moving on and moving up

In retrospect I can’t believe I hesitated. I was settling nicely into my new job: with just a couple of weeks under my belt, I was getting things moving, finding my feet and enjoying the new environment. Then an email landed: a request for help in a recruitment process. When I opened the job description, I realised with a sinking feeling that the job on offer was the kind I’d been looking for for years, a job I really wanted. I kid you not, I actually hesitated. Thankfully some wiser people helped to me see sense and so I find myself now six months into another new role.  I’ve moved out of Information Services and back to The College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences to help establish a new research centre.

The Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society is a bit of an anomaly: based at College level rather than School or subject level, it will try to bring people together across fields and disciplines. It’s really about ensuring that our community is  prepared for and excited about the possibilities of data-driven research and that the voices of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are heard within broader data/digital debates.  Starting from scratch can be hard work, but we’re getting lots done (like our new website for example) and  there’s lots of exciting opportunities on the cards. I’m really enjoying being based back amongst the research community, and catching up with lots of familiar faces. It’s been a busy few months, but thankfully I have also had the odd moment or two to look out of my new office window – a great view, and a compensation for the nine (?) flights of stairs I now need to climb every morning.

view of arthur's seat, edinburgh

Well hello there!

It’s been some time since I’ve written anything on this page – I’ve been busy keeping  a variety of social media profiles active for work, which always leaves me with little energy for my own profile (and I’ve been growing and tending two small humans too, which pretty much takes up all my non-office-time these days).  Anyway, I’m delighted to say that I’ve just taken up a new role at UoE in which I think I’m likely to encounter lots of interesting research-related problems to think through and share. I’m now leading a team of research facilitators who will work with researchers across the University to ensure they are getting the most out of the digital services that are provided, and to ensure best practice is encouraged in using data, services and other resources.  We made a start this week trying to fully understand the workings of EDDIE, the HPC cluster here –  fascinating stuff, in which our initial questions are just leading to even more questions at the moment. I plan to write a post on the challenges of getting Hums researchers using a service like EDDIE some time soon.  I’ll also be engaging with research community events on a much more regular basis, so may well find time to share thoughts about those. Realistically though, it’s still going to be sporadic writing from me, and even then, as another Doonhamer once said, even the best laid plans gang aft aglay.

Lasswade in the Statistical Accounts

[As the service owner of the Statistical Accounts, I get to go out and talk to all sorts of nice people about these fascinating historical texts. The following is reposted from our statistical accounts blog]

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Lothian Family History Society, who meet just outside Edinburgh in the Lasswade Centre. It was a lovely opportunity to meet some of the people who have interests in the Statistical Accounts, and another chance for me to delve into the content of the Statistical Accounts and explore the kind of interesting descriptive details they contain. A great deal can be gleaned about our ancestors in the late 18th and early 19th century through these reports.  I thought it would be fun to focus on the parish in which we were present, so had a look at the two Lasswade accounts.

lasswade-1024x821The name Lasswade “signifies a well-watered pasture of common use”,* according to the Rev. M. Campbell MacKenzie, who complied the parish report for the second account. And well it might, given the position of Lasswade directly on the river Esk, in what is now the green belt around Edinburgh.

In the first account, we learn that the population in 1791 was more than 3000 inhabitants, so the village was a good size. There is plenty of work: agriculture is thriving and bleachfields, coal mining and paper making are the main (non-agricultural) industries with 260 people employed in the latter two. Around 150 women are employed as coal bearers underground. Only 50 people were claiming poor relief: the income from the church collection and fees (for weddings etc.), we learn, was supplemented by the heritors of the village:  “This mode they prefer widely to an assessment, a measure which ought always to be avoided, if possible, as it never fails to increase the number of claimants. There is a laudable spirit in the common people of this country, which keeps them from applying for aid out of the poor funds, so long as they can do anything from themselves. This arises from the apprehension that these funds depend for their supply solely on the voluntary contributions at the church door.” One of the common pastimes, the minister notes, is gardening: “the attention of the gardener is chiefly directed to the cultivation of strawberries, than which he has not a surer or more profitable crop […] It may be observed that it was in this parish that strawberries were first raised in any quantities for the public market.” So one of Lasswade’s claims to fame might be as the home of the commercially grown strawberry!

