Campaign to Save the Lyell Notebooks

By James Secord

Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) is well known as a key figure in history of science, particularly for his part in the Darwinian evolutionary debates and in convincing readers of the significance of “deep time.” During the past decade, Lyell’s geographical theory of climate and his subdivision of recent geological strata have gained renewed attention in connection with discussions of climate change and the Anthropocene. The Lyell archive is almost certainly the most important manuscript collection relating to nineteenth century science still in private hands. At its core are 294 notebooks, which provide a daily record of Lyell’s private thoughts, travels, field observations and conversations.

In order for the family to meet inheritance tax, the Lyell notebooks were sold to an unknown foreign buyer towards the end of last year. Fortunately, the UK government has imposed a temporary export ban to enable fundraising to purchase these remarkable documents, conserve them, and make them available on-line for free to the public. The University of Edinburgh Library, which already has the largest collection of Lyell material, is organizing the campaign. The website for this became active at the end of last week. The sum required is £1,444,000; major donors have already pledged more than a third of the total needed.

The temporary export ban has an initial deadline of 15th July, so time is extremely short. If significant progress is made, then it may be extended until 15th October. Therefore, all who are interested are asked to pledge a donation, which will only be collected when the required amount is achieved. For more information about the notebooks and to make a pledge, please click here.

If you can give anything to this campaign–even five pounds or a pound–it will make a big difference, not least in showing larger donors that there is substantial public interest and concern. It would be great if we can get the donor count over 1000.