Conservator Claire turns to the dark side (but it all ends well).

I am now in my final week of the Lyell Project; time has flown by as myself and our exceptional interns have breezed through the plethora of material in this collection. Once they had finished their internships, my work turned to focus on some of the most challenging conservation work … the printed books!

Held within both the Lyell new accession and the University’s own collections, 22 printed volumes and a handful of special collection volumes were identified as being in need of interventive treatment. Several of the printed volumes had significant structural damage to their boards and spines. It was clear that through use, the tension the volume had undergone – that is the opening and closing – had led to this damage. I had to be careful that whatever method I chose to rectify this would be sympathetic to the remaining structure, and that new materials would need to be carefully introduced to support the volume structurally. All 22 volumes were at different stages of degradation; they all needed some form of structural repair to mitigate this damage. It was a similar picture with the special collection volumes, which were alike in binding style. This blog focuses on the worst of those bunch.

A small handful of the volumes were in the condition that you see Figure 1 below. Spines and boards were detached or even missing altogether. What was left, was falling apart, and the leather had little integrity.

Special Collections volume before treatment

Special Collection Volume before treatment (SC6373)

Figure 2- Diagram demonstrating the layers of the Honey Hollow technique

After some thought and research, I decided to use the ‘Honey Hollow’ technique to restore the structure of the volumes, which introduces new materials including a cast of the spine that acts as the new structure. The original spine is then attached to it, but no longer takes on any structural responsibility. This was the most feasible choice, as the condition and strength of the leather that was remaining was too poor. An illustration of the Honey Hollow technique can be seen in figure 2:

 

All book conservation work started with surface cleaning, consolidation of red rot and any corner repairs. Normally the first step is to lift the original spine piece from the volume. As this had already detached this was not needed. Once they had been safely stored, the casting could begin. The book was placed in a finishing press, and cling film was tightly wrapped around the spine to act as a barrier from any moisture whilst casting the spine. Pieces of 12gsm Japanese tissue were cut and attached layer by layer onto the exposed spine using wheat starch paste. Dependent on the width of the book, between 7-10 layers of tissue were required to make a strong cast.

Figure 3 – Casting of the spine using Japanese Tissue and wheat starch paste

Once the cast had dried, it was removed and trimmed. The book remained in the finishing press whilst the leather on the boards was carefully lifted using a leaf spatula. This is where the new Aerolinen fabric would be inserted. This fabric is commonly used in book conservation for both board reattachment and spine repairs. As it needed to wrap around the entire spine, a piece of the linen was pasted to the cast with a 1cm margin either side for insertion into the boards. The attachment to the spine needed to be strong, so EVA was the adhesive used for this part of the process.

Figure 4 – Left: Lifting of the board leather, Right: New Aerolinen cast

Aerolinen can be toned to make the original spine piece in other applications, however in this case it is best to cover the linen with a toned Japanese tissue of a heavier weight. A medium tone was chosen that could match the darker parts of the leather, rather than the lighter areas where it had degraded. Once attached and trimmed, it was now time to attach the original spine cover to the cast (making sure it was the right way up!).

Figure 5 – Toned Japanese Tissue cover of the cast

As often only two thirds of the original spine cover was left, some more acrylic painting had to be done to mask the toned paper. The degradation of the leather was much worse on the spine piece, so the toned Japanese tissue did not match it as well as the sides. After a little bit of painting, the overall look of the new cast was more in keeping with the original spine. All that was left to do was to repair any inner joints inside the book at the start and end of the volume with a light Japanese tissue.

Figure 6 – Special Collection Volume after treatment

The technique overall was a success; this volume and others like it are now safe to handle, and the repairs blend in with the original condition of the rest of the book. It was a really interesting technique to employ and, more importantly, a satisfying one.  This was a great experience for me to put both my ethical and technical skills to work to protect the volumes and retain what was left of the binding.

Claire

 

 

 

New blog from the Digitisation Service

Project Photographer John Sikorski attends to the process of setting a Lyell Notebook into the digitisation camera.

