News round-up: April 2016

Lib R f5201 Api

Facsimile of 1540 text ‘Astronomicum Caesarum’ by Petrus Apianus (Leipzig, 1967)

21st April 2016 – Aberdeen Astronomical Society Visit

Siobhán Convery, Head of Special Collections, hosted a visit from over 20 members of the Aberdeen Astronomical Society  on the 21st April 2016. After an introduction to Special Collections by Siobhán followed by a discussion of the history of astronomy by Dr John Reid, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Physics, the group were shown a display of astronomical treasures from the collections including Dioptrice by Kepler (1538), De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Copernicus (1543), Galileo’s Systema Cosmicum (1635) and Systema Saturnium by Huygens (1659). The display also included material with a local connection such as Optica Promota (1663) by James Gregory (1638-1675), a graduate of Marischal College and Professor of Mathematics at the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, and the lecture notes of Patrick Copland, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics 1775-1822 (MSM 174/2). The evening received an enthusiastic response from the group and was a fitting end to their programme of events for the 2015-2016 season.

A full list of the items on display can be found here: Aberdeen Astronomical Society display items

28th April 2016 – Friends of Hospitalfield Visit

Special Collections was delighted to host a visit from nine members of the Friends of Hospitalfield, and in particular to welcome back Scott Byrne, former Exhibition Officer at Special Collections and now General Manager at Hospitalfield. After a tour of the main Library building by Keith O’Sullivan, Senior Rare Books Librarian, followed by a talk in the gallery space by Jen Shaw, Exhibition Officer, the group were given a tour of the Special Collections Centre by Siobhán Convery. This included a small display of some treasures from the collections, including the wonderful Hortus Sanitatis (INC 3). The last part of their visit included a tour of the Glucksman Conservation Centre.

For more information about the work and events at Hospitalfield please see their website:

An Audience with Charles Dickens

DickensBlog1Behind the Scenes of a Special Collections Centre Exhibition Installation with Jennifer Shaw, Exhibitions Officer

The exhibition ‘An Audience with Charles Dickens’ opened in the Gallery of The Sir Duncan Rice Library on Thursday 3rd March. Here’s a look back at how the exhibition took shape.


The first week in March was installation week for the SCC’s new exhibition showcasing its unique collection of first editions of all 15 of Charles Dickens’s novels.

DickensBlog2Day 1: First to go up were the door vinyls. The characters peeping around the theatre curtain are from an illustration by Hablot Knight Browne in Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby.




DickensBlog3Eight freestanding panels featuring Scrooge, Bill Sikes, Sarah Gamp, Uriah Heep and other popular characters from the novels were put into position. We chose a theatrical theme for the exhibition to tie in with Dickens’s love of the stage and his reading tours which included performances at the Aberdeen Music Hall, in 1858 and 1866.


DickensBlog4Day 2: To give a sense of the enthusiastic crowds that Dickens encountered on his reading tours, we decided to create a 3D theatre scene for the back wall.

The design team set to work on its construction.



DickensBlog5There was a lot going on that day. The column in the gallery was wrapped with its design of 19th century billposters and texts telling the story of Dickens as a writer and performer were applied to the walls. A four-metre-long timeline was put into place to provide an introduction to the exhibition, the dates of all the novels and key events in the writer’s life.


DickensBlog6With the main elements of the installation in place, the design team took a bow – the bonnet, top hat and urchin cap were borrowed from the dressing-up area in the exhibition (not the team’s own).




DickensBlog9Day 3: With the space cleared of ladders and other equipment we were ready to place the first editions into the cases, from The Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Plot cards for each novel were placed in the activity area along with games and additional reading material. A soundtrack of readings completed the effect.



Day 5: Take your ticket at the door for ‘An Audience with Charles Dickens’.

The exhibition continues until 14th August 2016 and is accompanied by a series of talks and events. Entry to the exhibition, talks and events is FREE.




News round-up: March 2016


A Gowned Student, 1677. University of Aberdeen Picture Collection

March has been a busy month in Special Collections as staff delivered talks and prepared displays for various local groups and visiting students.

3rd March 2016 – Danestone Local History Group Talk

The King’s College Project Archivist Mary Sabiston delivered a talk to the Danestone Local History Group discussing the ‘Life of a 17th century student’ at King’s College. The talk covered the calendar and timetable of the students, their curriculum and of course discipline at the college. The talk was inspired by a series of tweets and blog post which were created as part of the National ‘Explore your archives’ campaign. The original blog can be found here.

