For the sixth episode of our DART podcast series, my colleague Steph and I journeyed to Burlington House, the home of The Linnean Society since 1873, to meet with Elaine Charwat, Deputy Librarian for a private tour of its collections.
The Linnean Society
Founded in 1788 by botanist Sir James Edward Smith, The Linnean Society derives its name from the Swedish naturalist Carol Linnaeus, who systematised biological classification through his binomial nomenclature. Established to preserve Linnaeus’ 40,000 original specimens of plants, fish, shells and insects acquired from the widow of Carl Linnaeus in 1784 (many of which are type specimens) and provide access for their further study and analysis – an early, and very hands-on version of Open Access if you like.
After a private tour of the environmentally controlled, bomb-proof room, deep in the basement of the society which houses Linnaeus’ research library, the first Systema Naturae, his original specimen collections and a book from 1484 (a Herbal, a book about plants) we sat down in the society’s library to find out more about the collections and their importance from Elaine. Not before getting to grips with the fact that it was in the meeting room of the society that the first official mention of evolution through natural selection, central to Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ (1859), was first publicly discussed at a meeting of the society on 1 July 1858. The joint paper by Darwin and Wallace was entitled ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties’.
Recording: An Audience with – The Linnean Society
Read the Transcript: An Audience with – The Linnean Society
Frank: For the sixth episode of our digital archives and research technologies podcast we are at the Linnean Society. I’m here with Elaine Charwat and Steph, my colleague, who some of you know already from various episodes we recorded. We’ve just had a fantastic tour of the Linnean Society and the collection and I think it’s fair to say Steph is currently geeking out a bit.
Steph: Yes! The tour was great and as someone with a background in libraries, this library and the collections downstairs are just amazing.
Elaine: It’s a real pleasure to show you around and it’s always a pleasure to show our visitors around, scientists or whoever really is interested and the questions.
Frank: No, really it’s fascinating, I mean, we just looked at a book from 1484, I think, so…
Elaine: Yes, that’s right, it is the oldest book in the library.
Frank: It is absolutely fascinating, we saw the original Systema Naturae and we also just caught a sneak peak of a 1st edition of Darwin’s Origins of Species it is all slightly overwhelming in a good way and really fascinating. So, Elaine, just tell us a bit about the society, its background, the history and also what your role is at the society.
Elaine: The society was founded in 1788, by James Edward Smith, which makes us the oldest active natural history society in the world. He got the once in a life time opportunity when he was still in his 20s to buy the legacy and collections of Carl Linnaeus who at that point, when he died was one of the most famous men in Europe. He lived from 1707 to 1778, was Swedish and he developed and published the first system to classify the whole of nature.
So not just plants or animals, but three kingdoms of nature and so he created order out of chaos, you could say, and his system really took Europe by storm when it was published and you saw the first edition which was published in 1735 earlier. It really was adopted across Europe very quickly because it was so useable, it was so easy to understand, it was really what the world had been waiting for and it made a huge progress in science possible.
After that, Linnaeus became quite famous, he was teaching at Uppsala University, he was eventually ennobled for his services to science and to Sweden and, as I said, when he died, he was one of the most famous men of Europe. He corresponded with everybody who was who in the world of science and the humanities, he even got a fan letter from Jean-Jacques Rousseau who said ‘I admire and love you with all my heart’, something you want to hear from someone like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so that was quite amazing.
Frank: Oh, okay.
Elaine: So when he died the collections, I think Linnaeus was very keen on to keep them together and also I think to make sure they’re somewhere which is quite accessible, so Britain, in a way, was quite an ideal place, because it was so well connected, it was almost the epicentre of natural history at the time because of all the trade connections and all the voyages of discovery. One of the great men of the day was Sir Joseph Banks and so Linnaeus’s widow had been in touch with him and had offered him the collections, but he declined for various reasons; because he was quite elderly and probably had moved on from collecting, but he had a young protégé, James Edward Smith. The story goes that they had breakfast together and the letter arrived from Linnaeus’s widow offering the collections to Banks and Banks said to Smith, just buy them, they will make you famous overnight, everybody who is who will want to come to you, want to research and you will be a custodian of the legacy of that great man, the foundation stone really of natural history.