Its taking teams of multi-skilled people to open up the Charles Lyell collection! Read all about the Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service Team’s efforts to digitise the Notebooks on their latest blog here:

From Castles to Cradle: Photographing the Lyell Notebooks | Digital Imaging Unit (ed.ac.uk)

Its a long road ahead, but already 87 of the Notebooks are now completed and online. The images are being added to the University of Edinburgh’s Image website, LUNA, and you can find them here:

Search Results: All Fields similar to ‘Coll-203’ and Who equal to ‘Lyell, Charles (Sir)’ – University of Edinburgh

Thanks to all the CHDS staff – keep going!

Lyell staff update the Murray family donors

It was a great pleasure for some of the Lyell project staff to welcome the Murray family to the Library, and to show them how their generous support is allowing the archive to be conserved, digitised and curated. The repairs and bespoke rehousing of the notebooks were found to be particularly interesting.

John, Claire, Pamela, Susan, David and colleagues look forward to updating the rest of our supporters as well as welcoming further donors to Edinburgh in the months ahead.

Some of the Lyell project staff  post with John and Ginny Murray when they met at the University's Main Library

Hello from Pamela, new Strategic Projects Archivist

Strategic Projects Archivist, Pamela McIntyre started in mid January, and will be leading on the Charles Lyell Project. Pamela introduces herself, and shares her insight on the internationally significant Sir Charles Lyell archive.   

Hello! After training in a number of repositories across the UK I qualified as an Archivist from Liverpool University in 1995. My first professional post was a SHEFC-funded project to catalogue, preserve and promote the archives of Heriot-Watt University, and its then associated colleges – Edinburgh College of Art, Moray House and the Scottish College of Textiles. Since then, I’ve worked with local authority, private and business archives, and with fine art and museum collections. I have always really enjoyed the practical elements of archive work, and getting people involved, and consequently, I’ve diversified, working in the third sector with volunteers. My last post was Project Development Officer, Libraries. Museums & Galleries for South Ayrshire Council – some highlights of my time there include breaking the ‘Festival of Museums’ with a ‘Day o’ the Dames’ event (sorry, Museum Galleries Scotland!), hosting an amazing exhibition about the history of tattoos, and spending two days at Troon, Prestwick, Maidens and Girvan beaches in support of COP26. I’m thrilled to join Edinburgh University, getting back to my archival roots – and it’s safe to say, Charles Lyell and I are getting on great!

I’m so impressed with the work that’s been done so far. I want to thank the previous staff for all of their efforts.

I am new to Geology, and one of the ways I get to know collections is by searching for subjects I do know about – using family names or places I know. Lyell travelled extensively, and whilst this may well influence my forthcoming holiday plans – it was particularly reassuring to find and read about his trip to the Isle of Arran – a place I love.

From Hutton’s visit in 1787, many geologists have visited Arran. Robert Jameson published his account in 1798, followed by John Macculloch in 1819. Geologists from overseas also visited, and Lyell had studied von Dechen and Oeynhansen’s accounts of 1829. As Leonard Wilson notes in his book Charles Lyell: the Years to 1841:

With its granite mountains and numerous dikes of traprock intersecting and altering stratified sedimentary rocks, Arran was a veritable laboratory for Lyell’s study of hypogene rocks and for the confirmation of his metamorphic theory.

Charles and Mary Lyell stayed at Arran for the first two weeks of August 1836, a trip chronicled by Lyell in Notebooks 62 and 63. Notebook 62 is digitised, and available on the University of Edinburgh’s LUNA image website. From page 60, Lyell noted their plans – arriving in Glasgow, a meeting with Hooker, and stop offs at both the Hunterian and the Andersonian – then plans his trip around the island.

Notebook No.62 p.60 plans for travel round the island of Arran

He then began an analysis of the geology of the island, posing questions, and offering amazing drawings.The pages of the notebooks are packed with details, almost at a breath-taking pace.

Notebook No.62 p.62

 

Notebook No.62 p.63

Lyell immediately made connections with what he saw in Arran with Forfarshire, Fife and Antrim, whilst taking the details of experts and mineral sellers resident in Glasgow, and making another simple line drawing showing the skyline of Goatfell.

