Category Archives: Acquisition

The Charles Lyell archives feature in the Arts Council England’s Cultural Gifts Scheme and Acceptance in Lieu annual report 2020/21 .

Both schemes are remarkably important in ensuring important cultural collections are cared for by the right public institutions. The 2020 allocation of the extensive Charles Lyell archives to the University of Edinburgh Library, thereby reuniting them with his other papers including his 294 notebooks, is just one example of the scheme producing a wonderful result.

Sincere thanks from the University of Edinburgh go to all of the staff, volunteers and supporters who make these schemes such a success.


David McClay

Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections

Friends celebrate Lyell acquisition

LogoThe Friends of Edinburgh University Library played a vital role in helping to acquire the Charles Lyell notebooks. They celebrate that acquisition in the new issue of The Piper

Joining the Friends is an excellent way to keep informed about Library activities and new collections: Friends Of Edinburgh University Library

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!


Lyell Notebooks: Progress Report

Collection Curation

Since their arrival, the focus has been on a range of preliminary tasks to get the notebooks ready for digitisation, consultation and exhibition.


The first exhibition of Lyell’s notebooks


The first free public display of the Lyell collection is currently on at the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library on George Square, on the 6th floor in the Binks Exhibition Wall of the Centre for Research Collections (CRC). The volumes selected include a journal of a European tour of made by Lyell and his parents in 1818, an 1828 examination of the 1822 eruption of Vesuvius and an illustration of geology of Prosen Village (close to the Lyell family home at Kinnordy, Kirriemuir) in 1874.  The exhibition also features an engraved  portrait and a selection of geological specimens.

The exhibition also features a notebook which contains the description of shells sent to Lyell by Darwin, alongside the shells themselves.  The shells and the geological specimens are part of a wider collection of around 100 stone artefacts (axes, spears and arrow heads), three meteorites, 25 fossils, 25 rocks. These were generously donated to the University in 1927 by the Lyell family (along with a significant collection of Lyell’s papers, now held in the CRC) and are held at the University’s Cockburn Geology Museum.  Although the shells were already well known to us, finding documentation about them in the notebooks was a very exciting discovery.

The exhibition runs until 26 March.


The notebooks fall into 5 series, the largest of these being Coll-203/A1, the principal scientific notebooks. The other series are Coll-204/A2 – travel journals, Coll-203/A3 – scientific journals / manuscript notes, Coll-203/A4 – Madeira and Canaries and Coll-203/A5 – Indexes.  While full cataloguing will take some time and require to be resourced separately, skeletal catalogue entries for the first series has been created by repurposing a much earlier inventory. Some rudimentary entries have also been created for the volumes in the other series to allow them to be given unique identifiers, which are essential for managing digitisation, consultation and exhibition.

These catalogue records are not yet online but will be in the near future, once the notebooks are available for general consultation.

Conservation & Preservation

Notebooks shelved awaiting boxing


While primarily in pretty good condition a full conservation survey has been undertaken and work identified.  In particular a good number the spine labels, which are an essential part of the materiality of the notebooks, are particularly fragile and will require some specific intervention.

Each notebook will require its own ‘book shoe’ after which they will then be boxed for efficient storage and retrieval.  In the meantime, the notebooks have been temporarily shelved in sequence until this work can be carried out.


Two volumes have been selected as initial exemplars for digitisation.  The first volume comes from the scientific notebooks and contains, “Geological notes and observation; Notes on modern causes”.  The second is from scientific journals and contains some drafts of letters from Lyell to Charles Darwin.

A more ambitious plan of digitisation is currently being initiated, prioritising, in the first instance, the most physically robust volumes that require no or little intervention by a conservator.

Juliette Lichman working on Lyell digitisation assessment

Lyell in Context – New Post

The CRC is currently advertising an exciting new post: Project Archivist (Climate Change).  This puts Lyell firmly in context, identifying his papers not solely as a record of his own life and work and of the history of his discipline but recognising its significance in terms of understanding our planet.  Neither does Lyell stand in isolation.  Crucial connections and interactions between him, his contemporaries and his successors run through a range of our collections and properly identifying and making these available for research is a high priority. Vital to understanding the Earth and its needs is understanding its history.  This innovative post will scope out how Lyell’s papers and other collections here can play an important role.

As well as focussing on the collections, the Project Archivist will also have a responsibility to liaise with academic and other researchers and stakeholders and to establish and develop a cluster of research interest in and around the collections as a means of identifying the collaborative basis of future projects.

