History / News

Save Charles Lyell’s Notebooks

The Geological Society, alongside a number of institutions, groups and individuals, is supporting the University of Edinburgh Library’s campaign to save Charles Lyell’s notebooks, which are due to be sold abroad.

Pledge your support

Portrait of Sir Charles Lyell by Alexander Craig (1840). GSL/POR/73

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is well known as a key figure in the 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 author of the seminal book ‘Principles of Geology’ (1830-33 and later editions) Lyell was twice President of the Geological Society, in 1835-37 and 1849-51, and received the Society’s Wollaston Medal in 1866.

As the Cambridge historian of science Jim Secord notes, ‘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.’

These remarkable documents were sold to an unknown buyer overseas towards the end of last year. In response, the UK government has imposed a temporary export ban to enable fundraising to purchase and conserve them, and make them available online for free to the public. 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 – this may be extended until 15th October if significant progress is made.

The University of Edinburgh Library, which already has the largest collection of Lyell material, is organising the fundraising campaign, and are asking all who are interested to pledge a donation, however small, which will only be collected when the required amount is achieved. Large numbers of individual donors will help to demonstrate substantial public interest and concern, so please do give if you can.

Find out more about the campaign on the University of Edinburgh website.


The British Association at Newcastle by Thomas Henry Gregg (?1838). Charles Lyell sits at the centre of the table. GSL/POR/18


One thought on “Save Charles Lyell’s Notebooks

  1. There’s been a lot going on with the campaign to save Lyell’s remarkable archive of 294 notebooks. Over £634,000 has already been pledged, towards a new reduced goal of £966,000–basically the UK government has waived tax and set a new target date of 15 October, recognizing the loss if these documents disappeared into private hands. Pledging is easy–all that is needed is your name, email and a pledge amount. Even small donations 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 https://www.ed.ac.uk/giving/save-lyell-notebooks There is now also a twitter hashtag, #SaveLyellNotebooks to help get the word out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s