James Edward Smith was lucky, because he was young, but he had a rich father and so he asked his father for the money and his father gave them the money eventually. It was quite a substantial sum, it was over a 1000 guineas (around £64,000 in today’s money) so a fair amount of money and the collections were shipped from Sweden to London and have been in the Society’s keeping since. The Linnean Society was founded to give people access to these amazing collections, which are still recognised as the foundation stone of modern biology to this day.
Steph: I think we mentioned in the tour, that giving access, open access, to the collections has always been the remit of The Linnean Society since the very beginning. Which is quite an exciting and cool thing considering the current discussions and funder guidelines to make more research openly available.
Elaine: Absolutely, it’s always been the mission of the society and that’s something we are very excited to pursue now in the digital world as well. Not everybody can travel to London and examine the collection in person, so it’s great to be able to use Linnean Online not only to make collections visible and accessible, but also make interesting connections to other collections that are held elsewhere. Some parts of the legacy of Carl Linnaeus are still in Sweden or in other parts of the world. So it’s very interesting to be able to make these connections now and I think Linnaeus would have been delighted that we’re able to do this now.
FS: You’ve just mentioned the digitalisation of parts of, if not, most of the collection by now. Can you tell us a bit about the project? I believe the specimens were digitised by the National History Museum and, at some stage our digital archives & repositories team got involved to actually put it online and give you a platform?
Elaine: Sure, I mean, I wasn’t involved from the very beginning because I’ve only been here about five years. I’m the Deputy Librarian and look after the online collections and because they’re collections as well, so as custodians of collections we very much think about online collections as collections that need curating and developing.
I believe it started with the Linnean Herbarium so the plants, the collection of dried plants and they are very, very important, as I explained to you when we actually saw it downstairs, these represent the beginning of botany, many of them being type specimens, meaning Linnaeus gave these plants their definitive name, he described them for the very first time and he kept the specimen, which you could say is the ultimate reference point, the original specimen of that plant. So we need to keep them very safe, because it’s still hugely important to scientists.
So to make these available, if people can’t visit, if they’re based in Australia or the US, to make sure we have a high resolution digital image that’s zoomable so you can really see tiny anatomical details, hairs even on leaves, things like that, we asked the Natural History Museum who have really good equipment to do the digitisation for us and then to make it available through an online digital platform so that people can access & search it in a meaningful way. So that was how it all started and then gradually it grew and grew and grew, which is amazing really to see how much it has grown.
Frank: Speaking about growth, do you know roughly how many digital objects you have online?
Elaine: Well currently have about 207,000 images available online. For some specimens, there is more than one image, taken from different angles. Shortly we will add around 30,000 more, because we’ve just completed our Linnean Manuscripts digitisation project, so there is more to come.
Frank: Speaking about future projects, is there anything else beyond the Linnean Manuscripts that you are planning to put online?
Elaine: Ideally everything. Luckily we have been able to digitise almost everything you’ve seen in the room downstairs, so all the Linnean collections which include:
- the annotated library, so the library that includes Linnaeus’s own notes,
- all the correspondence,
- all the manuscripts,
- all the specimens – shells, insects, fish, the plants, so all of that is already online.
So the only thing that is still missing from what you’ve seen downstairs really is the research library, the books that were not heavily annotated by Linnaeus, but were still in his research library. So it might be nice just to have his complete library online at some stage, because there are some really amazing publications as part of that library and there are also many correspondence collections that we would still like to bring online.
We have the correspondence collection of James Edward Smith, our founder, which is suitably interesting, but there are other correspondence collections that are also quite interesting. We are not short of material we would absolutely love to put out there and give researchers even better access to it and link it up with other things. So, funding permitting, unfortunately which isn’t easy to get at the moment, we are definitely pursuing various options to digitise more.
Steph: It would be amazing to see the whole research library we have seen downstairs come to live online, recreating that library as a digital library would be just fantastic.
Elaine: I know, wouldn’t it be nice to have a, sort of, virtual tour almost available and, you know, you can pick out books, and things like that, there’s amazing technology that we could use, but, again, it’s subject to funding, subject to somebody doing the work.
Frank: You just mentioned correspondence and I know although it’s not within your library or within your ownership, but I’m really interested in the Darwin & Wallace story you mentioned earlier. Could you elaborate on that, because that was news to me, I have to admit!
