Digitalising collections


The Signet Library’s archive of eighteenth-century Session Papers is the second largest in existence. Beginning as pleading papers in the Court of Session and High Court, two centuries on they are the single most significant unexplored primary source for Scottish historical research. So wide is their social and geographical spread that every significant figure and event in Scotland’s long eighteenth century is to be found in their pages.

The Session Papers reveals considerable WS Society innovation and achievement. Among the collection is the set employed by Robert Bell WS in the 1790s to produce the earliest law reports in Scottish history, incorporating direct judicial opinion for the first time. Bell also produced a classified subject index for the Session Papers. The Mill Index of 1907-1919 is still the only index of a complete collection of Session Papers to be created and remains in use today.

Every aspect of human life is covered in the Session Papers, from piracy to divorce, murder to disputes over flowerbeds. Here are the decisions that ended slavery, with extensive handwritten notes from the judges who would determine its abolition. Here are the disputes that shaped the modern laws of copyright, now under the onslaught of the internet. Here are genealogical charts of families at every level of society, pay tables for Scotland’s nascent industries, architectural drawings and exquisite maps of town and country, many the earliest of their kind.

The Signet Library’s Session Papers, in conjunction with the three other major collections (two in Edinburgh, one at the University of Virginia) have the potential to transform the study of eighteenth-century Scotland. The WS Society and partners including the National Records of Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and the Advocates’ Library have embarked on the largest single digitization project in Scottish history. The Session Papers Digitization Project will see every paper in every collection photographed, transcribed, interpreted and cross-referenced, and placed online for all to use. The Project is the WS Society’s single largest scholarly interaction in a century.