Half a century later, in 1841, Lasswade had a population of 5022: it had not quite doubled in size, but it had certainly increased. The growing parish had also been divided into two by this point, at least quoad sacra  (in a spiritual sense) but ‘temporal matters’, quoad civilia, were still common to both. Manufacturing in the area is now dominated by paper (c. 300 people) and carpets (c. 100 people). But despite the growing populace, and the 75 on the roll, and a considerable number of people who receive occasional assistance. There is an assessment, so the Heritors have evidently given up on their custom of supplementing the Church collections, which is perhaps unsurprising given the 50% increase in claimants. Gardening continues: “vegetation is both early and luxuriant” and by this time, we learn, the green charms of the area have rendered “the village of Lasswade a place of considerable resort to the inhabitants of Edinburgh and Leith numbers of whom annually spend the summer months in this delightful locality.”  Perhaps in keeping with its growing reputation as a notable locale in the area, the Lasswade report in the second account devotes a significant proportion of its pages to discussion of the lives of ’eminent characters’ and fascinating antiquities. The former include the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, Mr Clerk of Eldin, author of an important essay on naval tactics, and the late Lord Melville. The latter feature notable sights such as the caves below Hawthornden which could hold upwards of 60 men and were used to conceal troops during “the contest between Bruce and Baliol” and “the famous sycamore tree which is called the fours sisters and is about 24 feet in circumference at the base. It was under this tree that Drummond the poet was sitting when his friend Ben Jonson arrived from London, and hence it is also called Ben Jonson’s tree.” Such points of historical interest might appeal to the kind of metropolitan visitor that Lasswade was now attracting, and – like the second account report for neighbouring Roslin, which is given over almost entirely to a description of the ornamental chapel – it reads more like a tourist guide than a survey of the people and the land!

*All quotations in this post are taken from the Lasswade parish reports, which appear in the OSA, Volume 10 p. 227 – 288 and the NSA Vol 1, p. 323 – 337

Stewarding Scholarship: Should we leave archiving to publishers?

The shift to digital publishing has had revolutionary effects for researchers. Libraries licence e-journals from publishers, who provide quick and easy access form their online platforms. This enables students and lecturers to get to the articles they need easily and conveniently from their laptop or office. In terms of access, the picture is rosy. It is less so, however, when it comes to the long term. Continuing access and preservation have traditionally been enabled by the collecting activities of libraries who took a stewardship role in relation to the scholarly record. As publishers now only licence access to their content, and academic libraries no longer hold their own copies, the provision of post-cancellation access and archiving falls to publishers whose concerns are typically  commerical.
This is a situation I’ve been thinking through lately as part of the Keepers Extra project: I’ve drafted a couple of conference papers exploring the issues, one in collaboration with my colleague Peter Burnhill, was presented in Hannover, Germany and has been published in the proceedings of the IATUL conference. The other was delivered at ‘Where is the Library?’ the NOWAL Conference, July 2015, Manchester UK
Otty, L. ‘Stewardship and preservation of e-journals: what is the role of the academic library?’ Where is the Library? NOWAL Conference, July 2015, Manchester UK

Burnhill, Peter and Lisa Otty, Is it too late to ensure continuity of access to the scholarly record? Proceedings of the IATUL Conferences: 2015 IATUL Proceedings: Paper 6. Purdue E-Pubs, Purdue. 

Statistical Accounts Online

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 14.49.32I’m really pleased to have been assigned responsibility for the Statistical Accounts of Scotland Online, a pioneering digitsation project that has been online for around 15 years (meaning it has been very long lived and successful!).The accounts are absolutely fascinating documents – written by the ministers of Scotland’s parishes, they provide detailed, local descriptions of life in late 18th Century and early 19th Century Scotland.  This period of ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘improvement’, encompasses the agricultrual and industrial revolutions and thus witnessed radical and dramatic social change.

In this role, I’m going to be managing the redevelopment of the metadata, backend and interface of this important collection. You can follow our progress and learn more on the service blog.



I attended UKSG in Glasgow this week, my first professional rather than strictly academic conference. UKSG is a huge event, attended by all sorts of people who work with academic serials and scholarly publishing, and there was plenty of opportunity to meet other service providers and publishers, as well as librarians from around Europe. It was clearly a great opportunity for the library community to share knowledge and best practices, and to showcase their institution’s projects and innovations.  I found myself in more familiar territory with the keynotes, with their more theoretical concerns about academic reward systems, digital innovation and the ethics of open access. I particularly enjoyed Geoff Bilder’s talk, which took a polemic postion to argue that the conference topics — open access, data metrics, reproducibility– were straw men that distract from a much deeper problem. Pointing to the issue of how ‘publish or perish’ distorts the scholarly communications ecosystem, he talked us through data that showed the difference in number between ‘first time authors’ and ‘repeat authors’, data which suggests that around 80% of academics author one article and then cease to produce more, and data which showed the number of qualified researchers who leave academia to pursue careers elsewhere (apparently only a shocking 0.45% remain in the sector in a permanent post over the course of their career). Other highlights were the sessions on Humanities attitudes to open access and altmetrics.

Recordings of all the talks can be found here.