Elaine: Yes, again a very interesting story. We do have Darwin and Wallace material, more actually relating to Alfred Russel Wallace, because we were quite lucky that we were given his library. I’m not entirely sure, about 300 volumes from his library and they are often annotated, a bit like Linnaeus’ as you’ve seen.
So, again, they give a wonderful insight into how he worked and how his thought process has worked, his sources, and so on, so they are absolutely fantastic and they would be great candidate for digitisation as well. He also did drawings, wonderful drawings of birds and things like that and pasted in insect wings. A wonderful collection and with that go notebooks as well of Alfred Russel Wallace’s, from when he went around Malaysia and the Amazon, for instance, so they’re very important notebooks, because they really show what an outstanding scientist he was and just how amazing his research really was.
So this collection is really important, I think, because a lot of people always know so much about Charles Darwin and how he came up with this idea he published, obviously on the Origin of Species in 1859 and he is so famous for this and he now gets all the glory and the credit for it, but really Alfred Russel Wallace came to exactly the same conclusions about evolution through a natural selection as Darwin, totally independent of him.
So Darwin, when he travelled on the Beagle and went to places like Galapagos, this idea was born, because he saw there such a huge variety in nature and every little change in a certain species, for instance, a finch can change to fill all sorts of niches to exploit all kinds of food sources with their beaks. So the different shape of the beaks will allow them to eat different things and that gave him the idea, because it’s, like, this microcosm of evolution in process. It’s not something that’s happened in the past and we see the result, but it’s happening now.
So these finches are now called Darwin’s Finches, which is quite nice and Darwin, at the time, didn’t quite, I think, realise the full importance, but anyway this idea was born, but Darwin sat on it for a very long time and didn’t dare to publish and Wallace, at the same time, was out there travelling in places like Malaysia, Borneo, and so on, and observed exactly the same thing. Observed just the huge variety in nature and came to the same conclusions, wrote it up, basically sent this to Charles Darwin, but without knowing that Darwin had worked on this himself, he wanted Darwin to pass it on to somebody else, but Darwin read it and thought, well, we don’t know exactly what he thought, but it must have been a real shock and he is alleged to have said later:
“I could not have summarised my own work better than Wallace did.”
So it’s obvious Darwin wanted to do the decent thing. On the one hand, he didn’t want to lose his own work and the years and years he had written about it and researched it, but he also wanted to make sure that Wallace got the credit, because really it wasn’t Wallace’s fault that Darwin hadn’t published earlier, so he deserved equal credit. So the joint paper, so the very first time the concept of evolution through natural selection was published was in a joint paper at the Linnean Society on the 1st July 1858 and Wallace and Darwin should always be cited together as authors, originators of that idea, because when you publish something in science, you’re the originator, you’re the creator of that.
Frank: And that’s a copy over there.
Elaine: Yeah, the printed copy of that paper was published in the Society’s proceedings and the year later Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
Steph: I like that the Society had also commissioned a painting of Wallace to hang alongside the painting of Darwin in the meeting room downstairs.
Elaine: That’s right, there was no surviving contemporary oil portrait of Wallace, so the Society clearly felt we need somewhere to show that Wallace was important, especially in the meeting room – although I have to say, this is not the actual room the paper was read, because this building was only finished in 1873. So the paper was actually given in what is now The Royal Academy of Art, because this is where all the learned societies were held before the court yard wings of it were built, but there’s a plaque there and you can go to The Royal Academy and you can see the plaque commemorating that event.
The Society felt it was hugely important to make sure Wallace gets the credit he deserves and really has a portrait right next to Darwin’s portrait, similar dimensions and the artist used the photographs that we have in our collections, the surviving photographs of Wallace.
Frank: One of the questions I had and I know you mentioned it earlier, but maybe you can go into a bit more detail. I think Linnaeus was quite young when he published his findings but also the notion that he brought order to chaos and why and how, if you could elaborate on that a bit more?
