Discover the World: India

It’s been a bit silent on the Special Collections Learning blog front for the last few months, but that’s not because nothing has been happening! On the contrary, life at the Special Collections Centre has been extremely busy – so busy in fact, we’re only just getting around to our first blog post of 2015 now, two and half months into the year.

February was our busiest single month for school workshops so far, with lots of schools visiting to learn about Medieval medicine and art, the Ancient Egyptians and the Jacobites. We also kick started our 2015 Family Fun programme on Saturday 21st with a fantastic afternoon of architecture and design.

For Discover the World: India we decided to take our inspiration from the wonderful watercolour sketches of early 19th century traveller and connoisseur, Robert Wilson. In an age when it took months to cross an ocean and the only way of getting across Europe faster than your own feet could take you was to go by horse, Robert Wilson explored Mediterranean Europe, Egypt, Nubia, Persia (now Iran) and even India. This intrepid explorer bequeathed his collection of travel journals to the University of Aberdeen, and now they live in the Special Collections Centre. We were very keen to use his Indian journal for Family Fun, as it shows his fascination for Indian architecture, in particular the magnificent Mughal tombs and palaces.

(copyright for all images belongs to the University of Aberdeen)

We took inspiration from his drawings to design our own Mughal-style palaces, creating mock-up facades and decorating them with typical Mughal architectural features such as onion domes, arches, minarets and chatris.

We learned a lot about Mughal architecture. The Mughals (pronounced MOO-gulls) were a Muslim dynasty of emperors who conquered most of India and reigned for over 300 years. They built very large, grand buildings which are famous for their beauty and splendour. The most famous of these is probably the Taj Mahal, which was built by one of the emperors as a tomb for his wife.

Make your own Mughal palace

Building walls template

If you would like to create your own Mughal palace facade, feel free to download our wall template (click on the link below). Print the template out to A3 size on card, and then cut it out, fold where instructed and stick it down on to a second piece of A3 card. This is your basic wall structure, standing on the ground. Now you can draw and cut out domes, arches, minarets and chatris and add them to create a fantastic Mughal building. Use the photographs above from our Family Fun to give you ideas. And don’t forget to decorate the walls! Every inch of a real Mughal building was covered with intricate tiled decoration.

Mughal palace walls template

Book Week Scotland 2014

Book Week Scotland is always our busiest and probably favourite week of the library calendar and this year was no different. In fact our Book Week Scotland programme was bigger and better than it’s ever been. Here’s a round up of all the book related fun that happened here at the Special Collections Centre.

Flash Fiction 2014

2014 Flash Fiction images

Launched in September, writers of all ages and backgrounds were inspired by images from our collection to write a 500-word short story. The children’s competition was judged by prize-winning author Caroline Clough, while the adult competition judge was local author and University of Aberdeen lecturer Dr Helen Lynch. The high quality of writing gave Caroline and Helen a difficult job choosing our winners. Congratulations to Phil Olsen and Anisah McDonagh, our 2014 Flash Fiction winners! Read their winning stories as well as all the other Flash Fiction entries on our Book Week Scotland website.

Bookbinding Workshop and Talk

This popular workshop has become a staple of our events programme and always books up quickly. Participants learn practical bookbinding skills with our Book Conservator, Brannah Mackenzie while our Rare Books Cataloguer, Jane Pirie, talks them through a range of amazing bindings from our collection.

Collections Close-up

We were very excited to pilot a new event series during Book Week Scotland, our Collections Close-ups. These events give the public the chance to get up close and personal with the treasures of the Special Collections Centre in an informal setting, asking questions of Jane and our Senior Rare Books Librarian, Keith O’Sullivan. Held at lunch time over three days the Book Week Scotland Collections Close-ups showcased some of our most beautiful and rare books including Audubon’s Birds of America Volume 2, the Medieval Hortus sanitatis and a collection of tiny books.

The Big Book Theory – Teen Book Quiz

Hosted by our teen volunteer, Alice, this quiz tests the literature knowledge of young people in a fun and informal setting. Our Book Week Scotland quiz was very popular with teams coming from Torry Academy, Aberdeen Grammar School and the International School Aberdeen as well as a small team of two from Harlaw and Cults Academies. This team (the Lit Amis) were our winners, taking home some book vouchers, while the winner of the most inventive team name went to Torry Academy’s Swashbooklers. Well done to Alice for hosting a brilliant quiz and congratulations to all of our teams!

