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Preserving the Past: My Journey Volunteering with the University Heritage Collections

Preserving the Past: My Journey Volunteering with the University Heritage Collections


Delve into the captivating world of heritage preservation through the eyes of one talented high school volunteer. Join Charlie as he unveils his unique experiences and insights gained during his enriching half-term adventure with the Edinburgh Napier University Heritage Collections team. If you would like to consult our Collections please contact us via email



My name is Charlie and I am a student currently studying in my last year at Berwickshire High School. I aim to pursue history as a subject at university. Since an early age when I first began studying in high school, I have been fascinated with history and any surviving items and relics from the past. This passion was only heightened more as I studied History throughout school. This is why when I got the great opportunity to volunteer at the University Heritage Collections, I took it with no hesitation. I found many parts of my experience amazing and fascinating especially when I was working with real preserved books from as far back as the Middle Ages. This really struck my passion for history and made the whole experience worth it as the thought of holding the very same book as someone from the Middle Ages felt so strange and fascinating.

My Experience

My work while volunteering involved working with books from the Edward Clark Collection which illustrates the development of the book from the 15th century, concentrating on the development of typography, the techniques of printing illustrations, and fine bindings. My first task was to check out some of the book’s conditions and how they could be preserved better along with researching them and their origin. I also got the opportunity to spend a day of my volunteering experience doing work at the War poets’ collection which involved me getting to look at and organise real poems from soldiers who had suffered in the war. This really fascinated me as I felt like I was getting a unique chance to investigate the soldiers’ mental struggles and thoughts after their experiences on the front line. As part of my experience, I also got to complete a piece on the history of the poppy that we use for remembrance, which will support the development of a temporary exhibition. This involved looking at each type of poppy and what they mean along with the origins of the remembrance item and how it changed to become a symbol of the First World War. This really excited me as I have always found WWI to be insanely interesting and it was nice being able to research topics directly related to the war. I also got to complete tasks which involved looking at the Mehew collection, this collection is about Robert Louis Stevenson and his works which you may have heard of who’s works including books such as Treasure Island. This involved looking into the History of his works and checking up on the condition and safety of the valuable collection and implementing basic conservation measures to support delicate bindings. I also gained the chance to work with Napier’s expensive new collection scanner which I used to digitise fragile books from hundreds of years ago. Another one of my duties included Installing an exhibition about the history of Merchiston Tower and John Napier himself. Finally, my last task Included processing documentation for collection records. This taught me how to process documents and preserve important collection information for future curators and researchers to learn from.

Photo of Charlie volunteering at the special collections


I overall gained a lot from this experience which covered a wide range, this spanned from learning how to correctly handle historical records and valuable scanning equipment all the way to learning new information about historical time periods I had less knowledge on such as the Middle Ages and much more. I also was able to see just how fascinating it was to investigate the lives of those who came before us and how they lived their lives.

My experience in this volunteer position has further inspired me to study history at university and reinforced my love of the subject. It has also made me find a new interest in books and how they can be used to study the past.

As a whole, I loved my time volunteering, and it has given me tons of new experiences that will help me as I move forward to university next year.

By Charlie

Check out our Special Collection pages here.

Read more work experiences from other wonderful volunteers on the blog:

Part one Uncovering Hidden Histories: Provenance research internships in the Edward Clark Collection

Part two Uncovering Hidden Histories: Provenance research internships in the Edward Clark Collection

Uncovering Hidden Histories: Provenance research internships in the Edward Clark Collection

Uncovering Hidden Histories: Provenance research internships in the Edward Clark Collection

During July, the University’s Heritage Collections department hosted two student interns whose intrepid research skills greatly helped us to find information about past owners, donors and custodians of the rare books held within the Edward Clark Collection. Here, Wik Lyszczarz (MSc in Publishing) talks about their experience of their internship.

The internship with special collections Edward Clark Collection was very fascinating. I started this internship not knowing anything about the Edward Clark Collection within the University the whole time I have been here. Now that the internship is over, I have learned much about the collection and what it holds. I am grateful to know what all this time was hidden.

I entered this internship as a Master’s publishing student, and the thought of looking at books to see whose hands they have passed through was exciting. While looking through them, I could satisfy my publishing interests by looking at how the manuscripts and books were printed and bound.

We got to work after being trained on how to handle old books. Looking for provenance marks turned out to be a lot of fun, especially when you find something of note, the most exciting being names that we could research in the second half of the internship. However, the thing that has stuck with me most is that even though the books I looked at were printed from as early as the 12th century till the 16th century, during a time when the printing process was much more complicated, the books were more intricate. As someone who likes visual additions to manuscripts, there were many present in the multitude of manuscripts I was able to look through.

Here are some pictures of the exciting things I found, visual aspects of the manuscripts I liked, and some I would bring back to the publishing world today.


[Figure 1: Bookplate of Ernst Conrad Stahl (ECC B41).]

This image above features an Ex Libris insert that a previous reader put into this book. I found many of these within the books; they were handy when looking for people’s names, as the purpose is to show who the book belongs to. Most of the designs of these bookplates change depending on the owner; this one was my favourite as it is very intricate. This is something I would definitely bring back into use.


[Figure 2: Detail of a manicule in the Nuremberg Chronicle (ECC A18, fol. LXXIr).]

One thing I learned during this internship is that the hand in the image above is called a manicule. Manicules are a mark that has the appearance of a hand, one that is pointing. These used to be drawn by the reader to point out important parts of the text.

[Figure 3: Composition of illustrated initials, showing an illuminated ‘B’ (ECC A15, fol. 6r), a decorated ‘C’ (ECC A24, fol. 5v), and a woodcut of the letter ‘M’ (ECC B36, fol. 4r).]

Here are different types of letter embellishments. The first embellishment is an image of an illuminated letter; these embellishments were not typical in the books I went through. These make the manuscript feel a lot more luxurious and the colours used were very eye catching. The second embellishment is created by hand with ink. Each one of these varied within the manuscript this was due to them being hand drawn. Some manuscripts only used red ink as a secondary colour, whereas this one shown used both red and blue. This was a common practice; printing the actual text in black ink and then using red ink to highlight the beginnings of paragraphs, drop capitals and even the start and end of sentences. Lastly, the last embellishment is part of the printing process and has no colour, out of all of these it is not as eye cathcing, yet these can be very detailed. These tend to be the same design throughout the manuscript, however the design changes manuscript to manuscript.


[Figure 4: Calendar for the month of May (ECC B45).]

This is another thing I found out whilst doing this internship. The image above shows text with a border. The purpose of this border was not only for it to look good; in reality, it could also be so that people would be refrained from making annotations and notes about the text. These borders often feature in religious manuscripts.


[Figure 5: Press stamp (ECC B42).]

This image is of a printing press stamp, which shows you which old printer this manuscript was produced by. Not many of the books I looked at included these. The ones that were included always drew me in. Their design varies depending on the printer, some more intricate than others.

Another aspect of the internship I found informative was the second part. In the second part, we had to look up and research the numerous names we found throughout the books. Some of these names lead to nowhere, some names were misspelt or just didn’t have anyone they lead to. But some lead to some interesting people that were popular and known about in the past. A couple of these lead me down a rabbit hole. If I did not do this internship, I would have no idea that these people existed and what they did to become known.

I have really enjoyed my placement with special collections and the Edward Clark Collection and all the new things I learned and all the people I got to research. I will however be disappointed when I open my next book and there is a lack of quirks and stories to be found.

Further reading

You can read more about the university’s Heritage collections or read previous blog posts

By Wik Lyszczarz

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