Elaine: Before Linnaeus came along, it was really difficult to pin down a plant or animal, because there was no standard way of referring to them, no international standardised system of naming or names. So names always varied even in countries, in different languages, even in different regions, the vernacular names. Still today, depending on where you go, you have different names. When I went to Scotland, I was quite surprised to hear people talking about heather bleats, sorry, that was Northern Ireland actually, and it means snipe. So they are really interesting vernacular names, but it’s very confusing if you don’t know what they are and science really had a big problem at that point, because the Enlightenment told you to make your own observations, collect your own data about things, but then you’re stuck, because if you don’t have a system to classify it and name it, you can’t exchange that information with other people, you can’t put it into context and there were attempts to create systems before obviously to create order out of chaos, but they weren’t very workable.
So sometimes there were hugely…there were lengthy descriptions in Latin, like, a whole page describing a plant, which never worked, because what you might pick out as remarkable about a plant was not what somebody else might pick out as remarkable. So Linnaeus’s genius was to find a really practical working system to classify everything. Plants were his true passion and he found the one thing in plants that never varies, the number of stamens and pistils, the reproductive organs. His system worked by basically counting them and then he introduced the binominal names, so the two word names for every living thing and that, again, really made it very easy.
So you have this genus and species concept, so if you take homo sapiens, our own name, which Linnaeus gave us, homo is a genus and sapiens is the species, so you’ve got the more generic one and then you’ve got the specific one, so you also can say how things are related to each other for instance and this was brilliant, because it was so simple. It was workable, the system classified plants with the stamens and pistils for everybody who can count and knows what these things look like, you don’t need a degree to do it. He really was opening up science from the very beginning to non-specialists and Linnaeus I think was very keen on that, a bit like what we now call citizen science, if you just leave it to the scientists to gather data, we’ll never get there, there are too few scientists to go around, you need people to help.
Steph: It was very noticeable in the first edition of his book that you showed us that there were actually spaces for you to write in things that you found yourself and classify within the pages of it, which I thought was really, really interesting.
Elaine: That’s right and Linnaeus created this almost, as we said downstairs, like an 18th Century spreadsheet, which is a useful tool and that’s what it was. But also how it was laid out was meant as a tool for you and for everybody. So I think this really encapsulates the genius of Carl Linnaeus and we still use the binominal, this concept of the two names, we still use today a lot of the names he gave to plants and animals haven’t changed at all, so there are many examples where they’re just the same.
Frank: Steph just mentioned something she noticed, something I noticed in the edition from Linnaeus was a reference to dragons.
Elaine: Oh yes. The dragons, phoenix and unicorns and all that. Linnaeus created a wonderful little category called Paradoxa which really is animals that don’t fit anywhere else and so they were mythical creatures and it’s interesting, because you always think of Linnaeus as someone who is very modern and a child of the Enlightenment, and very much just relying on first hand observation. So at first glance, people always are really taken aback and almost very disappointed thinking, wow, well why is he believing in fairy tales? But I think it’s more than that, so these creatures were still lurking in scientific libraries in the 18th Century, in the old bestiaries, books about animals, and they go back to the middle ages to antiquity and they were still in the libraries and they were still, kind of, regarded as old authorities and so Linnaeus obviously felt, well, he had to deal with that somehow.
Also, as you pointed out, the voyages of discovery, when so many new animals were being discovered all the time and they were pretty strange, I mean, if I didn’t know that things like the platypus really existed, would you believe it? I think both of that was behind the Paradoxa category, on the one hand, the old authorities and also there might be weird animals in the world, we just hadn’t discovered them yet.
Linnaeus was actually quite scathing about the Hydra, for instance. A mythical snake with the many heads, he was saying in Latin it was a fraud, and artificial, because there was actually a fake Hydra touring Europe at that time and Linnaeus exposed it as a fraud, it was basically stitched together from all kinds of other animals.
Steph: And I guess as well, considering where he started from. Because we looked at the oldest book that we mentioned at the beginning, that was the herbal and although it’s obviously not as well classified as Linnaeus went on to do, it’s still recognisable as plants and information about them. He had that sitting alongside the medieval bestiaries, so it becomes very plausible.
Elaine: Yes. And you get a real mix, so even with the herbals, because, as I said, it’s very modern in the sense that it’s almost like a field guide, so it has a form that we would instantly recognise of an image, the name, the description, the use of the plant, but then you get decidedly weird things mixed in, like, mandrakes. So they’re great fun, I mean, people love them and I do as well, because I think they are part of the imagination that is linked to the natural world and it was always important to Linnaeus, I think if you just look at how he named his plants, he took most of his names from mythology and those old tales and was almost poetic in its use, so I think the imagination part of how we interact with the natural…or how we interact with the natural world.