Big Book of Beasts!

Big Book of Beasts - making slithery snakes

Thursday was a day of storytelling and crafts for schools, all inspired by the magnificent medieval Aberdeen Bestiary, or book of beasts. Primary classes from three local schools explored the Bestiary with the Learning and Outreach team, heard tales of animals, myth and adventure from storyteller Diana Bertoldi and made some slithery snakes to take back to school.

Bestiary Bake Off

Bestiary Bake Off

Bakers were invited to be inspired by images from our amazing Aberdeen Bestiary to create cakes, cupcakes and biscuits. This was a challenge for their decoration abilities and our winners really rose to the challenge. The Bestiary’s swan and bees inspired winning entries in all three categories. We had some fantastic prizes including a signed Mary Berry recipe book and a private audience with the Bestiary!

Book Laboratory

This year we worked with our colleagues in the Glucksman Conservation Centre to deliver an exciting event for families during Book Week Scotland. Participants learned how our conservators look after our books from Head Conservator Erica Kotze and tried out suminagashi, a Japanese paper marbling technique. Some amazing patterns were made by our incredibly creative participants. Then Brannah taught everyone how to make Japanese ledger books to take home with them.

It was a whirlwind of a week but we enjoyed every minute of it and we’re looking forward to next year’s Book Week Scotland already!

In the Conservation Studio: book cradles

Hello, everyone! We are the two new (soon to be old) interns at the Glucksman Conservation Centre. We come from MA Conservation courses in the UK – Carrie is at Camberwell studying books and archival materials conservation, Stacey is at Northumbria studying conservation of art on paper – and we’re here to give you a look at one of the projects we’ve been working on during our time here.

Pic of carrie and stacey

Stacey (left) and Carrie (right) watching a demonstration by Brannah (middle), the book conservator.

A new exhibition which explores the influence of the University of Aberdeen’s founder, Bishop Elphinstone, will be opening in October in The Sir Duncan Rice Library gallery. Along with other university collection items, and objects from further afield, the exhibition will include seven books from the Special Collections Centre. The conservation team has been involved with the planning of the exhibition, to ensure that items are displayed in the safest way possible. As such, we have begun making book cradles for each of the volumes that will be exhibited.

Here are two types of book cradles, a titled cradle (behind), and a flat cradle (front)

Here are two types of book cradles, a titled cradle (behind), and a flat cradle (front).

There are several considerations to be taken into account when deciding the best way to display an item. For books, there are various types of cradles that can be used effectively. These can be made from different materials, like archival board or Perspex. It is important to ensure that the books’ joints and spine are well-supported throughout the duration of the exhibition, and that the materials used are strong, chemically stable, and won’t adversely affect the book while it is on display. For our purposes, it was decided that tilted cradles would be used, to improve readability for visitors, while also maintaining a safe angle of display for the books. Archival board was chosen which meets the criteria stated above. It is also cost-effective and good for the environment, as the cradles can be recycled after use.

Making a book cradle is not as easy as it may seem. Each cradle is customised to support a specific book, opened to a particular page. Every book going on display needs its own specially-made cradle, precisely measured with angles of tilt calculated.

The two of us had the opportunity to learn how to construct cradles from scratch, for two very different books in the exhibit. Have a look at some of the steps we took to reach the final product.

The position of the book is simulated in order to create an accurate profile drawing. It is important to ‘feel’ where the book is most comfortable when opened as the structure of the book can be damaged if it is opened too wide.

The profile of the book is recorded by tracing the outline of the book with a marker over a sheet of Perspex.

The outline is then transferred onto a sheet of paper which will be used throughout the entire cradle making process.

Some measurements and calculations taken to finalise the dimensions of the cradle.

Carrie making some reference points on her profile drawing.

Scoring sections of the archival board to achieve the bent portion of the cradle where the book will sit comfortably as indicated by the profile blueprint.