10th March 2016 – Granite City Photography Group Visit

Fourteen members of the Granite City Photography Group attended a talk and display by the Deputy Archivist Andrew MacGregor about the renowned George Washington Wilson photographic collection. Based in Torry the Granite City Photography Group was set up in June 2014. The idea of the group is to promote learning through both internal and external experience and through regular friendly competitions and challenges and guest speakers as well as encouraging social interaction between members. A guide to some of the GWW material held in Special Collections and a list of the items on display can be found here: GWW sources.

15th March 2016 – Grampian Decorative and Fine Arts Society Visit

On 15th March, Special Collections Centre hosted a visit from 16 members of the Grampian Decorative and Fine Arts Society (GDFAS). The group were shown an exhibition of some 15 treasures from the collections, including a 15th century Dutch book of hours. Glucksman Conservation Centre conservators also talked about their current restorative work on papyri and the Book of Esther.

A list of the items on display can be found here: Grampian Decorative Arts Group.

29th March 2016 – Visit by RGU Students

Special Collections were delighted to co-host a visit by 17 students from this year’s intake on Robert Gordon University’s MSc Information and Library Studies programme. Accompanied by their Head of Department of Information Management, Professor Peter Reid, the group were given an introduction to the Sir Duncan Rice Library by Janet MacKay, before touring the building with Ewan Grant and Keith O’Sullivan. The students were taken ‘behind the scenes’ and shown our various stores and the Glucksman Conservation Centre.


Account of a student supper in 1857

MS 3911_2_lying wait copy

Dr John Reid from the Department of Physics and one of our regular readers, has written an article utilising 2 student notebooks in our collection. The notebooks are by a John Duncan and give an account of the class supper of 1857 when he and his colleagues were in third year at Marischal College. The account not only includes vivid descriptions of events but are accompanied by many sketches…..

To see the article click here – ClassSupper


Calligraphy Puzzles

While cleaning and rehousing part of MS 3667 (Learney Estate: Innes family papers), our Collections Care Assistant, Laura, found something rather surprising hidden between some pieces of correspondence.

Image 1

The envelope reads, “Calligraphic puzzles written by Thomas Innes when confined to lying on his back for 5 months – sent to his son William 1866.”

Inside were four little cards, each with what appeared to be random lines and coloured shapes.

Image 2

That is, until you tilt them first one way, then the other…

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“It is an honour for a man to cease from strife.” Proverb 20:3, KJV

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“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18, KJV

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“Boast not thyself of tomorrow for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Proverb 27:1, KJV

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“He that is slow to anger is better than he that is mighty” Proverbs 16:32, KJV


A Guide to Salvaging Personal Books, Documents and Photographs

Being based in the North East of Scotland, we are acutely aware of the devastation that the recent large scale flooding across areas of the UK has brought. Now that waters are receding, members of the public living in the local area will be in the process of assessing the damage caused to their homes and personal belongings. It is with that in mind that our conservators have compiled the following advice which relates to the salvage of books, papers and photographs.

We have tried to provide a simple introduction to what action can be taken to minimise long term damage to this type of material. It is unlikely that everything can be saved, and some types of damage will be irreversible. Salvage can also take up a great deal of time. With this in mind, it is likely that you will need to prioritise the items that are most important to you.

If anything is of high value, in a financial or personal sense, then we would recommend that you contact a conservator as soon as possible. Details are provided for the Conservation Register at the end of this post.

Personal Protection

Flood water may be contaminated. Make sure to protect yourself when handling items that have been submerged in flood water. Use waterproof gloves to protect your skin, and consider using a mask that will protect you from breathing in harmful mould spores.


Wear gloves to protect yourself from contaminated water


Given the right conditions, wet organic material such as paper, leather and photographs can grow mould in as little as 24-48 hours.

Mould is damaging to possessions, but can also be damaging to your health. Some people are more sensitive to mould than others, and some moulds can be toxic. Protect yourself, and if you notice any adverse effects to your health, then contact your doctor.

Active mould is generally fluffy and smears when handled. Inactive mould tends to be dry and powdery. The perfect conditions for mould growth are high humidity, heat and stagnant air. Books, papers and documents (and other possessions) should therefore be removed from these conditions as soon as possible.


Live mould can vary in colour but it is generally fluffy and will smear when handled

If mould is growing on your items, do not be tempted to wipe them clean. This will merely spread the mould spores across a wider surface area. Mould will only grow if conditions are favourable, so you want to remove items into a less favourable environment as soon as possible, i.e. an airy space that is low in humidity and not too warm. If you have a fan and dehumidifier available, these can be used to maintain these conditions. If possible, keep items affected by mould separated by those that are not.