Frank: For me, the other thing I noticed and find quite interesting is this nod to evolution by him putting the homo sapiens within the realms of nature, so humans are not outside it, but also right next to apes. I guess that must have caused some raised eyebrows?
Elaine: It did, yeah, but Linnaeus was very practical about it, so he just said, well, you know, if you can provide evidence that this is not true, then show me and I might change it, because, as we’ve seen, he very often revised his own work if he came across new evidence. He was never afraid to do that and he was his own worst critic. He would always, always try and make sure it was as accurate as it possibly could be, but nobody ever convinced him that this particular observation wasn’t true, so it just remained as it was, because he used anatomical details to really decide how things were classified. He specifically looked at teeth and bones and skull and he said, we’re so similar you can’t really tell the skeletons apart. He had a very practical approach to the whole thing, saying this is what I can see with my own eyes, if you have any evidence…
Frank: Prove me wrong basically.
Elaine: Yeah, exactly, prove me wrong!
Frank: Okay, great. Circling back to the collection then and the fact that it’s now online and accessible online. We spoke about the whole purpose of the Society is to give access, obviously you’ve opened it up to a bigger, wider, global audience, I think that’s one of the benefits. Were there any other reasons for digitising and making the collections available online?
Elaine: Well, as I said, it’s a wonderful way to link up things that are physically held in different places. So obviously we have a lot of links with Sweden where there are still parts of collections held and, at the moment, actually we are trying to find funding for a project to reunite digitally the Linnean shell collection. We have part of the Linnean shells here, but part of them are in Uppsala. It would be wonderful to be able, I mean, not just wonderful, but from a scientific point of view, hugely important to make sure researchers can access those collections equally well, so that will facilitate their work.
Also what is brilliant about digital world that it really makes different uses so flexible, you can use them for education, for instance, you can repackage them, so once they’re digitised, you can do all sorts of really interesting things with the image and the meta data that goes with it. So we’ve spoken about things like the visualisation of data. We can map things, you can put items on maps and especially with correspondence collections, you can see how people were linked up and who corresponded with whom and, you know, just have one glance there or you can do graphs, you can do all sorts of really interesting things.
Crowd sourcing is obviously very interesting to us, because, as you’ve seen, all these books with all these notes, I mean, it would take a single person decades to transcribe these and make them really accessible, but if we put these images online and ask people – a bit like Transcribe Bentham, which I think was absolutely fantastic – that would be wonderful, and a hugely pioneering project. We may get there in the end, because there maybe people in Australia and the US who have that expertise and are very happy to, you know, give their time and transcribe things for us.
I think Linnaeus would have absolutely loved that idea, because he was thinking of citizen science I think, what we now call citizen science when he really created his system and I think he would be so pleased.
Frank: When we spoke a while ago, I remember you mentioned the READ Project, you said you were partly involved in it. Because that’s, sort of, the follow up to Transcribe Bentham.
Elaine: No, we are very lucky to be partnered with ULCC and with UCL, the people behind the Transcribe Bentham Project, because the READ Project is a large EU-funded project which really aims to open up archival collections that would otherwise be inaccessible. Because they’re so vast and there is so much really difficult material there, we could not hope to open that up without any assistance by technology.
The project is trying to teach a computer to do transcriptions and obviously computers can do that for printed text reasonably well by now, but for hand written text, this is so difficult and how do you teach a machine to really recognise particular handwriting and to transcribe it in a meaningful way? Which is what the READ Project is trying to do and we are not technical partners, so that is ULCC, they are full technical partners behind trying to build the infrastructure and platform so the outcome will be a proper transcription platform for researchers to use.
So you’ll have a human interaction with the computer, because it needs to be checked by a human being, but it will just make the whole process so much quicker. So we are contributing the material, because we have the collections and we have a huge interest to get them transcribed.
