Category Archives: About Lyell

30 Days In

Senior Lyell Archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, reviews her first month in post and shares some of the exciting work and plans afoot for the internationally significant Sir Charles Lyell archive.   

The Sir Charles Lyell archive is of international importance and attracts great interest from academics and researchers from around the world. A key aim of our Lyell project is to make the archive as openly accessible as possible. To achieve this aim, we are progressing a number of areas of project work.

Colour digital image of the spines of the Charles Lyell notebooks situated on shelf, showing notebook 213 onwards (Ref: Coll-203/A1)

The Charles Lyell Notebooks, 1825-1874
(Ref: Coll-203/A1)

Our project archivist, Elise Ramsay’s cataloguing work continues apace and Elise is aiming to complete the cataloguing of Lyell’s 294 notebooks by the end of July 2021. Between January and March 2021, Elise also undertook a pilot project to transcribe a sample of Lyell’s notebooks using ground-breaking transcription technology, Transkribus. Elise and I were delighted to showcase the Lyell archive, our project plans, and to share our learning from the pilot with 150 international delegates at the EDITOR Transcription Workshop held earlier in March 2021.  (More on that exciting development in a future blog post).

While Elise has been diligently cataloguing, I have been busy mapping all of the Lyell archive. We now have a really useful and comprehensive overview of the location, extent, scope and content of the four main elements of the collection, which feeds into our newly devised cataloguing work plans.

On completion of the first phase of cataloguing, the subsequent focus will be Lyell’s vast working correspondence and notes allocated to the University of Edinburgh in Lieu of Inheritance Tax in 2020. We have already migrated some of the existing descriptive data for this series to an electronic data-set which we can use to undertake a stock-take. This work will allow us to enhance the existing item level descriptions which we will then import into our online archives catalogue ArchivesSpace. With almost 1200 letters and a further 54 folders of papers including lecture notes and field-work we expect this work to keep us busy for some time!

Detail of a letter to Sir Charles Bunbury from the newly acquired Sir Charles Lyell archive. Stamped envelope, with address, black script handwriting on aged paper.

Letters from Sir Charles Lyell from the Sir Charles Lyell archive.
Photo © David Cheskin
(Ref: Coll-203/Uncat)

Lyell’s correspondence includes letters between Lyell family members from as early as 1806 (when Charles Lyell was only 9 years old), as well as over 640 letters received by Charles Lyell between 1829 and 1874. 65 of those letters are from botanist, explorer and close friend of the naturalist Charles Darwin, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). They cover almost 40 years (1846-1874) during which time, Hooker was appointed botanist to the Geological Survey of Great Britain, undertook expeditions to India, the Himalayas, Syria, Palestine, and Morocco, and was latterly appointed Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We can’t wait to discover how these letters further illuminate the relationships and ideas shared between Lyell, Darwin and Hooker. We will be sure to share our findings with you here – watch this space.

Thanks to generous funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, supplemented by philanthropic donations we are delighted that a comprehensive conservation and preservation project will commence, we hope, later in the summer of 2021 (global pandemic permitting). I have been working closely with our Special Collections conservator to pull together a work-plan for our incoming project conservator. The conservation project will see all of the Lyell archive cleaned, repaired, consolidated, stabilised, rehoused and the conservation work fully documented.  This work will serve to stabilise the collection, preventing the exacerbation and risk of further deterioration. Expect more updates on this work later this year.

Other work for me has centred around developing our project plans for the next three years: looking at how we can best enable collections access and bring to light the fascinating stories, ideas and knowledge from within the Lyell collections, to support learning, teaching and research. With this in mind, we quietly launched our public engagement account on Twitter on 8 March 2021.  We were somewhat overwhelmed by the warm welcome we received and are delighted to have amassed 184 friendly followers already.  You can follow us @LyellTime for more regular project highlights and chat from the project team as we work to preserve, catalogue, digitise and engage with the Sir Charles Lyell archive.

