Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) was a Victorian Scottish geologist, recognised as one of the outstanding scientists in an age of remarkable thinkers.
He’s best known as the author of Principles of Geology (1830-33), which has been called the most important scientific book ever, and which presented to a wide public the idea that the earth was shaped by natural forces over a very long period of time not unique catastrophes – such as Noah’s flood and other biblical events. He pioneered an explanation of climate change and is credited with providing the framework that helped Darwin develop his evolutionary theories. So it is for this and more that Lyell is counted amongst the founders of modern geology.
Lyell’s 294 notebooks are his field notes and they capture, in remarkable detail, his daily engagement with scientific and social issues. They contain travel accounts of his journeys all over the UK, Europe, and the US and are full of queries and discussions on the letters and books he was reading at the time. As a result, we have his thoughts on social and political issues such as slavery in the United States of America, women in science and university education. There are also geological observations, long essays on earthquakes and volcanoes, real sense of the man standing there in front of Mount Etna or in Pompeii, observations on glacial moraines, lists of fossils and shells and notes on threats to species diversity, and letters to Darwin.
Earlier this year it came to light that, having been kept safely in the Lyell family for generations, the Sir Charles Lyell notebook collection was at risk of being sold abroad. The Government set an export bar giving us until 15th October 2019 to buy the books at a cost of £966,000. The University of Edinburgh began a campaign to save the notebooks for the nation and mounted an awareness and fundraising campaign with our colleagues in D&A. Lectures, advocacy events, a website, social media campaign and a flurry of meetings, phone calls and funding applications were done at speed. Support and funding was secured from leading institutions, groups and over 1000 individuals who pledged donations and, as a result, we have been able to buy the notebooks.
We know that the pledgers will want to see the notebooks as soon as they get here, so it is our duty to make them as accessible as possible as quickly as possible. We’ll do some initial work to make that happen including digitation and display.
The collection will join our existing extensive archive and geology collections, giving us an unrivalled Lyell collection. Working with our colleagues in Geosciences, we are considering the best ways we can make our extended Lyell collections accessible and used. We’re also going to virtually join up all the Lyell Collections across the world, mount an exhibition on climate change with cultural partners in Edinburgh, and make the books and the data open. Finally – in some eerie echo to the future: in notebook 39 in 1830 Lyell refers to his concerns about ‘present and future climate changes,’ in Paris no less.
Earth sciences are relevant to us all – given the impacts of climate change and the changing geographical environment – and understanding the Lyell story has huge potential impact on us all.
That is why Lyell rocks.
Head of Museums & Centre for Research Collections