Melinex stripAdding clear strips that will be used to hold down the pages of the book during exhibition.

supportAdding additional support to the cradles

adding a lip to the cradleAdding a ‘lip’ to the front of the cradle for additional support and a cleaner aesthetic

Final cradle without bookFinal cradle with bookAnd here is one of the finished cradles with and without the book!

Posted by: Carrie and Stacey

Flash Fiction Competition 2014

BWS-Logos-RGB-(red-V3)Our Flash Fiction competition is back for its third year and it’s time to get writing again! Be part of Book Week Scotland 2014. Get inspired by four fabulous images from the Special Collections Centre’s rare books and archives and send us your 500-word short story. The Adult and Children’s competitions will be judged by prize-winning authors who will narrow the entries down to special commendations for each image and an overall competition winner for each age category. The winners will be announced at the beginning of Book Week Scotland (24th – 30th November). All competition entries will be published on the Special Collections Centre website.

The deadline for submissions is 12 midnight on Monday 27th October 2014. You can see small versions of the four images below; for more information about the competition and higher resolution versions of the images, visit our Book Week Scotland webpage. 

We look forward to receiving your entries!

Flash Fiction image 1Flash Fiction image 2Flash Fiction image 3Flash Fiction image 4

Posted by: Lynsey

History Hunters – summer schools 2014

With all the whirlwind of New Found Land events this summer, we’ve barely had time to catch our breath let alone report on one of our favourite annual highlights – summer school. This year we ran two “History Hunters” summer schools for 7-11 year olds in July, so this blog post is somewhat overdue! But better late than never, as the saying goes.

The theme of History Hunters was Victorian Egyptology, and over three mornings the children learned the skills needed in order to become Egyptologists themselves. Building on our existing Discovering Ancient Egypt primary schools workshop, this was a chance for us to explore our collections even further and see where they could take us.

This was the second year we worked in partnership with the University Museums service for summer school, and on Day 2 the children got to see and even handle real ancient Egyptian artefacts. Read all about it below!

Day 1

The children were introduced to the field of Egyptology and they explored some of our Victorian collections, including sketches, archaeological ‘squeezes’ and transcriptions and translations of hieroglyphs. They learned about the importance of recording your findings, and tried out some of the different methods available. They also developed some important research skills and found out information about the Egyptian deities. In week 2 we added a bit of drama as well, with the children telling some of the weird and wonderful stories of the gods in freeze frames!


Day 2

This was our ‘away day’ at the Zoology Museum. Our colleague Gillian from the Museums Service brought out a variety of ancient Egyptian artefacts including canopic jars, animal charms originally found wrapped in mummies and a stone carving with a cartouche. The children learned how to handle, identify and research the artefacts. Back at the Special Collections Centre they made their own clay charms inspired by the ancient Egyptian ones they handled at the museum.


Day 3

This was the last morning of the summer school, and it was a busy one! Not only did a real archaeological conservator come to talk to the children about what it is like to work on a dig (Margot has worked on many, many digs all across the world, including one at the Valley of the Kings in Egypt), but the children learned how to carry out a dig themselves and how to record the contextual evidence around a find. After an intensive session of digging, recording and analysing, it was all go to create a final exhibition for parents and visitors!

We always love doing summer school because not only do we get to work with our participants for longer than usual and get to know them better, but it’s also a chance for the children themselves to create something really substantial with the collections. We’re always impressed by the final outcome, and it’s great to see so much effort going into the exhibition and how proud the children are when showing it to their parents!

Posted by: Sarah

Wagons Roll!


We’re nearing the end of our summer New Found Land events programme, and yesterday we had our last Family Fun session for this current exhibition. The children learned about how the pioneers crossed Canada in covered wagons in search of a new life on the Canadian prairie. The wagons contained everything the emigrant families owned – personal belongings plus food, supplies and tools for the journey. Once they set off, the wagon was the only home they knew. During the day, the emigrants would often walk along side the wagon rather than riding in it, because the wagons were so full and the load was heavy for the oxen or horses pulling them. Each night, the emigrants would make a new camp in a new place and they would cook their dinners over open fires. Sometimes they took the covers off the wagons and used them to make tents to sleep under.