As well as plans for the development of our online resource ‘Charles Lyell’s World Online’ (thanks to generous funding from the International Association of Sedimentologists), we have a high profile, impactful and collaborative exhibition and engagement programme in our sights for the second half of 2023.

Our plans also include a significant programme of collections digitisation. We have completed a trial of photographing at high resolution 12 of Lyell’s notebooks. This means that you can now view over 1500 pages from these 12 notebooks via the University of Edinburgh Image Collections website. These images are CC-BY licensed supporting the University of Edinburgh’s open education activities and initiatives. You can find more information on CC-BY licensing on the Centre for Research Collections Image Licensing website pages.

Digitisation helps us to protect and preserve this unique archive collection whilst simultaneously enabling and enhancing access. Completing the digitisation programme means that digital images of the Lyell collections will be openly accessible online. Digitised content is also critical to our plans to generate transcriptions of the Lyell collections using Transkribus. Our ambition is to build on our existing transcription pilot to build a significant body of transcribed material, making the collections more broadly accessible to all levels of scholar.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about our news from the last month.  Please share your thoughts in the comments. Next month, Elise and our project volunteer Erin McRae, will be bringing you an update on our pilot transcription project – stay tuned!

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

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The Lyell Project Team is Growing!

22 February marks the anniversary of the death of renowned Scottish geologist, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, says ‘hello’ and reflects on Lyell’s contribution to our understanding of the world.  

Headshot of Elaine MacGillivray, newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

Hello Everyone! My name is Elaine MacGillivray and I am very happy to introduce myself as the newly appointed Senior Lyell Archivist at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections.

I am a registered archivist and bring to the project almost 20 years of experience working across archives in the local authority, business, community, and higher education sectors. I have worked at the University of Edinburgh since 2014, first as the archive lead on the School of Scottish Studies Archives refurbishment project and later, managing two Wellcome-funded, collaborative, archive cataloguing projects. In 2019, I was awarded ‘Record Keeper of the Year’ by the UK Archives and Records Association. I am a trustee of, and professional advisor to, a number of rural heritage organisations.

I enjoy the meticulous organisation of what often seems to others like utter chaos, and I love to connect people and their research interests to each other and to archive collections. When I am not knee-deep in project management and archive metadata, you will find me outdoors; up a hill, or exploring the back roads of Perthshire on my bicycle.

It is a real privilege to be entrusted with responsibility for the Sir Charles Lyell archive collections. Prior to the collections being transferred to the Centre for Research Collections, it is clear that the Lyell family invested a great deal of time and care in preserving and organising the collections whilst in their care. This places our archives and conservation team on a great foothold as we progress conserving and cataloguing the collections further, in order to ensure that they are preserved for posterity and, at the same time, made more widely accessible.

Lyell’s notebooks, correspondence, papers and objects are an immense and invaluable body of evidence. Collectively, they serve to illustrate how Lyell and others in his vast network came to formulate, interrogate and revise their ideas and their understanding of the world around them. Lyell is renowned for his contributions to geology, but the collections bring to light yet more about his own and others’ thinking, across a range of subjects and disciplines.

Earlier this week, Europe’s most active and iconic volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily, erupted once again. The 3,350m tall mountain has the longest recorded history of volcanic eruptions, dating back to 1500BC. The historic lava flows are considered to date as old as 300,000 years. It was Lyell’s systematic and methodical observations of Mount Etna from 1828 onwards that led him to develop his theories around geological time and to argue that the Earth was much older than had been previously believed. Lyell’s work throughout the nineteenth century was key to a monumental shift in our understanding of time and our place in the universe.

In 2021, Mount Etna is still one of the best-studied and monitored volcanoes in the world and its significance endorsed by its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value.

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

Detail of a hand-drawn watercolour map of Mount Etna from the Sir Charles Lyell archive (Ref: Coll-203/Uncat).