By page 66 he is making significant notes entitled ‘Elements’, culminating in what appears to be the proposed structure of chapters for his book.

Wilson adds to the context of that trip; Mary met Lyon Playfair on the boat across – Andrew Ramsey later joined the party. Playfair accompanied Mary on the beach collecting shells, whilst Ramsey and Lyell geologised. At the end of their trip to Arran, the Lyells returned to Kinnordy until the 28th September. Wilson notes:

It was a long rest and summer vacation – a complete break from London, foreign travel and scientific meetings. During the preceding four years Lyell had worked through three editions of the Principles, three tours on the continent, one long trip through Sweden, and all the duties and demands of the foreign secretaryship and presidency of the Geological Society. Mary had acted in part as his secretary and assistant. She wrote many of his letters, helped to catalogue shells, and protected him from visitors. She had accompanied him on his excursions on the continent often under extremely primitive conditions; she had been abandoned in hotel rooms while Charles was off geologizing; she was often lonely. The vacation was for her too a chance to revitalise. When they arrived back at 16 Hart Street Lyell wrote to his father “Everyone is quite struck with the improvement in Mary’s health & appearance’.

I know Mary Horner Lyell as the daughter of Leonard Horner, who by setting up the Edinburgh School of Art in 1821 laid the foundations for Heriot-Watt College. It’s a small world. I am looking forward to being reacquainted with Mary, whose intelligent support to her husband is evidenced in the Lyell Collection by copious correspondence from when they first met.

Mary Elizabeth (née Horner), Lady Lyell
by Horatio Nelson King
albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s
NPG x46569
© National Portrait Gallery, London

I have not come across any mention of Ailsa Craig! However, I have found a reference to Kilmarnock, a topic for a future blog! Familiarisation – to some extent – achieved, it’s now time to decide priorities, to create projects, to engage with people, and to continue the aims of opening up the Lyell collection to all.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

An update from Project Conservator, Claire

My name is Claire Hutchison and I am very proud to introduce myself as the Lyell Project Conservator at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections. I am a Paper Conservator who has worked extensively across archives in Edinburgh on a number of archival projects. My work has led me to become a specialist in fragile formats, such as transparent papers, newspapers and wet press books. This is not my first time working at the CRC; I was lucky enough to be an intern in the conservation studio twice in my career.

I have learnt a lot about Lyell and his dedication to recording his findings since starting. It’s a very personal collection, and it’s clear that they were cherished by Lyell. The labels and indexes are beautifully written and constructed; one can only dream of having the same patience and dedication with their own notebooks. As a Conservator, I was also impressed to find examples where Lyell had hand sewn his index pages into the notebooks. It’s a wonderfully consistent collection which has been a pleasure to conserve. It’s also been made clear to me since starting just how sought after this notebooks are as requests have been flying in; researchers are keen to start connecting those dots across the collection.

Conserving the Notebooks prior to digitisation was imperative in order to prevent loss or further damage to the bindings. The 294 Notebooks were in varying levels of condition, however, overall they were stable with very few requiring intense treatment. It was clear from the flexibility of the spines that they had been well used and heavily manipulated by Lyell on his travels. The adhesive Lyell used to apply his labels and covering material was starting to fail. The earlier Notebooks suffer from red rot – commonly found in vegetable-tanned leathers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leather will become dusty, and the fibrous structure will deteriorate, resulting in the damage or complete loss of the leather binding.

Reattachment of covering material before and after

Internally, it was clear that Lyell had held and bent the spines to write into positions that had caused splits to form between the signatures of the text block. If not treated, these will worsen with handling and ultimately lead to loose pages or whole sections of the text block detaching fully from the binding. Lyell used either graphite or ink within his notebooks, so gelatine has been used to ensure that no bleeding or movement of the corrosive iron in the ink occurred. A strip of Japanese paper was applied to repair this inner joint and prevent further splitting (see example below).

