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.

A day in the life of a 17th Century King’s College Student

A Gowned Student, 1677. University of Aberdeen Picture Collection

A Gowned Student, 1677. University of Aberdeen Picture Collection

A 17th century King’s College student’s life was certainly a world away from the life of students nowadays. Students were expected to live a life of prayer and study. Starting at 5am ending finally at 9pm the students were strictly disciplined and could expect punishments, fines and even expulsion if caught breaking any of the College rules. The rules for a boarding student were different from a student who lodged outside the College. Non-boarders had a greater degree of freedom from those who resided within the College, who were under the watchful eye of the masters most of the day.

As part of this year’s Explore your Archives week, a series of tweets and blog have been created to engage audiences with the rich stories of student life held within our collections. The inspiration for the tweets comes from two sources: MSK 265 ‘laws and regulations’ for King’s College, which were introduced in 1641 and Colin MacLaren’s work on Aberdeen Students. Colin McLaren’s detailed research reconstructs the lifestyle of early students and provides an approximation of a 17th century student’s timetable and studies.

Below is the selection of rules from MSK 265 which were used to inspire the posts:

‘All to rise at five in the morning at the sound of the bell, and to clean their chambers. Care to be taken of fire, under penalty of expulsion.’

‘Absentees from religious meetings, or parties not properly attired thereat, or on Sundays, and absentees from morning and evening prayers, to be punished or fined.’

‘All to be dressed gravely and neatly.’

‘Civility to be observed at meals and meetings; conversation to be modest, and on honourable and useful subjects.’

‘Lectures to be repeated and discussed in the presence of the teachers from eleven o’clock to dinner’.

‘The bursars to give thanks at meals in order, to read a chapter of the bible prescribed by the principal…’

‘The students to confine their sports among themselves: in sporting, modesty and gentleness to be observed.’

‘Bible and psalm books to be brought to religious meetings.’

 ‘Violence and gambling is prohibited on pain of expulsion.’

‘None to disturb their fellow students while asleep or at study: meetings in bedchambers are to be avoided.’


Spalding Club, Fasti Aberdonenses: selections from the records of the University and King’s College of Aberdeen, 1494-1854, Aberdeen, 1854

McLaren, C. A., Aberdeen Students 1600 – 1800, Aberdeen, University of Aberdeen, 2005

The day in the life of a 17th century King’s Student is part of a wider project to catalogue and promote the King’s College Archives.

For more information about the project, see the following webpage:

In the Conservation Studio

Erin Murray was our summer 2015 book conservation intern. In this post she tells us about a children’s movable picture book that was recently donated to the Special Collections Centre. Erin is currently working towards a Masters degree in Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts at the University of the Arts London.

As the Special Collections Centre’s summer book conservation intern, I have had the pleasure of working on a number special and interesting materials from Special Collections over the past couple of weeks. However, it is one book in particular that I find particularly fascinating. Not for its age, monetary value or greater impact on society. No, the book was made for and apparently used by very enthusiastic children. The book in question is The Surprise Picture Book and it contains within it very marvellous pieces of early technology.

Transformation Volvelles: The Surprise Picture Book

The Suprise Picture Book

Cover: ‘The Surprise Picture Book’ by Lucy L Weedon, (Shelfmark: J Wee) Image Copyright University of Aberdeen

Written by Lucy L Weedon, illustrated by Hilda K. Robinson and printed at the beginning of the 20th century in Bavaria, the book is comprised of poetry, small line illustrations and a set of transformation volvelles. The poetry and small illustrations are sedate items printed in brown ink while the transformation volvelles encompass the page filling it with bold patterns, bright colours and mysterious transformative imagery.

The volvelle, a structure appearing in the west around the 13th century, is a paper disc fastened to a primary support at a central point so that the disc may rotate freely. Initially appearing in astronomical, mathematical and philosophical texts, the volvelle has survived and continued on into the modern era by evolving into the world of movable and pop-up books.

The mechanical structure that appears in The Surprise Picture Book is certainly a volvelle, but it has been modified to entertain children instead of performing complex calculations as it once did. Instead of simply rotating around a central point the two layers (the primary support paper and the secondary disc shaped paper support) have been cut in such a way that the two layers interlock with each other, but still allow rotation of the upper disc. This modification allows a large portion of the primary support to be revealed above the upper disc when rotated in one direction and then recede beneath the upper disc when rotated in the opposite direction. I’ve demonstrated this mechanism in the following model where the primary support is grey and secondary disc shaped paper support above is yellow:

Animated gif illustrating the mechanics of the transformation volvelles

Animated gif illustrating the mechanics of the transformation volvelles

As the transformation volvelle mechanism is featured on 5 out of the 16 pages of the picture book it is surely of high importance to the book itself, and therefore an important element to preserve into the future. You could say that the whole book was produced just to showcase these playful images.

The problem that faces these transformation volvelles is the same problem, regardless of paper type, that has plagued volvelles since their invention: they break easily. Their mechanism is meant to be used, and used often. Over-handling can lead to tearing of the primary and secondary paper supports, thus rendering the mechanism non-functional. As far as problems go, overuse is one of the better ones to have and focuses potential repair of the volume on restoring the functionality of the mechanisms, therein allowing the book to be accessed as it was originally intended, movement included.

