Save Charles Lyell’s Notebooks

A note from ICHO member Dr. Katharine Anderson:

“Lyell’s great theoretical contributions to geology centered on a concept of the relationship of land and seas over time, and he memorably urged a sea-centered viewpoint in the first volume of his Principles of Geology (1830). There he wrote of the “habitual unconsciousness” of our terrestrial species: “If we were the inhabitant of another element – if the great ocean were our domain, instead of the narrow limits of the land, our difficulties would be considerably lessened.” His ideal observer and theorizer was in fact “an amphibious being”! A very worthwhile project to support in order to make Lyell’s archive available to future scholars…”

Pledges can be made on the University of Edinburgh library website.

A message from Jim Secord, Dept of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge:

There’s been a lot going on with the campaign to save the 294 notebooks of the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875). These remarkable documents, probably the most significant 19th-century scientific manuscripts in private hands, will be sold to a foreign buyer unless sufficient funds can be raised. Over £634,000 has already been pledged, towards a new reduced goal of £966,000–basically the UK government has waived tax, recognizing the loss if these documents disappeared into private hands. Individual contributions have already made a big difference in enabling these developments, so that the sum now we have to raise is less than £332,000. Pledging is easy–all that is needed is your name, email and a pledge amount. Even small amounts help a lot.

The notebooks shed light not only on the Darwinian evolutionary debates, but also on the history of climate change, race, and current debates about the Anthropocene. They have been largely inaccessible to scholars, but Edinburgh has ambitious plans for cataloguing, preservation and digitisation, so that if the campaign succeeds they will be freely available to everyone online.

If you haven’t pledged anything yet, now is a good time to do so, to keep up momentum at a critical point. Remember that numbers matter—over 850 people have signed up already but we need many more.

You can read about Lyell, the notebooks and the campaign at:

There is now also a twitter hashtag (#SaveLyellNotebooks) to help get the word out.

Below is the update (now a few days old) from David McClay of the University of Edinburgh Libraries, who is managing the campaign.

Thank you for your support or interest in the University of Edinburgh’s campaign to raise the funds to Save Charles Lyell’s notebooks.

There have been some recent positive developments. First, the Export Bar which expires on 15th July will be extended to a final 15th October deadline. Second, we have confirmed with HMRC (the UK tax authority) and other parties that a Private Treaty Sale for the notebook collection has been agreed. By arranging for the tax to be removed from the sale we have reduced the purchase price from £1,444,000 to £966,000.

With over 800 generous pledges and the University’s own contribution we have now raised over £610,000. The revised deadline and target make our ultimate success a very real possibility.

I look forward to keeping you up to date with our progress. Should we be successful in saving Charles Lyell’s notebooks we will be undertaking an ambitious access project to ensure the collection is as freely available and appreciated as we and our collaborative partners can make it.

Thank you again and best wishes,

David McClay <>
Philanthropy Manager, Library and University Collections

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