Setup and attachment of inner joint repairs

In some rare instances, further intervention was needed where parts of the spine were lost and the sewing was exposed. This required lifting back the leather of the boards either side of the spine and inserting a repair to stabilise the structure. Layers of Japanese paper were applied to the spine and built up to the required thickness of the leather. Then a final layer of toned Japanese paper was applied to the top, blending in with the rest of the spine piece.

Spine repairs before, during and after treatment

Thanks to generous funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, two 8-week interns have started working on the Lyell Project. They are helping to assist in the overall efforts of the project, but also have been given their own branch of the collection to work on. Sarah MacLean is currently working on the 1927 donation of letters of correspondence. Joanne Fulton has been given the task of rehousing Lyell’s collection of Geological specimens. This month, my work on the project will continue with the conservation and rehousing of the printed material in the collection, such as Lyell’s own copy of the ‘Proceedings of the Geological Society’.

Stay tuned for more conservation updates soon!

 

Tagged , , , , ,

Project Re-boot!

The last few years has seen us all face challenges and embrace change – and the Charles Lyell Project is no different. The Project has said farewell to Elaine and Elise – and we thank them both so much for all their efforts and wish them well. We also need to thank existing University of Edinburgh, CRC and Digital Library staff for keeping the aims and objectives of the project alive – and we can report that there’s been significant progress on recruitment, funding, digitisation, and in conservation.

So – more blogs are GO!

Starting with conservation, we are delighted to signpost you to two brilliant blogs, detailing the work of the fantastic Interns who have been working on the Lyell papers and specimens.

Supported by Project Conservator Claire (her blog forthcoming) the Intern’s light but expert touch has greatly enhanced the health and well-being of the collection. Find out more here:

Righting Letters – Conserving the Lyell Collection | To Protect and (Con)serve (ed.ac.uk)

and

Homes for Rocks – Rehousing the Lyell Geological Specimen Collection | To Protect and (Con)serve (ed.ac.uk)

Reverse of an envelope addressed to Charles Lyell, part of the Acceptance in Lieu deposit. Photograph taken by Sarah McLean.

Tagged

We are digitisation ready to go!

We want to share our exciting news featuring the Sir Charles Lyell notebooks! Curious? Read on…. 

We are very happy to advise that the fuller project to digitise Lyell’s notebooks will start in September 2021. This means that we will soon be able to add yet more digital images of Lyell’s notebooks to those currently available to view online.

This important work is possible thanks to our generous supporters, who, in responding to our funding appeal, have donated over £40,000. That’s enough to fund two specialist photography staff for 12 months. The work will take place in a newly fitted out digital imaging studio, kitted out with new equipment.

The logo of the Geologists' Association Curry FundThank you to all the individual donors and bodies who have supported us so far. In addition to our anonymous supporters, we would also like to acknowledge the ongoing support of the Murray family, Jim Hunter, the History of Geology Group and the Geologists’ Association Curry Fund. If you are interested in helping us complete the digitisation project’s funding target that would be wonderful. Individual gifts may be made online at: https://donate.ed.ac.uk/portal/public/donate/donate.aspx?destination=LyellAccess

Or please contact David McClay directly to discuss: 07815903725 or david.mcclay@ed.ac.uk

Lyell Inspires!

This month we learn that Erin, one of our Lyell project volunteers, has had her eyes opened to the present-day natural world – thanks to inspiration from our Sir Charles Lyell Collection.

We have all caught the Lyell / Geology bug here at the Sir Charles Lyell Collection Project HQ. Each of us has developed a preoccupation with spotting and identifying pebbles, fossils, gneiss, and schist and so on. Our work and personal libraries groaning with the additional weight of multiple biographies of Lyell, and an almost absurd array of spotters guides to rocks, minerals and fossils. Even our twitter feeds are increasingly populated with evidence of geological time lines (mostly pebbles with veins). No return from a trip to the beach complete without a pocketful of geological specimens; pebbles of grey granite, ovoid pebbles of slate with quartz vein running through it, fragments of whitish chert, and things we used to know, simply, as shells.