It was through my exploration into potential conservation treatments for ‘The Surprise Picture Book’ that I created the above model. Creating models can assist in understanding the object, planning of treatments and even during repairs to the paper to ensure that functionality is maintained.

I’ve provided the images below that illustrate the design of the upper disc and lower primary support of the transformation volvelle. The red and blue lines are drawn in as guides and the black lines are cut.

Hint: The primary paper support laces through the upper disc and is glued to the underside of the star on top.

If you would like to attempt to make one yourself, you will need two pieces of paper (preferably heavy weight 150 gsm to 200 gsm), and a needle and thread to combine the elements at the pivot point. I recommend using a scalpel or craft knife to do the cutting.

I hope that you all go and try and make a transformation volvelle of your own! If you are interested in learning more about the history of the volvelle these sources are a useful starting point:

Blog post from ‘The Collation’ hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library:

An Article by R Cunningham:

A Short History of Pop-Ups:
The Movable Book Society:

Arctic Apocalypse! (and other happenings)

School started back this week for the children in the Aberdeen area, and so our summer programme of children’s activities for the Far North exhibition has come to an end. After our opening Family Fun event when we made Inuit-style tents and boots, we had two further workshops where we tried the cyanotype method of photo processing to make Aurora Borealis-inspired art effects, and created ice sculptures out of plastic recycling materials.

And then it was Summer School, where 13 children worked for three mornings to create comic-book storyboards under the theme of Arctic Apocalypse! The premise for each story was that a giant meteor is about to hit the Arctic and life will never be the same on Earth again – but after that, it was up to the children where the stories went …

Read on for more about each event.

Northern Light

The Far North exhibition includes some beautiful artistic renderings of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, created by early Arctic explorers. We explored some more artistic possibilities using optical effects by experimenting with cyanotype photo processing, using ‘sun print’ papers. The paper is coated with a photo-sensitive layer which changes colour when exposed to the light. The children created images, exposed the paper and then developed it by washing off the photo-sensitive layer and leaving the paper to dry. Normally it takes only a couple of minutes’ exposure time, but we had heavy cloud cover that day and so in some cases it took up to 25 minutes … but luckily we had another Aurora-inspired craft to do during the waiting time!

Ice and Snow

The exhibition includes a giant rock crystal, of the type that was often associated with the Arctic ice in the 19th century artistic imagination. Taking this as our starting point, we used plastic household recycling to create ice and snow sculptures. The Arctic is increasingly polluted with plastic waste and so using household recycling materials for our art seemed a good way of bringing the topic into discussion. We also made snowstorm ‘thaumatropes’. Thaumatropes are circles of card with an image on each face, and strings attached at each side; when twirled the separate images appear to blend together to create one image. Thaumatropes were popular toys in the 19th century, and who knows but maybe some of the Scottish whalers took them to the Arctic with them? Continuing with our Arctic theme we used images of snowflakes observed under the microscope by 19th century explorer William Scoresby, who wrote An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), a book we hold here in the Special Collections and which is full of fascinating information and drawings.

Arctic Apocalypse!

Summer School is an annual event in our calendar, when a group of children aged 7-11 work over the course of three mornings on an exciting project inspired by our collections. This year the theme was of course the Arctic, and we paired up with King’s Museum who have an exhibition about the science of light showing currently, and a fantastic collection of rare meteorites. At first we thought we might never find a project to tie both exhibitions together, but eventually we created Arctic Apocalypse! The children worked in teams to create a storyboard for a comic in which they depicted the repercussions of a giant meteor falling to Earth and hitting the Arctic.

On Day 1 the children researched the Arctic by exploring the Far North exhibition and seeing the journals, notebook and photo album of Davie Cardno, a 19th century whaler from Peterhead.

After some Arctic research we talked about what a storyboard is, and how a story is created. We used the film How to Train Your Dragon as an example, and the children made a storyboard for the film by retelling the story in ‘freeze frames’ or tableaux. We also looked into characterization and how we recognize different characters in comics.

On Day 2 we went to King’s Museum and the children explored the exhibition there, drew objects they thought might come in useful for their stories, and then got down to the serious business of creating their characters and making up their stories. Following the standard process for creating a comic book, they made character sheets showing what their characters would look like and in some cases giving an indication of their personalities.

Day 3 was all go! The summer school actually coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower so we started off by watching a short BBC news report about it, and then the children got down to making their storyboards. With only a short morning in which to complete the boards and between 9 and 12 frames per board, we thought we might not make it, but we did! At 1pm all the parents were shown a display of the completed storyboards before everyone headed home for some well-deserved rest.

Arctic Apocalypse! summer school 2015 participants

And that’s the end of our children’s summer programme for 2015! Family Fun will be back in the October holidays. If you are interested in hearing about our children’s events and would like to be on our mailing list, get in touch by emailing

Posted by: Sarah