The journey took many months. Sometimes the days would be long and boring, but sometimes they could be exciting or even dangerous. Dangers included both hostile humans and wild animals. The emigrants often travelled together in wagon “trains” so they would have the protection of greater numbers.  Other scary things could happen as well, such as wagons overturning on steep slopes and hurtling down hills. Not only would that be dangerous for the emigrants and their animals, but the wagons might break. If that happened, a family would just have to stop there until they fixed their wagon – and hopefully there would be fresh water nearby!

It must have taken real ‘pioneering spirit’ to set off on such an adventure, heading off into an unknown continent in the hopes of building your own farm! Could you imagine doing the same thing yourself?

Below you’ll find pictures of the event and “how to” instructions for making your own covered wagon.

How to make your own covered wagon

You will need:

  • a small cardboard box, preferably cuboid (e.g. a herbal tea box)
  • brown card
  • brown tissue paper
  • white paper
  • corrugated cardboard
  • 1 bamboo skewer
  • sticky tape
  • glue stick
  • scissors
  • pencil

Step 1: Make the wagon box

Cut out one side of your box to make an open wagon box.

1. Cutting lid off box

2. Make the frame supports for the wagon cover

Cut 4 thin strips of brown card (about 0.5 cm wide) and stick the ends to each side of your wagon box so that they stand up in big loops. This makes a support for the wagon cover.

You can stick the ends to either the inside or the outside of the wagon box. If you stick them to the outside, they will be reinforced by the tissue paper in the next step.

2. Frame supports for cover

3. Add a wood effect to the wagon box

Use a glue stick to attach brown tissue paper to the outside of the box to make it look like wood.

3. Tissue paper

Step 4: Add the wagon cover

Cut a piece of white paper to about A5 size, place it over the frame supports and stick it to each side of the wagon box. (If you want to be really authentic, you could use a piece of white cloth instead of paper.)

4. Wagon cover 1

Step 5: Make your wheels

Draw four circles on corrugated card and cut them out. Usually the rear wheels on a wagon were larger than the front wheels, so you can do the same by making two of your wheels bigger than the other two (but make sure your big wheels are the same size as each other, and your small wheels are the same size as each other!).

Cut the wheels out, and mark the centre of each wheel with a pencil. Then take the pointy end of the bamboo skewer and pierce a hole in the centre of each wheel. Watch out for that pointy end, as skewers can be surprisingly sharp!

Then work out where you want the wheels to sit against your wagon, and pierce four holes in your wagon box to match with the centre holes of your four wheels. You want the wheels to sit so that their centres are above the bottom of the wagon, but there is still plenty of wheel to raise your wagon off the table.

5. Make wagon wheels

Step 6: Make axles and attach wheels

Next, work out how long your wagon axles should be. Hold the skewer against the end of your wagon, so that the blunt end of the skewer sticks out slightly wider than the wagon. Make a mark on the skewer with your pencil where you think the axle should end. Tip: The axles need to be slightly wider than the wagon at both ends, so that the wheels have plenty of room. Take a look at our wagon pictures above so you understand what they should look like.

Cut the skewer where you made your mark. This is a job best done by an adult, as it can be difficult to cut through a skewer and you could easily hurt yourself.

Once you have cut one axle, measure it against the remainder of the skewer and cut a second axle to match it. You should be able to get two axles out of a skewer easily. Then discard the pointy end.

7. Measure axle length


Step 8: Attach the axles and wheels

Now push the axles through the holes in the wagon box and attach the wheels. To make sure the wheels stay in place and to prevent any accidents with splinters on the cut ends of the axles, stick a small piece of sticky tape on each axle end.

8. Push axle through wagon box

8. Axles through wagon

Step 9: Make oxen, emigrants and fill your wagon

Now it is time to make your wagon come to life! You can make 2-D oxen and emigrants by either sticking pictures of oxen and people on to card and cutting them out, or even better by drawing them yourself. We used a clip art drawing of an ox we found on the internet.

9. Oxen and people

You could also fill your wagon with the furniture and supplies that your emigrants would need to survive. You can use our Get set for your journey worksheet to help you work out what  might be needed.

Now your wagon is ready to roll!

Wagon ready to roll


Have you found this “how to” post helpful? If so, let us know in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!

Posted by: Sarah