One of my favourite items from the collection thus far is a hand-drawn watercolour illustration of Mount Etna. My colleague and Head of Special Collections, Daryl Green, discovered the drawing in August 2020 as he sifted through part of the collection shortly after it arrived at the Centre for Research Collections. The drawing forms part of the continuous record of observations of Mount Etna dating from 1500BC to the present day. I suspect that it is only the first of many remarkable finds to come.

I am looking forward to working with colleagues, building on the fantastic work already undertaken in cataloguing, digitising and making the collections more accessible. We will continue to share our discoveries and project progress here.

We want to hear from you!

What else would you like to see on the ‘Through Lyell’s Eyes’ blog? Would you like to hear from our volunteers and interns? Perhaps you would like to read guest posts from academic experts? Would you like to meet more of our team? What about a ‘behind the scenes’ look at some of our cataloguing, transcription or conservation work? Should we include more visual content illustrating some of the items from our the collections? Would you be interested in more audio-visual content?

Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below – I look forward to hearing from you.

Elaine MacGillivray
Senior Lyell Archivist

 

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From the Stores #3: Notebook No. 13

This week I spent some time working with the following notebook, No. 13, which Charles Lyell kept during his tour in southern France in 1828. This tour was originally started with Roderick and Charlotte Impey Murchison, and was foundational in Lyell’s decision to devote his work to geology over law, and also to begin work to write Principles of Geology. It was in comparing the rock formations of Paris to the south of France, Montpellier, Nice, and Italy that he found common fossilised shellfish, and concluded that these areas must at some point have been underwater, and have since been slowly lifted. (Maddox, p. 42) It was here, too, that in writing to Murchison from Naples 15 January 1829, he devoted himself to the study of geology, “I shall never hope to make money by geology, but not to lose, and tax others for my amusement.”

The notebook is filled with journal style writing, daily entries, with full page detailed sketches, as pictured below. Lyell writes in ink and pencil. Subjects include: Valley of Magna, Etangs, Comparison of Montepellier calcium deposits to those in Paris.

References:

Maddox, Brenda. Reading The Rocks. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

 

Elise Ramsay

Project Archivist (Charles Lyell Collection)

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

enewcome@ed.ac.uk

From the Stores #2: Gideon Mantell

This week in the stores, I began to delve into the box lists which describe the new-to-us collection of further papers of Charles Lyell and the family which was received by the University in the summer through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. These are 18 boxes of papers and correspondence of Lyell, and I have embarked on scanning these box lists which will prepare for more in-depth cataloguing in the short to medium term. Here is what most box lists look like:

Gideon Mantell was a frequent correspondent of Lyell, and their life-long relationship started with a bang in 1821, when Lyell casually called on Mantell while visiting his old school at Midhurst. Having heard tell of the doctor from some workmen in the nearby quarry, Lyell rode the 25 miles over the South Downs and knocked on Mantell’s door nearly at dusk. Presumably they might have known each other’s names from the Geological Society, but one would imagine the visit would still have come as surprise at best. However, common interest prevailed, a well-stocked fossil cabinet provided great amount of conversation, and the two reportedly gossiped until morning. (Bailey, p. 48) Their published letters cover all from scientific theories, discoveries, to the latest gossip and accounts from the GeolSoc and Royal Society, of which they were both members.

In a week which is dominated by a race for a vaccine, we see similar scientific rivalries in the early years of geological science. Today Mantell is known for bringing to light and describing dinosaur reptiles. These letters from 1851 with Lyell may relate to a legendary dispute between Mantell, Lyell, and Sir Richard Owen surrounding a reptile fossil which was found in ancient rock, which previously had only yielded fish. At this time, years before Darwin’s Origins of the Species, views of the evolution of life were split into two camps; progressionists (today, this sect is called orthogenesis) believed that organisms have an innate tendency to evolve to a particular goal, and most followers believed this to mean a trend of increasing biological complexity through time. Any description of a tree of life usually falls within this hypothesis. Lyell and Mantell opposed this belief, identifying as anti-progressionists. A famous dispute occured between Lyell, Mantell, and Owens when Mantell and Owens wrote opposing descriptions of this curious fossil. The legend resolved with Owens in the wrong, and Lyell and Mantell in the right, but research using the archival collections of Owens and Mantell proves the legend wrong, revealing that Lyell urged Mantell, thought infirm and ailing, to write the description long after Owens had already been tapped to view and describe the fossil, and it was Mantell and Lyell who were in the wrong. This is a woefully clipped version of events, but I find the true value of work with archives here: with access and research to correspondence archives such as this one, the true stories of history are told, and legends can be found faulty.