For further details on the post:  Vacancy Reference 050984

If you have any questions regarding the Lyell collections please contact in the first instance Rachel Hosker, Archives Manager and Deputy Head of Special Collections, at or to discuss the fundraising campaign or future funding needs; David McClay, Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections at


Lyell, Landscape and a Lorry

We’ve done it. They’re finally here. Late last week I was lucky enough to go down to London and pick up the Lyell notebooks.

The first step in gaining custody was to head to Sotheby’s on New Bond Street with the paperwork to prove they could be released. It’s a curious process of heading down to pre-sales to prove ownership and then be given a token for collection. I was then taken to their manuscripts and rare books department to pick up the archive. There I got my first glimpse of them.

Their scale surprised me. They are more compact and very consistent compared to even the pictures I’d seen of them and with my love of palaeography and our plans for deciphering them, I had to have a look at the content. Having been to Catania in Sicily last year, I picked the Sicily volume and was immediately struck by the depiction of the landscape around Mount Etna and the flow of his hand across the page providing detail. I know we’re going to have a lot of fun making these available in the future!

I had to draw myself back from getting immersed as our colleagues George and Ryan had arrived from Constantines, who were going to look after me and the notebooks, getting us back to Edinburgh securely. And wow what a large lorry, for small notebooks, down the tiny London lanes!

After checking every volume and packing in order securely, I signed the final piece of paperwork and we could take the notebooks on the next stage of their journey.

They were taken to a secure location, through the streets of London in our rather large lorry, with me sat up top in the cab with a birds eye view. I wondered what Lyell’s view of London was, having lived there in the 1830s and how very different the environment and landscape was now.

The next day we were at the secure location at 6am ready to leave. While the team were getting ready, I chatted to a curator from the British Museum, taking items for exhibition out to the Far East. Never thought, at 6am I’d be meeting such interesting people and sharing our experiences of couriering our rare and unique items throughout the world!

George, Ryan and myself soon set off through London, watching it wake and get busy. Over the next 9 ½ hours we drove north through the changing landscape, with all kinds of weather, from rainbows and hail to bright sunshine, looking at moors and hills, farmland planes to forests. I wondered again what Lyell would have thought, interpreted and seen.


At about 3:30pm we arrived back in Edinburgh, after a very smooth journey (worst bit was the traffic in Edinburgh!) and were met by Grant and Norman, with these photos being taken, so we could show you their arrival.


So, they are here and the next part of our work begins with our archivists and conservators checking and listing them over the next couple of weeks. I’ve delighted to have had my Lyell adventure, picking up these notebooks, so they now can be made available to the world.


Thanks to George and Ryan from Constantines who were consummate professionals and looked after the notebooks and myself with good humour and brilliant driving skills, getting us to Edinburgh safely.

Rachel Hosker
Archives Manager and Deputy Head of Special Collections

They’re coming!

Lyell’s notebooks in Sotheby’s.

The Lyell notebooks were collected from Sotheby’s in London yesterday and are now on their way north, expected to arrive in Edinburgh later today.

Thankfully, they are in a secure lorry, not being pushed up the A1 on the trolley shown!


Norman Rodger
Projects Development Manager

Thank you for saving Lyell’s notebooks

What an exciting prospect! The imminent arrival of Charles Lyell’s 294 notebooks to the University of Edinburgh Library is an occasion which will rightly be celebrated in Edinburgh. Students, staff and alumni will take pride in Edinburgh becoming the dynamic centre for future Lyell research and engagement.

There will also be celebrations around the world, as it was truly an international effort of geologists and historians rallying to save this remarkable collection. Throughout the UK and overseas, individuals, societies and groups gave what they could; from a couple of pounds to hundreds of thousands, so that in a short time the full £966,000 had been raised to allow the purchase to go ahead.

Whilst the £235,600 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the £200,000 from the John R Murray Charitable Trust were vital major gifts, there were over 1,100 other donations which were just as important in reaching our target. To each and every one of those who pledged and donated the University of Edinburgh would like to extend the warmest and sincerest of thanks. Soon we will be publishing an online list of our wonderful supporters, who have given permission to do so.

We look forward to making this collection of Lyell notebooks widely available and used. We wouldn’t have this opportunity to do so if it wasn’t for our generous supporters and donors. To you all – thank you!

David McClay
Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections

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