A digital photographic image showing a handwritten, in pencil and in ink, list of shells which were sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840. from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February – 25 June, 1840, Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

A list of shells sent to Bedford Place, dated 5 February 1840, from Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 80, 5 February 1840 – 25 June, 1840, (Ref: Coll-203/A1/80)

On my desk, as I type, are an assortment of granite, quartzite, and possibly metamorphic mud – a recent haul from Point beach on the Isle of Lismore. It is one of the great privileges of working so intimately with historical collections: we are repeatedly offered a unique opportunity to develop knowledge and interest in a person, subject, or era that, most likely, would have eluded us had we chosen a different line of work. Earlier this week I read, in the New York Times, Dennis Overbye’s review of the renovated hall of gems and minerals at the American Museum of Natural History. He suggests that ‘Geology Is Our Destiny’.1 For all of us working together to interpret, catalogue and make accessible the Sir Charles Lyell Collection, it would certainly seem so.

Project volunteer, Erin, has developed only a little infatuation with molluscs (to the extent that her new found knowledge required the creation of its very own data-set – Erin is a qualified archivist after all). In working with the Lyell notebooks, Erin has begun to see the world through Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological wisdom. The present-day natural world has opened up to Erin in a way she had never imagined possible. Here, Erin tells us more about her work transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes and how it has fuelled her growing obsession.

“Transcribing Sir Charles Lyell’s scientific notebook indexes has been a sometimes ruffling but always captivating journey. The one thing I never expected was that like Lyell, I found myself becoming fascinated with molluscs. The Mollusca phylum is:

“one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with at least 50,000 living species (and more likely around 200,000) [and it] includes such familiar organisms as snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, and chitons”.2

Lyell often took note of the different genera and species he found during his travels. In notebook 80, for instance, I found a list of shells belonging to various molluscs which Lyell had identified and had sent to his home in London.

I felt like both an amateur detective and biologist as I hunted for these bivalves and gastropods on the World Register of Marine Species and MolluscaBase (a global species database, covering all marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs, both recent and fossil). As I transcribed, I felt compelled to document them and my new found knowledge about them in an Excel data-set. Some of them proved very elusive and some others are still a mystery. The excitement I felt each time I was able to find a mollusc Lyell had listed was extremely gratifying, particularly when the name he had recorded had fallen out of accepted or general use.

What I have loved most about transcribing Lyell’s notebook indexes is how much I am able to learn from only one index entry; nineteen molluscs in a single page that I had the pleasure of trying to find and learn about! This is what I feel is the most rewarding part of being an archivist. Through this amazing collection we are given the opportunity to explore the life and times of Sir Charles Lyell while presenting his knowledge, research, ideas and wondrous curiosity to a wider audience.

Now, each time I go to Yellowcraigs or North Berwick for a wild swim, I can’t help but stop and examine the rocks, the shells, the crab skeletons, the little pools full of marine life and of course the molluscs. I never would have stopped to explore in this way had I not first discovered so much through the eyes of Sir Charles Lyell.”

We hope you enjoyed reading about how the Sir Charles Lyell Collection has inspired our project volunteer, Erin, to observe and learn about her natural surroundings with new-found enthusiasm.  Erin’s story is just one example of the power of historical collections to enable, support and enhance the acquisition of new knowledge, learning and understanding. We would love to know how you might use the collection to aid learning, teaching and research. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Dr. Gillian McCay, assistant curator at the Cockburn Geological Museum, for her help in identifying the Point beach pebbles. Look out for our next blog post, (coming very soon), when we will be taking a bit of a deep-dive into Lyell’s indexes and hearing from another of our project volunteers, Michael. Thanks for reading!

Elaine MacGillivray, Senior Lyell Archivist
Erin McRae, Lyell Project Volunteer

Sources and further information:
1. Dennis Overbye, ‘Why Geology Is Our Destiny’, The New York Times, 22 June 2021 (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/science/natural-history-museum-gems-minerals.html), [accessed 25 June 2021].
2. Paul Bunje, ‘Lophotrochozoa: The Mollusca: Sea slugs, squid, snails, and scallops,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B274(1624):2413-2419 (https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/taxa/inverts/mollusca/mollusca.php), [accessed 25 June 2021] .
World Register of Marine Species
MulluscaBase

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Introducing the Lyell Advisory Board

We are very happy to introduce our Sir Charles Lyell Collection Advisory Board.  