It will be great to get people together who are interested and spread the word to say to the archival community, to libraries, look, this has been developed, this is absolutely brilliant, because we don’t have a lot of funding nowadays. It’s really difficult to employ people who can do these transcriptions, difficult to really find the money to do the projects like that. So if you have something that combines crowd sourcing plus a clever piece of software, that’s perfect I think.
Steph: I agree, it would be amazing to see those online, because I was so impressed by Linnaeus’s work, not only what he actually came up with himself, but his methods of working, his constant revisions, the way he set information out, it would be really nice to be able to show people how modern he was in his approaches.
Elaine: I know, although the images are already there but it is hard because if you don’t have the transcriptions. You can see what he was doing visually, but it would be so important to science and I think from a historical and scientific point of view to really know what it was he was writing about.
Frank: That’s great. Also another note I made earlier is the Wellcome Trust Project?
Elaine: The Wellcome Trust was involved initially in developing the viewer for our online collections. They had a company called Digirati and developed what they called, the universal viewer for their online library and online collections, it allows you to zoom in and this is the viewer we’ve used as part of our online collections platform. So we were hoping to develop this a bit further, because obviously it has its limitations, it’s not very well suited unfortunately to crowd sourcing, and things like that, and allowing transcriptions.
So this might be another project we’ll look into to find a viewer that’s suitable, although with the READ Project, because they’re developing their own platform and viewer, it will probably be just a matter to export images onto their new platform and then you can manipulate it, so we might even just retain our viewer, our current viewer as is, because for our purposes it’s satisfactory if we have this other option as well.
Frank: Sounds great. And last, but not least, because we spoke about the open access ethos of The Linnean Society, can you give us some stats on how many page reviews, requests, visitors?
Elaine: Yes. It’s quite impressive and obviously they have increased over the years quite considerably in line with the more material we put online the more. So it’s quite considerable. In 2015 we had over 4,800,000 successful page requests, so that is I think a huge success, absolutely, and just shows how popular and important the collections are.
Frank: Oh, that’s great. I mean, I’m all geeked out and ohh, we have the police arriving now [police siren in background]. One of the things I’ve picked up and I wanted to mention, I saw the AdoptLinn leaflet earlier. Can you tell listeners what it’s all about?
Elaine: Yes, that’s right. That’s a new adoption scheme we have and it’s not just books, I mean, many libraries have adopt a book scheme, but this is not only books but it can apply to really any parts of our collections. So this gives people the chance to contribute towards the conservation of some of our very hugely important material and be our custodians of, you know, Darwin, Wallace material, Linnaeus’s legacy, we also have 95,000 books in the library, we have other correspondence collections, artwork, paintings, you name it, it’s a vast and hugely important collection.
So in order to get people more involved or to give people the opportunity to get really close up and personal with the material and to play a hugely important role really in helping us to conserve these collections, we launched the scheme. So there are different levels of adoption and we always just match one person with one item, so it’s very intimate, it’s a very personal relationship. If you’re interested in Darwin and Wallace, it’s just perfect, you can adopt things that are very, very important in that context and the history of science, great discoveries, and unique things like manuscripts.
Steph: I was just looking at the flyer, thinking it would make a very nice special gift, you know, to commemorate something.
Elaine: Exactly, at the moment, we start slowly with books and see what people suggest to us. It really is an invitation to see what people are interested in supporting and how they would like to become involved.
Frank: I would just close by saying thank you very much for your time Elaine, for showing us around and getting us down to the basement, the bomb proof vault and showing us some really fascinating books and information.
Steph: Yes, it’s been fantastic.
Elaine: You are very welcome! I should say we do public tours, so if people are interested, check our website, once a month usually we have public treasures tours that tie in with our lunch time lectures which are free and open to all. For the treasures tours you would need to book and we usually ask for a five pound suggested donation to help support the collections. You get a really nice package, you also get a free cup of tea, which is quite nice, in the beautiful library. We also do educational tours so if it’s a group of students or school groups, we can arrange that, this is an important part of our mission, to inspire young people in particular. We put on lots of very interesting evening lectures and events as well, most of them are free and open to all, so yes – everybody is welcome.
Steph: Yeah. I’d definitely suggest anybody comes along here, I’m totally in love with the society, the library and life, just leave me here!
Frank: Okay, I’ll pick you up for work next Monday! Have a nice weekend everyone.