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Photograph from Player's Cigarette card and cartoon caricature of Sir Oliver Lodge.
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Photograph from Player's Cigarette card and cartoon caricature of Sir Oliver Lodge.
©The University of Liverpool via British Association for the Advancement of Science (Collections on the History of Science: 1830-1970)
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University of Liverpool: “Democratising knowledge”

The University of Liverpool has many valuable collections – there are two miles of archives within its humanities and social sciences library alone. In early 2020 the university’s special collections and archives team proposed the Oliver Lodge Collection for digitisation as part of our R&D project to develop sustainable approaches to digitising collections.

For this part of the R&D project we worked with academic publisher Wiley to create a new history of science collection, inviting our members to nominate parts of their collections to be digitised at no cost to themselves, to make rich, varied content more widely accessible. And in November 2020 we launched the new digitised collection of rare content known as British Association for the Advancement of Science: collections on the history of science 1830-1970. The UK’s researchers, learners and teachers now have free access to it.

This is the first time UK universities have had an opportunity to influence a commercial publisher’s decisions about what to digitise.

Liverpool’s Oliver Lodge Collection dates from the earlier part of Sir Oliver Lodge’s career. He was one of the leading scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries and he became the university’s first professor of physics, holding the post from 1881 to 1900.  In the late 1880s he was elected Fellow of The Royal Society and he was president of several learned societies.

Jenny Higham, head of special collections and archives at the university, believes that digitising the Oliver Lodge Collection would probably meet the great man’s approval:

“Sir Oliver was a pioneering physicist whose work on the transmission of electrical waves laid the foundation for the discovery of wireless telegraphy.  He was also a popular public lecturer, who believed passionately in democratising scientific knowledge so I think he’d like this way of opening his work to a wider audience.”

The collection is centred around 30 of his research notebooks up to 1900, including some from his student days, showing the development of his thinking and the progression of his work.  It also includes some photos and drawings, as well as letters revealing how he worked with other pioneering scientists and developed his research networks.

“The collection brings the man and his work to life,”

says Jenny Higham.

“He left Liverpool for the University of Birmingham in 1900 and his later archives are housed there. Having the archives from the earlier part of his career digitised allows researchers to access the full range of resources related to him more easily.

Academics, archivists and librarians work collaboratively so it’s great to see Jisc and Wiley partnering to provide the impetus, framework and funding to facilitate something that institutions can’t necessarily do on their own.”

The digitisation project began before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but the work itself has been happening at a time when senior management in institutions across the UK are focused on making sure that as much content as possible is deliverable digitally. Of course, people who work in collections have been working on digitisation projects for a long time but now the value of digitisation has been brought into sharper focus – and so has the urgency behind it.

“We don’t have the capacity to undertake large-scale digitisation projects ourselves,”

says Jenny and that’s typical of many collections management teams in UK institutions. Often, universities look for external partners to get bigger things digitised, focusing their own efforts on smaller projects in response to research enquiries and known teaching needs.

We expect that making special collections more readily accessible to more people will also help universities to promote their particular character and highlight what they offer compared with peer institutions. Liverpool’s collections are a varied mix of historical, political, literary and business records, as Jenny explains:

“Many of our collections have links with the city of Liverpool and with other cultural institutions within it – not just individuals represented in the University’s archive such as Oliver Lodge, but also modern literary archives from the Liverpool Poets and science fiction authors, as well as the archive of the Cunard Line.

Showcasing fascinating collections such as these are one way of presenting what the University of Liverpool is about to academics and the general public alike.”

Closer to home, the recognition that this project has given to Liverpool’s collections is also useful. The last word goes to Jenny:

“It’s strategically important for us in the special collections and archives department that our collections have been recognised as high quality research resources by the history of science scholars who selected the collections that were digitised for the Jisc and Wiley project.”

Access the collection, British Association for the Advancement of Science: collections on the history of science 1830-1970 - free of charge to Jisc members - through the Jisc licence subscriptions manager.

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