Category Archives: Notebook Details

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

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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

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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

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

 

The Not-So-Lonely Lockdown of the Transcribing Geologists

Lockdown may seem frustrating and tiresome to some, but it has made space for a few spontaneous and unexpected collaborations!

Over the last month with many “physical” tasks on hold, I have been able to peruse the sections of the Lyell notebooks which were digitised before the introduction of social distancing and the subsequent shut down of the University buildings. And far from being a lonely task – the notebooks have proven to be one of the most social activities I have ever worked on! As it turns out Twitter has a host of geologists, curators, PhD students, as well as academics in subjects ranging from the ideals of Victorian masculinity, to geomorphology… all just waiting to chip in their thoughts on what exactly Charles Lyell was thinking – and its more than likely they are all there because lockdown has disrupted their regular routines.

Now before we start, admittedly there have been some criticism of the notebooks. There is a much more standardised approach to how people “do” notebooks these days, especially in the field: Sketches must have an orientation, a scale bar and some annotation. So there have been a few comments that Sir Charles wouldn’t score very highly if he were an undergraduate summiting his work for assessment.

As a founder of modern geology, it’s important to note how the science has evolved since then, incorporating standards of which Lyell certainly would approve. A very generous statement on twitter from Professor Simon Mudd (@SimonMariusMudd), School of GeoSciences:

“I haven’t spent much time with these notebooks, but from what I have seen this (see sketch below) is the typical quality of the sketches. He was more of a ‘big ideas’ rather than ‘detailed sketches’ type of person.”

Lyell’s oversights in these areas, however, has not been too great an impediment for lively debate, especially when the diagram seems to be a bit of a mystery.

Last week I posted this sketch from notebook 4 on Twitter.

What is it?!? Is it rivers? Oxbow lakes? Waves crashing onto the shore of… Norfolk?

Cue a volley of guesses:

“A Sea-serpent?”

“You are all so wrong, it says “Loch Ness” and here, in the middle, you have Nessy…”

“Was he just bored and doodling??”

So it is true – nothing is sacred to the internet – not even one of the founding fathers of geology’s notebook!

But with the fun came a conclusion: this illustration in Notebook 4 is likely a map of sand banks off the Norfolk coast. Lo and behold, Andy Emery, the geomorphist, produced a map!

And YES – The sketch maybe isn’t as inaccurate as we had initially thought! But how did Lyell know what the submarine landscape off the coast of Norfolk look like in 1827?

There is a good chance that local fisher men would have known about these features, as they are shallower and depending on tides and currents, they might have been the best place to go fishing… or the worst place to run your boat aground.

Another of our online-super-sleuths, Jonny Scafidi (@jonafushi),  messaged to say “On p.308 of Principles of Geology he mentions a Captain Hewett, R. N. who, according to p.56 of Memoirs of Hydrography, Volume 1 by Commander L.S. Dawson R.N. undertook a great survey of the N. Sea”. Most of Captain Hewett’s surveys where completed in the 1830’s but there is mention of a survey in 1822 – 5 years before Lyell sketched this diagram in his book. So it is possible Lyell had access to some surveys.

We will never know for certain where Lyell got the information that inspired this sketch. But what we can prove is that social media can be used to explore a whole array of different angles when investigating historical notebooks!

Stay tuned for more exciting installments of #TranscriptionTime over at @CockburnGeol and try your hand at deciphering the thoughts of historical scientists and collectors.

Thanks to the Science twitterati who helped with this mystery between 9.27am and 10.33am on 24th April:

Andy Emery (@AndyDoggerBank) – RA in Energy Transition, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds

Jonny Scafidi (@jonafushi) – PhD candidate, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

Simon Mudd (@SimonMariusMudd) – Professor of Geomorphology, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

John Faithfull (@FaithfullJohn) – Curator, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery

Dan Hobley (@Siccar_Point) – Lecturer, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff Univeristy

Rich Taylor (@RockhoundRich) – Geoscience Applications Development at ZEISS Microscopy

Mikael Attal (@mickymicky06s) – Senior lecturer in Geomorphology, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

 

Dr. Gillian McCay

Curator, Cockburn Museum

@CockburnGeol

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