A digital colour image of two pages of Sir Charles Lyell's notebook number 141, which covered the dates 15-25 April 1846. The notebook is a small leather bound notebook and is completed in ink and pencil.

Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebook, No. 141, 15-25 April 1846 (Ref: Coll-203/A1/141)

The Sir Charles Lyell Collection team is made up of cohort of professional curatorial, conservation, photography, public access and engagement staff. Our work is enhanced by the support of volunteers and student interns. Together, we work collaboratively to preserve, conserve, interpret, catalogue, digitise, transcribe and provide access to and engagement with the Sir Charles Lyell Collection. In doing this work we aim to make this internationally significant and unique collection accessible to all, further enabling its position as a vital resource for teaching, research and public engagement.

We are very grateful to be supported and guided by a very knowledgeable and experienced advisory board. Our advisory board meets every quarter and is made up of a range of internal and external academics, as well as a number of directors of Earth Science and related collections from across the United Kingdom.

 “The Advisory Board is pleased to volunteer its assistance in helping the University of Edinburgh make available for research and public engagement this globally important historical archive and geological collection.”

Board Statement by Professor Charles W.J. Withers FBA FRSE – Chair

Details of our current advisory board membership will always be published on the Sir Charles Lyell Collection webpages and we provide them here for your information. Thank you to all of our advisory board members for contributing their time and expertise in support of all of our work with the Sir Charles Lyell Collection.

Chair

Professor Charles W. J. Withers FBA FRSE
Emeritus Professor of Historical Geography, University of Edinburgh
Geographer Royal for Scotland

Board members

Dr Sam Alberti PhD FRSSA
Keeper of Science & Technology, National Museums Scotland

Dr Hermione Cockburn FRSE FRSGS
Scientific Director, Dynamic Earth

Professor Richard Fortey FRS FRSL
Natural History Museum London – Emeritus

Professor Aileen Fyfe FRHistS FHEA
Professor of Modern History, University of St Andrews

Professor Richard Herrington
Head of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum London

Ms Eliza Howlett
Head of Earth Collections, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Professor Sandra Kemp
Director, The Ruskin-Library, Museum and Research Centre

Professor James A. Secord FBA FRHistS
Director, Darwin Correspondence Project
Emeritus Professor, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

Ms Maggie Simmons FGS
Director of Publishing, The Geological Society of London

Professor John Underhill FGS FRSE
Professor of Exploration Geoscience, Heriot-Watt University

Advisor

Mr Daryl Green FSA
Head of Special Collections, Centre for Research Collections

Secretary

Mr David McClay
Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections

Tagged , , , , ,

In Lyell’s Own Words

This month we hear from Lyell Project Archivist Elise Ramsay and Project Volunteer Erin McRae. Elise and Erin each reflect on their recent progress transcribing the Sir Charles Lyell notebooks using ground-breaking AI and machine learning, and their work together to develop this incredible AI tool for further use with the Lyell collections. 

Elise Ramsay, Project Archivist, holding an open scientific notebook and smiling

Elise Ramsay
Lyell Project Archivist

For me, the written word is the most captivating and characterful element of the Sir Charles Lyell collections. When reading Lyell’s own words on the page in graphite and ink, I can tell when he is writing from a desk, or in the field. In decoding his idiosyncrasies, I have come to understand a bit of the man himself. Understanding Lyell’s handwriting is the key to opening up this internationally significant collection. But it is also the first barrier. Lyell’s handwriting is of his time; often liberally abbreviated, topic specific, and faded. Complete transcription of the collection is paramount to accessibility, and recently, we have made some exciting progress towards this goal.

In early March 2021, the Charles Lyell Project team took part in hosting the EDITOR Transcription virtual workshop. In preparation for the workshop, two digitised notebooks from the Lyell collections (MSVII and Notebook No 4) were selected to be trialled with the Transkribus platform. Over 8 weeks, EDITOR project interns Evie Salter and Nicky Monroe transcribed these notebooks word for word. With this data, an algorithmic model of Lyell’s handwriting was created, effectively teaching Transkribus to recognise Lyell’s words on the page, and to decipher them automatically. This innovative work by the EDITOR Team, has revolutionised our systems and methods of cataloguing. Already we can see this balance of machine learning and human input has introduced new efficiency (and enjoyment!) to the task of transcription.

