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Written in history

Help preserve the Society’s historical Letter Books

1 December 2022

We have launched a new fundraising appeal to conserve 12 important volumes of letters from our archives: the correspondence of the Assistant Secretary’s office of the Geological Society from 1834 to 1880. Please help us keep this unique and scientifically important collection openly accessible for generations to come.


The archive collections of the Geological Society cover the history and evolution of geological science in Britain and abroad. Most of the collections are catalogued and open to researchers; however, one significant series is not. This comprises the incoming letters of the Assistant Secretary, which span from 1834 to 1880. Seven volumes of the letters have been conserved, but the remaining 12 volumes have been completely closed off to researchers due to their extremely poor condition.

Conserving the 12 remaining Letter Book volumes will cost £40,000. We have received a generous grant from the de Laszlo Foundation of £5,000, as well as a donation of £1,600 from a Fellow who wishes to remain anonymous. This leaves us with a target of £33,400 still to raise.

The Letter Books

Historically, the Assistant Secretary was the first point of contact with the Society. Since the Assistant Secretary also acted as journal editor and frequently as Librarian and Museum Curator, most of the Society’s day-to-day business and administration came through their office. The letters are therefore one of the primary records of the activities of the Society as a central repository of geological knowledge in the 19th century.

The problem

There are around 8,000 letters split across 19 Letter Book volumes. Volumes 1 to 7 were conserved in the 1980s, but the remaining 12 are still in their original cheap, guard-book bindings, which was a very common and economical way of collating loose papers in the past. The poor-quality leather has degraded, leading to the gradual collapse of the binding, allowing over two centuries’-worth of soot and London pollution to cover the contents, causing extensive damage to the letters.

The condition of the volumes means that even cataloguing the collection is difficult without causing further damage. An incomplete and rudimentary listing of some of the Letter Book volumes was undertaken by volunteers in the 1980s. Volumes 14 to 18, dating from 1853 to 1871, were not listed at all.

Despite these poor listings, the Letter Books are frequently requested by researchers. However, they have had to be closed off due to their condition, resulting in a significant gap in the history of our collections at a time of great change in science. It is a period where geology becomes more recognisably modern, for example, coinciding with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and the proofs of the Antiquity of Man (1859).

How can you help?

Your donations will enable us to conserve the remaining 12 Letter Books, so that the full series can finally be catalogued and made fully accessible for research. This work will also make digitisation processes easier in the future.

Donations of any amount are welcome to help us reach our target. For instance, £10 is enough to conserve one of the historic letters. For donations over £100, your name will appear on a roll of honour bound with one of the volumes. Sponsors of complete volumes will have a dedication of their choice recorded on a special bookplate bound with the item.

Darwin complains

Charles Darwin complains about his library book (January 1844). Ref: GSL/L/R/8/92

Arguably the Society’s most famous Fellow is the naturalist, Charles Darwin [1809–1882]. Although he is now known for his theories concerning natural selection and evolution, he began life as a geologist, joining the Geological Society on his way back from the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1836.

This letter shows some of the more day-to-day business of the Society, in this case, Darwin complaining that a map of South America is missing from the book he has just been sent through postal loan from the Society’s library. Darwin was likely working on his publication Geological Observations on South America (1846) at this time, so the letter gives evidence of one of the sources he consulted.

Not only does the Society still operate a postal loan service for Fellows, we also still hold the book that Darwin borrowed: Alcide d’Orbigny’s Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale (1842). To avoid future complaints, the map of South America is now bound safely at the back of the volume.

To donate, please visit www.geolsoc.org.uk/WritteninHistory or contact our Development Office on development@geolsoc.org.uk or + 44 (0) 20 7432 0960. To find out more about the content of our historic Letter Books, please get in touch with our Library team on library@geolsoc.org.uk



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