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Sir Charles Lyell’s Notebooks: An Update

Digitised versions of the notebooks will soon be freely available online

1 December 2023

The Lyell notebooks collection is in an exciting new phase (Image: © University of Edinburgh)

In 2019, the geological community rallied to prevent the Sir Charles Lyell [1797–1875]collection of 294 notebooks from being sold abroad. The Geological Society and its members were key in spreading news and contributing to the University of Edinburgh’s campaign to buy this collection, valued at £1,444,000. 

Negotiations with Ministers and the Treasury not only reduced the purchase price but added a further collection of letters, books, and papers to the acquisition. Major support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Murray family added to over 1,000 generous individual and group donations.

The collection is the focus of an exhibition at the University of Edinburgh (Image: © University of Edinburgh)

The success of this acquisition was celebrated at a special reception at the Geological Society in February 2020. The unexpected disruption and uncertainty that followed due to the global pandemic had an impact on the project’s progress, with staff required to work from home, meaning some consideration was required to determine how this valuable collection could be made accessible. 

Following further investment, the Sir Charles Lyell collection is now in an exciting new phase. Digitisation of all the notebooks is almost complete and will be freely accessible via a ‘Sir Charles Lyell website’ (www.lyell.ed.ac.uk) hosted by the University of Edinburgh, and made possible with the support of the International Association of Sedimentologists. Designed to act as a portal to Lyell’s collections, the website will guide users to digital versions of his printed books, the comprehensive collection of his papers and notebooks housed at the University of Edinburgh, and provide links to Lyell-related material held elsewhere – including at the Geological Society. 

The collection held at the University of Edinburgh is also the focus of an exhibition, Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work, which will be open at the Main Library’s Exhibition Gallery until 30 March 2024.

David McClay 

Philanthropy Manager, Library & University Collections, University of Edinburgh

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