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Lyell's notebooks saved

Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and the dynamic developments in the Earth sciences in the nineteenth century are on the eve of being much better understood and appreciated, writes David McClay (Philanthropy Manager, Library and University Collections, University of Edinburgh).

Lyell portraitThanks to a truly wonderful response from geologists, at home and overseas, the University of Edinburgh’s fundraising campaign to buy the largely unpublished notebooks of Lyell has been successful.

These 294 notebooks bring you immediately and intimately into Lyell’s daily life and thinking. Brimming with field notes, including his British, European and North American travels, it is possible to trace his evidence gathering and initial geological thoughts and queries throughout his adult life. They also contain a range of other literary notes, including draft and copy letters, quotes and citations from readings and his own writings’ first drafts. Taken together they offer an unparalleled insight into one of the most interesting and influential nineteenth century scientists.

Geological societies and individuals responded with enthusiasm to the challenge of raising the £966,000 required, doing so in a little over four months. Over 1,100 pledges of support were received; from modest gifts to vital major grants, including from the John R Murray Charitable Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. What distinguished each and every donation was a desire to see this important collection of largely unpublished archives recognised as a cultural and historic collection of outstanding importance and contemporary relevance and for them to be made widely available. To all supporters and donors the University of Edinburgh is most appreciative and thankful.

The University has recently transferred the collection to its Main Library, where the collection will shortly be physically available to freely consult in the Library’s Centre for Research Collections. Lyell’s notebooks join an existing collection of Lyell archives, donated to the University in 1927. Initial assessments of the new collection are being undertaken to determine the conservation and preservation requirements. The ideal way to cataloguing and describe these fascinating notebooks, likely to include a full transcription of the contents, is also being assessed, so that we can make the collection as useable and understandable as possible to a wide range of specialists and enthusiasts.  The potential to digitise the collection is an exciting one, and displaying it freely online has the potential to take it beyond Edinburgh and around the world. Hopefully, there will be many opportunities to display the notebooks physically in a range of venues in the UK and overseas, starting with a display in the University’s Library in early 2020.

In these and other ways the University of Edinburgh will make the Lyell collection available for academic research and public engagement. What we will yet learn about Lyell, his thinking and influence, is an exciting prospect, for which we are all due a massive thank you to each campaign supporter.