To build on this momentum, we were delighted to offer a remote volunteer opportunity aimed at trialling the newly created Transkribus model and testing the many features Transkribus offers. In this capacity, Erin McRae joined us in March, contributing to key cataloguing efforts and scoping the features of Transkribus for further use with the collections. Erin is a recent graduate from the MSc in History programme at the University of Edinburgh and holds an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College Dublin in Ireland. In only two months, Erin has produced tremendous material, and we are indebted to her. Here, Erin reflects on her first impressions of the Sir Charles Lyell collections and using Transkribus:

Profile Picture, Erin McRae, Volunteer

Erin MacRae
Lyell Project Volunteer

When I think of Sir Charles Lyell, I see a man in constant motion and possessing a thirst for knowledge that knew no boundaries. I can picture him observing the volatile Mount Etna, or immersed in the identification of mollusc species, or exploring geologic formations and petrified fossils millions of years old. I imagine him pausing to scribble down his observations in notebooks in his own inimitable style (a combination of English, French, Italian and Latin), so he wouldn’t miss any detail.

The detail of the collection is of untold value to researchers and presents interesting challenges as we describe the collection. In addressing these challenges, the Transkribus platform is an invaluable tool.  

Transkribus  is “a comprehensive platform for the digitisation, AI-powered text recognition, transcription and searching of historical documents – from any place, any time, and in any language.”1 Using the algorithmic handwriting model developed on the EDITOR project, we were able to upload more raw material from the Lyell collections to the Transkribus platform. In my recent work with Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks, I found that Transkribus was able to decipher Latin species names with which I was unfamiliar. This saved me a significant amount of time and gave me the ability to transcribe much faster.  An example of this occurred when Transkribus identified “Fissurellagraeca”.2 A species of mollusc, this name has since been replaced by the accepted name “Diodora graeca3 . It is remarkable that it was correctly interpreted by the software in the first place. 

A screenshot of the Transkribus platform. On the left is a digitised image of a page of Charles Lyell's notebook 65. The handwriting is in ink, and an untidy scrawl. On the right is typed words, corresponding to each line in the image. The words are a word for word transcription.

An example of transcription output from the Transkribus platform.
From Sir Charles Lyell Notebook, No. 65
(Ref: Coll-203/A1/65) – (with apologies for the poor quality image).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transcriptions that Transkribus produces require minor to moderate spellcheck amendments, primarily where vowels are mistaken. There were some instances of errors in phrases, names, and once a whole line of text. In this case I transcribed this line myself which I had done previously with indexes in two other notebooks. These issues are minor and they  do not detract from the immense amount of time I saved  using Transkribus compared to transcribing without the aid of the algorithmic model. In particular, we were all struck by the accuracy of the model in recognising and deciphering antiquated species names. This was invaluable and changes the role of the transcriber.

The overall benefit of the Transkribus software is that it is helping us to develop a much more comprehensive approach to describing and interpreting the Sir Charles Lyell Collections. To a much greater degree than previously possible, we can document and unlock the life and travels of this principal figure in the evolution of the discipline of geology.  

Elise Ramsay, Lyell Project Archivist
Erin McRae, Lyell Project Volunteer 

Sources and further information:
1.
Transkribus.” Read Coop. Accessed April 19, 2021.
2. “Fissurella graeca (Linnaeus, 1758).WORMS: World Register of Marine Species. Accessed April 19, 2021.
3. Ibid.

You can learn more about our revelatory transcription work on the Sir Charles Lyell Collections, part of the EDITOR project, on YouTube:
Editor Transcription Workshop: Day 1/Session 3 – Video 3 of 10 – YouTube
Editor Transcription Workshop: Day 2 /Session 3 – Video 6 of 10 – YouTube 

Tagged , , , , , , ,