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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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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 

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Fundraising for Lyell Digitisation

Library and University Collections Philanthropy Manager, David McClay, brings us news on the fundraising campaign to digitise the Sir Charles Lyell notebooks.

Digital colour image of the cover of Sir Charles Lyell's notebook, created during his travels in Italy in 1828. The top of the index details 'Verona to Montecchio Maggiore' (Ref: Coll-203/A1/7)

Cover and index of Sir Charles Lyell’s notebook, Italy, 1828 (Ref: Coll-203/A1/7)

The fundraising campaign to digitise Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks is now well underway. To reach our ambitious target of £125,000 we are hoping that new and existing Lyell supporters and friends will consider donating. Might you be able to help?

We have already been delighted to receive many individual donations from the UK and overseas. If you too would like to donate you can do so online via our Donation Portal or if you are from the United States of America, please see our guidance here

If you are involved in an historical, geological organisation which would be interested in learning more about Lyell, his notebooks and collections, and our plans to make them fully accessible please do get in touch: david.mcclay@ed.ac.uk

David McClay
Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections

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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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