Alumni Services

Students go a Laing way as conservationists

One of the University’s most important collections of rare manuscripts has been rehoused thanks to a crowdsourcing event that attracted a team of student volunteers.

A student studies one of the manuscripts from the Laing collection

The Laing Collection was bequeathed to the University by David Laing, the son of an Edinburgh bookseller who became the leading Scottish expert on early books and manuscripts. By the time of his death in 1878, Laing had amassed a considerable collection of printed books, and although many were subsequently sold at auctions, his manuscript collection – including documents written by such luminaries as Robert Burns and European royalty - was gifted to the University Library.


Recently, however, it was acknowledged that the collection needed to be rehoused in order to protect it for future generations, and that is when a crowdsourcing conservation project was launched.

“This is one of the most important manuscript collections at the University,” says Emily Hick, conservator in the Special Collections team. “When I was told that it was in need of rehousing, I wanted to find a way to do this skilfully and efficiently. So we launched the Crowdsourcing Conservation project and asked students to volunteer to help us repackage the items. They were being damaged by its inadequate storage, so all 150 boxes needed to be transferred to acid-free folders and boxes.”

The initiative, which was advertised as part of the University’s Festival of Creative Learning, attracted 30 student volunteers who came together over a two-day period to complete the project.

Conservation work

Each day consisted of a training session in the morning, followed by practical work. In the afternoon, students were joined by staff members from the Centre for Research Collections who talked to them about their roles, while helping to carry out the conservation work. 

Emily was impressed by the passion of the students:

“I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s interest in these unique documents,” she says. “The items really fire up imaginations. We rehoused 110 out of 136 boxes of manuscripts over the first two days, but had a few more to complete. Thankfully, a lot of participants showed an interest in coming again, and now the rehousing process is completely finished.”

With the help of the volunteers, Emily and her colleagues have been able to see just how many remarkable and unexplored manuscripts the collection holds, and how important it is to ensure they are professionally conserved and documented.

“I’ve loved discovering things that we didn’t know we had,” she says. “For example, we came across a 17th century document with early rules for the University library; a highly decorated manuscript with Latin text; documents on self-crucifixion; papyrus with what appears to be Egyptian text; and even a document written by King Charles II.”

The students’ view

We asked three of the volunteer students about their experiences of working on the project.

Luise Kocaurek, MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures

I found information about this Crowdsourcing Conservation project through the Festival of Creative Learning calendar. One of my courses looks at pre-modern manuscripts, and the process of handling and conserving manuscripts overlaps with my academic work. While helping with this project, I’ve come across a 16th-century letter in Italian, as well as some kind of missive from Glasgow. I also found a lovely little booklet for scribes to teach in different hands and I really want to revisit that, particularly for the different styles of handwriting. This experience has shown me just how much the University has, and how much there is to still explore.

Medea Santonocito, MA in Contemporary History

I am dealing with 21st century history in my studies, so I wanted to have practical experience of working with manuscripts. I tried, enjoyed it, and found it interesting, particularly because you never know what’s inside those boxes. I’ve happened upon Gaelic poetry, along with a German-English dictionary of herbal vocabulary, and illustrations of islands near Trinidad from 1771, accompanied by shipping routes. I think the Latin manuscript and the papyrus document are particularly intriguing, and I know there are collections of more recent things that could be of interest to me that I would like to explore.

Holly Marsden, MA in History of Art

I was just looking through the Festival of Creative Learning brochure, and saw there was a conservation project. I’d been researching conservation as a career anyway, so this was a great opportunity. I didn’t quite realise how many different stages are involved in manuscript conservation. There are so many layers to conserving even one object. We have been rehousing manuscripts into acid-free folders and paper to prevent further damage, and putting them into boxes that are more space-conscious, but keeping the same cataloguing. I would definitely want to be involved in future projects like this. The document written by Charles II was the most interesting one to me, though the document on self-crucifixion certainly caught my attention. I never thought I’d be able to handle something from the 15th century. For those interested in learning about conservation, I would say contact the Centre for Research Collections for volunteering and internship positions. Research which area of conservation you want to pursue. Try and come here to experience it firsthand. Being able to speak to conservators was really useful for me.

Related links

The Laing Collection

The Centre for Research Collections

Festival of Creative Learning