Member story
Julian Huxley
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Digital archives power future research

Alex Hall

Thanks to Wiley and Jisc's collaboration, there is a fabulous new resource - saving my time and bringing powerful new insights to the history of science. 

In my own research, even when I know what I'm after, the time and cost of searching and visiting widely dispersed records can be taxing. I'm jumping ahead, though. As someone who researches science in popular culture, I have always been somewhat of a magpie in finding and compiling sources.

Searching for Julian Huxley

Let's start with a Google search; Google knows everything. I'm looking for Julian Huxley, a biologist and one of the most influential and well-known scientists of the 20th Century. Of course, he has a Wikipedia page, but that just gives me simple biographical facts about his life. There are a few profile pages for him on various scientific websites, but I've already read the basic information. Great, Google can even tell me there's a Wetherspoons pub named after him, not quite what I'm after, though.  

A black and white image of Julian Huxley next to a microphone
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©BBC online via BBC Written Archives
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Julian Huxley records a radio show at the BBC in the 1920s

I’m interested in Huxley’s radio and television broadcasts, so the BBC Written Archives can be helpful. After a quick search, I can see that some useful material is held at St John’s College Library on the University of Oxford campus. Not a huge distance away from Birmingham, but I need to make time in my diary for this trip. I’ll need to book time at the library to view these documents and not forgetting the cost of travel, and depending on when I go, will there be COVID-19 restrictions in place? 

Let's try again, but this time use the solution, a digital future. The Wiley Digital Archive platform partnered with Jisc to digitise the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s collections as part of the new - Collections on the History of Science (1830s-1970s). With that in mind, I have a new search bar to type into now. Again, Julian Huxley. This is interesting. I can see results all in one place, there are photos, and his name is popping up where I might not have expected. This is good, though; I'm starting to connect the dots between Huxley and institutions I didn’t even know he was involved with.

I've just saved myself a trip to Oxford and a whole day of work with one search on this platform. I have many different roles and research is a primary part of that. I enjoy exploring modern science; it is a passion of mine, and finding the correct sources in a short amount of time is significant.

Over the past year, we have relied more than ever on digital records and communication. While it has been challenging, I think many changes to the way we research have been for the better. A digital database for the history of science gives broader access to content in support of research, teaching and learning. 

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A letter from the British Association for the Advancement of Science mentions Huxley's work on the Galapagos islands

Not just for research

Not only does this make my job as a researcher easier, but our students can access this platform too. We can incorporate this into learning, to teach them how to find exciting primary resources for their own research. One simple activity is to give them a search term and task them with finding the most unusual source. Students using the platform will have access to a wide range of different types of resources, both primary and secondary.

This tool gives students the freedom to be creative with their work and research and use resources they wouldn’t otherwise be easily able to access. Using the Wiley archive also helps them develop transferable skills which they can use in their future employment as well as searching, discovery, and the sense of achievement of uncovering something great. Digital archives can be more suitable for students with specific disabilities or learning needs, giving quick and easy access.

As a university, we want to grow our scope for research. Still, we also need to set an example of reducing our carbon footprint and protecting the environment. One barrier to research is travel and cost of finding what you need. I also don’t want to be preaching the change we need to see in the world whilst flying to New York to look at an archive. Keeping our environmental impact as low as possible sets an example for students and encourages others to think about their carbon footprint.  

Digital archives truly are the future of research.

All Jisc members can start using the collection for free or contact your library for help with access. If you are outside of the UK, contact Wiley for a free trial.

This story is featured as part of our annual review 2020-21. Read the other stories.