References:

Charles Lyell, Sir Edward Bailey, 1962

For more about this progressionist dispute, see Michael J. Benton’s Progressionism in the 1850s: Lyell, Owen, Mantell and the Elgin fossil reptile Leptopleuron (Telerpeton)

 

Elise Ramsay

Project Archivist (Sir Charles Lyell Collection)

Discoveries in the Charles Lyell Collection

“[Charles Lyell’s] cultivated mind and classical taste, his keen interest in the world of politics and in the social progress and education of his country, and the many opportunities he enjoyed of friendly intercourse with the most leading characters of his age, make the letters abound in lively anecdotes and pictures of society, constantly interspersed with his enthusiastic devotion to Natural History.” -Katherine Lyell, Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart, 1881

To mark 7 months working with the Lyell collection, I’d like to share some discoveries I’ve made while cataloguing these amazing notebooks, and researching Lyell’s published works. Lyell today is known for his great discoveries of the Earth, and the elevation and establishment of the science. Here, we see Lyell’s other interests.

Discoveries:

  1. Charles Lyell was deeply interested in the role of universities and education in society. He writes in his notebooks extensively about the religious requirements at Oxford and Cambridge, to which he objected. In  Notebook 4 he  makes  this  list:

An image of a notebook page written in pencil or light pen in which Charles Lyell writes his thoughts on University education. Transcript: What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men - Dissenter who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16 to be required to go to church.

Notebook No 4, p. 106, one instance of Lyell’s notes on Universities and education.

Transcription: “What is the portion of those who ought to have a Univ[ersit]y Ed[ucatio]n in England. Who really have one? 1. Learn number Att[ourn]ys & their cle-rks. Barristers not Oxf[or]d or any Univ[ersit]y men – Dissenters who an barrister, attournies, or spe-cial pleaders &c [etc] 2. Engineers, Architects, Surveyors 3. Physician dissenters how many Surgeon d[itt]o. Discipline was intended. ought not those below 16, to be required to go to church.”

 

2. Dante’s Inferno was a constant reference in Lyell’s notebooks, though it’s not clear yet for what purpose, other than the geologist’s keen interest. In the midst of notes on other subjects, Lyell often makes brief abbreviated citations of the parts and lines of Dante. These must have been important to him, because he regularly references these citations in his table of contents. His father being a Dante scholar, this is intriguing for further research to understand how Dante’s poetry influenced Lyell’s understanding of the earth.

Excerpts from Notebook No. 4 (1827), where Lyell cites Dante.

3. Lyell wasn’t the only naturalist in his family, his sisters and father were keen on insect collecting and naming. In those days, much of the flora and fauna of Scotland had no official name, and therefore budding lepidopterists “discovered” and named the insects they caught. We hope to describe illuminating family letters like this in the newly acquired papers of Lyell.

Letter to Marianne from Charles Lyell concerning the Lyell sisters’ prowess and interest in identifying insects

4. Lyell’s eyesight is known for being poor and limiting his abilities all his life, but the reason why is now contested. Most biographies cite that his eyesight worsened while studying the law by candlelight, but in a letter to Murchison in preparation for their Grand Tour to France and Italy, Lyell writes that his eye injury was caused by the long days in the Tuscan sun on holiday with his family. On that Grand Tour, to appease his father, Lyell brought with him a clerk named Hall to aid him in his work and treatment of his eyes – though no detail of the treatment has yet been found.