When items are dry (see below for methods of drying), and the mould is dormant, it can be removed with a soft brush. Ideally this should be done outside to prevent any cross contamination. Use a mask to protect yourself.

If you have too many items to deal with in one go, then you can put them in a freezer bag and place them in a freezer. This will not resolve the problem, but it will prevent mould growth occurring and buy you time. Items can then be defrosted and dealt with in manageable quantities.

What to do

Bear in mind that waterlogged paper is much weaker than dry, so care needs to be taken when handling books, paper and photographs that have been affected by flood water.

For all the drying processes described below, make sure that you are using a dry, well-ventilated room. If possible make use of a fan and dehumidifier, but if these are not available, then make sure doors or windows are left open to provide greater opportunity for air circulation.


Damp books

fanned books

Books that are damp or just wet around the edges can be stood on one end. If required, interleaving can be placed throughout the book.

If books are only damp around the edges, and can be safely fanned and set upright supported by their covers, do so. Use a well ventilated room, preferably with a fan that circulates the air and a dehumidifier.

  • Place the books on something absorbent. Blotting paper is good if you can get it, but absorbent colour-fast material, kitchen towels, dry cotton sheets or newspaper print will also work.
  • Fan books out and place blotting paper or some other absorbent material fanned1between the front boards and the main text. Add more interleaving throughout the block of the book if possible. If the book has coated papers then care must be taken to place interleaving between each page to prevent them sticking together. Grease proof paper can be used for this. (Coated paper can look slightly glossy and is often used in books with a lot of photographs or illustrations. Magazines are usually published on coated paper).
  • Regularly replace wet interleaving for dry, turning the book over each time so both the top and bottom gets an opportunity to dry.
  • When books feel dry, but still a little cold to the touch, remove all interleaving apart from that between the covers and the text block and place under a board, e.g. a shelf, weighed down with something heavy.
  • Keep under weight until books are completely dry. You will need to change the absorbent material occasionally as moisture moves into it.
  • Pressing in this way should remove the worse of any distortion.
pressing books

Once almost dry, the pages will be dry to the touch but will feel cold. At this point place under boards and weights and press to reduce distortion.

Once almost dry, the pages will be dry to the touch but will still feel cold. At this point place under boards and weights and press to reduce distortion.

Very wet books

Books that are very wet should ideally be frozen and freeze dried, however, this process is not possible with the usual domestic freezer, and commercial facilities are not cheap. The alternative is labour intensive, particularly if you have a lot of books to deal with, but it will save the book and its contents, albeit it in a distorted form.

As for all drying processes, make sure you are using a dry, well-ventilated room. If you have access to a fan and dehumidifier this will help maintain the right conditions.

Remember that paper is weak when it is wet. When you start the interleaving as described below, do not attempt to turn individual pages. Instead move blocks of pages together. As the book starts to dry and the pages can be separate more safely, you can gradually add more interleaving.

  • Lay out absorbent material on a flat surface.
  • Place your book down flat on this surface.
  • Open the front cover, supporting if necessary either with something like a pillow or a rolled up towel. When books are wet, adhesive in the spine is likely to have softened, reducing the amount of support it provides for the structure. The paper is likely to be swollen with the water, placing additional pressure on the area, and any sewing present is likely to be strained. You want to make sure that you are not introducing additional pressure to the area.
  • Interleave every few pages with a thin layer of absorbent material. Newsprint paper, or kitchen towels are a good option as they shouldn’t swell the book too much.
  • Carefully close the book, moving a small number of pages at a time, especially if the book is big. Allow to dry.
  • Once the book has been drying for some time, and the interleaving can’t absorb any more moisture, turn the book over, and replace the wet interleaving with dry.
  • Bear in mind that depending on the size of the book, the moisture levels, and the materials used, this process can take a number of days, or even weeks.
  • Once the book is no longer damp, but still remains cold to the touch, remove all interleaving except for that between the front covers and the text block and press as described under the ‘Damp Books’ section above.

Due to the high levels of moisture, mould is a real possibility. If mould grows, continue the process until dry, and deal with the mould when dry and dormant as described above.


Place interleaving every few pages & provide support for the spine of the book as you work your way through it


If piles of paper appear to be stuck together, and they are resisting separation in any way, they will likely tear if you continue. Place them as they are on some absorbent material and don’t attempt to separate them until they have started to dry.

