continue to publicise interesting stories and images. To keep up to date, follow the project blog or connect with the Centre for Research Collections on social media.

The project blog                      

Project Facebook page      

Project Twitter feed