Excerpt from a letter to Murchison, April 29, 1828, explaining his father’s wishes for Lyell to bring his clerk with him, to make up for his troubles with his eyes.

 

References:

Lyell, C. (2010). Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart (Cambridge Library Collection – Earth Science) (K. Lyell, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511719691

Bailey, E., 1962. Charles Lyell, F.R.S., (1797-1875). Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.

Charles Lyell Notebook No. 4, digitised here: https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/cennww

 

Earth Day

Lyell, his notebooks, and the quote "The past is the key to the present."

Of the many celebrations of Earth Days, Earth Day 2020 will be remembered.

Not only because it is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, but that it occurs during this unprecedented public health crisis; the parades, marches, and demonstrations characteristic of Earth Day have now been moved online, in the form of Earth Day Live. This intersection of Earth Day and COVID-19 is significant, as it comes at a time when we likely have heightened awareness of the power of nature, and its ability to stop humanity in our tracks, and shift our focus to the natural world we live in (which, here in Edinburgh, is springing to life in truly magnificent ways).

Sir Charles Lyell, known as a founder of modern geology, was innately interested in the course of nature, and keenly observed natural phenomena to form and prove theories about the Earth’s age, and continuous processes. Today, our understanding of climate change is built upon the concepts laid down by early geologists

like Lyell. Only with the concept of the Earth’s continuous process of deposition and erosion are we able to understand how our actions have consequences on the Earth and climate. Daryl Green, Head of Museums and Special Collections, writes,

“Lyell made acceptable the theory that the earth was millions of years old and that it was shaped by geological processes still active in the modern era.  He made it possible for people to think about the earth as a dynamic and developing planet in the way we do today.”

-Daryl Green, Head of Special Collections, Deputy Head of Centre for Research Collections

In his seminal book, Principles of Geology, Lyell constructed a main, pivotal point: “The present is the key to the past.” This keenly illustrates his outlook on geology, as he observed modern phenomena, data, and formations to interpret the geological history of the Earth. His book was key to implementing evidential methods to geology, but also to illustrating these ideas in a way that the public could understand. Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator of the Cockburn Museum writes,

“He was one of the first to open up the development of science through publishing books aimed at a more general reader, allowing lay people to access ideas, and thus allowed more people to examine the world around them and draw conclusions.”
– Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator, Cockburn Museum
On this landmark Earth Day, we highlight the outstanding work of Charles Lyell, through his observation and writing, which allows us to study the Earth and make conscious decisions in our daily lives. In the weeks to come, we will be sharing more from our collection of his scientific notebooks, and correspondence.

Two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks

Professor Withers and others viewing a selection of Charles Lyell notebooks, University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, February 2020

There are two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks: The Travels of His Own Mind – Travels of His Own Mind where Professor Charles Withers, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Edinburgh and Geographer Royal for Scotland, discussing the importance of Charles Lyell’s notebooks.

Also ‘Two Hundred and Ninety Four Notebooks, One Thousand One Hundred Donors’ – 294 notebooks, 1,100 donors where Professor Withers and Jacky MacBeath, Head of Centre for Research Collections and Head of Museums, University of Edinburgh, on why we are excited about Lyell!

 

Professor Richard Fortey on Lyell

  Lyell expert and enthusiast

Professor Richard Fortey is one of the most authoritative and engaging experts on the importance of Charles Lyell. A welcome supporter in the Lyell notebook campaign, he has recently been interviewed by Professor Brian Cox for the joint BBC and Royal Society series People of Science. Watch here for a persuasive account of Lyell’s scientific significance: People of Science

We’d also recommend Richard’s fascinating article on Lyell and deep geological time for the Geological Society (of which he is a past President): Lyell and Deep Time

Lyell Rocks! Saving & Sharing the Charles Lyell Notebooks

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.

 

Jacky MacBeath
Head of Museums & Centre for Research Collections