If items have been affected have dirt or debris attached to them, it is advisable to wash them before drying. Especially as that dirt might be contaminated. However, is there is any evidence that this will cause further damage to the item, for example if inks have run or blurred, then skip this step. It may be possible to deal with it when dry. Also bear in mind that paper is weaker when wet, so if you are worried that you might damage items by washing, then, again, skip this step.

  • Place each item individually in a shallow bath of water. The water should loosen the hold of the dirt and it should gradually lift from the item. Gentle agitation of the water can help speed this up.
  • Replace the water and repeat until dirt is removed, keeping an eye on any ink or paint present in case it starts to run. If so, remove from the water immediately and blot dry.
  • Once the dirt is removed, place the documents on absorbent material and allow to air dry.
  • Air-drying like this will cause some distortion or cockling. This can be reduced if papers are individually place between absorbent material such as blotting paper and placed under weight. Items can be stacked like this to save space, but the absorbent material needs to be replaced for dry regularly, which makes it a more labour intensive method than air drying alone.


There are many photographic processes, and each can respond to water in a different way. Similarly, not all photographic material can be safely frozen. If extremely dirty, photographs can be washed in the same way as paper documents, however, for some processes this will cause irreversible damage to the photographic image. It is therefore recommended that non-professional salvage is restricted to air drying.

  • Take care not to touch the image side of the photograph/negative as water can soften the emulsion layer which contains the image making it more susceptible to damage.
  • Lay photographs face up on top of absorbent material. As this becomes wet, replace wet for dry.
  • Continue until photographs are dry.
  • If photographs are piled up, attempt to separate as they will stick together as they dry. However, if they have already become attached, leave as they are.
  • Negatives should be dried vertically by pegging onto a washing line hung indoors. Photographs can also be hung in this way. While this will result in damage to the emulsion in the area where it is clipped, it is more economical in terms of space.

The photographs are likely to have distorted during this drying process, but images should remain intact. If additional treatment is needed, for example, if photographs are stuck together, it is advisable to contact a conservator.


Further Information

If you require further advice, the following pages provided by a conservation organisation called the North East Document Conservation Centre based are well worth a look. Not all information will be applicable to a domestic environment, but it might provide some helpful pointers.

Emergency Salvage of Wet Books and Records

Emergency Salvage of Wet Photographs


The National Archives of Scotland has produced some guidelines on archives preservation which includes a section on responding to disasters. See page 9 onwards.


If you have salvaged items that require professional intervention by a conservator the Conservation Register provides a list of accredited conservators and can be searched by materials type. Not all professional conservators are included on this database, so do contact us and we can send additional details if required.


Our thoughts are with all those affected by the recent flooding. We hope that the advice provided here can help in some small way.

The books of George MacDonald

The first major publication by George MacDonald (1824-1905) appeared in 1855 and he continued to publish works on an almost yearly basis until 1898. Outwardly, his books are very much in the tradition of the lower cost Victorian gift book: coloured bookbinder’s cloth bindings stamped with coloured and gilt designs, sometimes with an onlaid illustration.

82389 McDo G a

George MacDonald. Adela Cathcart. London : Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1882. MacD 1882

The books were mass produced thanks to the development of the blocking press and machine-reproduced binding techniques but they were decorative, often lovely to look at and above all, well-designed.  The Victorians valued books as gifts and MacDonald’s books were a popular choice not only for his words and moralistic message but for the beauty of their covers and the wealth of their illustrations. Many of the books by MacDonald that we hold here in Special Collections are inscribed with dedications showing that the books were gifts to children.

J Macd G pr

George MacDonald. The princess and Curdie. London : Chatto & Windus, 1883. J Macd G pr

Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) was the main illustrator of MacDonald’s children’s books. Hughes worked with MacDonald on the evangelical magazine Good words for the young. The two became friends and Hughes seemed to be able to perfectly capture the essential sweetness and good in the characters of MacDonald.


‘The princess swimming’ from The Light Princess (1864) J Macd G l

Hughes associated with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood but was never formerly a member of the group. His work shows much of the influence that the circle had on his art: the delicate and fragile figures the lyrical line of the design. Combining realism and fantasy, Hughes captured the ‘strangeness’ of many of MacDonald’s fantasies.


‘The Goblins’ from The Princess and the Goblin (1872) MacD 1872a

The illustrations were reproduced on woodblocks by the printing firm Dalziel Brothers, the finest exponents of woodblock illustration.  Hughes’ illustrations seem particularly suited to woodcut using expressive line and intense light and shade.