Young Academy of Scotland: Careers Beyond Academia

I’m speaking at an event in Glasgow next week, focused on careers beyond academia for those with Humanities PhDs. I feel a bit of a fraud in some ways, as I’m still employed in a ‘alt-ac’ kind of role, working in a university and continuing to do many of the same kinds of activities as I did as an academic. However, I do recall how intimidating it felt to be looking at ads for ‘professional’ jobs and wondering if my application would be taken seriously and what it felt like to be attending interviews in which I had to really draw out connections between my experience and the role requirements that did not seem obvious to the interviewers. So I’ll be sharing some insights into the approaches I took, and the help I sought out. Perhaps I’ll find time to write it up for this blog at some point too!

The event is on 14th May, at Glasgow Caledonian University, and it’s organised as part of the Young Academy of Scotland.

A change of scene

edinaI’ve recently accepted a new job, a Project Officer post at EDINA which is a national data centre supported by Jisc and based at the University of Edinburgh. It’s a bit of a side step for me, but in some ways a logical one, as I’m effectively just taking my research interests in digital technology, book history, archives and publishing into a different professional context.  I’m going to be supporting projects that focus on developing bibliographic and mulitemedia services for the higher education sector in the UK and internationally. I’m looking forward to formalising some of the project management skills I’ve developed in the last few years and to learning more about software and service development.

The Process of Content: on a temporality in contemporary art

I’m delighted to have been asked to chair this panel discussion on the 29th of November, at an event that responds to the Cooper Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Anna Oppermann: Cotoneaster horizontalis.’ Opperman’s fascinating work attempts to map processes of  cognition, tracing loops of response, reflection and reiteration in her fascinating ensembles. As the gallery writes, “process formed an integral part of Oppermann’s practice and she carefully produced an archive of material documenting  her production method. By drawing on the artist’s archival intention, the exhibition [explores] how to activate archival materials within a discursive exhibition situation and the role of new technologies in archival practices.” The speakers will share their insights into the art world and practices of Opperman’s time, the 1970s and 80s, and reflect on how her work speaks to our own historical moment.  Among  them will be Professor Martin Warnke and Carmen Wedemeye, who produced a digital archive in response to Oppermann’s complex ensembles, which can be accessed in the gallery, creating another context and iteration of her work.  Details of the event can be found here.

Mapping the Canongate

[Reposted from the Palimpsest Project Blog]

Last weekend the Scottish Storytelling Centre held a series of events exploring the history of the ‘glorious half mile to Holyrood’ that is the Canongate. The event was part of the Scottish International Story-Telling Festival Once Upon a Place.

The Palimpsest team went along to talk about the ways in which this ancient and intriguing part of the old town has been immortalised in writing. Our  ‘virtual tour’ looked back through historic maps of the area, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, and traced the ways in which the Canongate has developed from its foundation in the early 12th Century through to the 21st Century.


James Gordon of Rothiemay, Plan of Edinburgh (1647)

The maps themselves tell interesting stories of how travellers and inhabitants experienced and thought of the city. You can see in the 1610 prospect by John Speed, for example, that the Canongate seems to be very much a part of Edinburgh, with no division between the neighbouring burghs. In fact, as James Gordon of Rothiemay’s 1647 plan makes clear, Edinburgh and the Burgh of Canongate were distinct at the time and separated by the imposing Netherbow gate.  It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century in fact, long after the Netherbow gate had disappeared, that the two burghs were officially united.


To illustrate the visual stories of the maps, we read extracts of literary works that are set in or describe this important thoroughfare, its architecture and its inhabitants. Among them Daniel Defoe’s  ‘A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’  gave us an image of the Netherbow, while Boswell’s account of his meeting with Samuel Johnson in the Black Bull Inn and their stroll up the mile together gave a visceral sense stench of the overcrowded slums, and Robert Fergusson’s Auld Reekie painted a picture of a ruined Holyrood House, once a great palace but then a squatters sanctuary:

For O, waes me! the Thistle springs
In Domicile of ancient Kings,
Without a Patriot to regrete
Our Palace , and our ancient State .
Blest Place! whare Debtors daily run,
To rid themselves frae Jail and Dun

canonagte taraThe picture of the Canongate that emerged from writing about the area is fascinating: from its 17th century grandeur, with its  luxurious palaces with lush gardens, it gradually declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, coming to be marked by  industrialisation and poverty and associated with the dark deeds of figures like Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare.

In the 20th century, as its inhabitants were moved out to social housing on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it became something of a backwater, a quiet and rather neglected area.

With the arrival of the Parliament, however, and with active community centres like the Storytelling Centre drawing people and attention to the old town, a new phase in the area’s development is in full swing and it looks like the Canongate’s future will be as glorious as its past. It was certainly great fun to be a part of the celebrations.

–  Lisa Otty