Citizen science and access to libraries

Recently I’ve become interested in the development of natural history in nineteenth century Australia.

After all not only was the Victorian era the heyday of natural history, but in Australia it had an importance in people trying to understand how the ecology of this wide brown land worked and in describing what they found.

There were individuals such as von Muller who was employed as the colonial botanist to carry out a botanical survey of Victoria, the numerous local clergymen, doctors and phramacists who did a little botany, entomology, or zoology as a hobby, and the numerous watercolourists (mostly but not exclusively female) who painted the plants they found in their area.

Put together, they assembled a picture of Austalia as it was before it transformed from a lightly populated pastoral country to the post industrial country it is today. It also gives us an ecological baseline from which to gauge the effect of climate change.

But it’s not only local naturalists. Ships’ naturalists visited as well, including Hooker, Huxley and of course Darwin.

Now the interesting thing about ships’ naturalists is that they were usually employed as assistant surgeons by the Royal Navy – which meant that they had some medical scientific knowledge, and some knowledge of botany and zoology. What’s more, their conmtracts of employment meant that all their journals and records became property of the British government on the end of their contracts – which is why quite a few of the early records are in London.

So, I thought I would do a little bit or reading about ships’ naturalists.

Well there’s not that much written. There’s a book and what looks to be quite an interesting PhD thesis held at the University of Queensland. The abstract certainly suggested that it would be worthwhile downloading.

Except for one little problem – access was restricted to staff and higher degree students at UQ.

So I emailed the UQ library to ask if I could have access to the thesis. They replied that they didn’t handle requests from individuals and that I would have to ask my local library.

We’ll ignore the fact that the thesis was already digitised and it would have been as easy for me to download it directly rather than get it through my local library, but its their data, so its their rules.

Asking my local library was fun. I’m no longer affiliated to an academic institution, but my local library is a member of the Swift consortium, and had been able to get me a book on nineteenth century paleography from the State Library of Victoria in the past so I reckoned I was in with a chance.

So I talked to them. They’d never done this before, but UQ did have a page explaining how libraries could request a copy of a digitised thesis.

And they did give it a go, very successfully. I now have a copy of the thesis sitting on my OneDrive account.

But I do have a little niggle. The process cost me $16.50 in processing charges, which is something I’m happy to pay once. After all I’m basically a dilletante – but on a repeated basis, perhpas not.

And that raises a larger question about citizen science – people doing it are funding it out of their own pockets, and paying for access to materials, and, in these days of open access should that really be the case.

Equally the other thing about citizen science is, what happens to the data?

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A very tangential connection to the Russian Revolution …

Visiting family always seems to involve a boozy dinner with alittle too much red wine, or at least ours do.

And as always with coneversations involving a decent red, sometimes they take some slightly odd turns.

And so it was a few days ago, ironically on the 101st anniversary of the Russian revolution.

We were talking about family history and where various strands of the family had come from. Most of us have been fairly ordinary hardworking folk, in Scotland, or the north of England, or by marriage, Ireland, or more accurately London Irish.

And the story was that when he was small, the great grandfather on the London Irish side worked as a newspaper seller and used to sell Lenin a copy of the Evening Standard most days.

I’m not sure how you would ever prove this, but the dates fit – the London Irish GGF was born in 1894 making him eight or nine in 1902 when Lenin was in London.

However I’m sure he didn’t know at the time who the foreign gentleman he sold his paper to was – however he did go on to be a trade union shop steward, and probably realised afterwards that he might have been selling Lenin his paper.

But memory of course can be a funny thing. It could have been Trotsky, or indeed any other memorable delegate to the 1902 RSDLP party congress that was held in exile in London …

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Opera girls …

We’ve started watching the ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair on BBC First.

The lead protagonist, Becky Sharp, is described as the daughter of an ‘opera girl’, a term clearly designed to be redolent of illicit sex and debauchery.

It’s the sort of term that, when reading nineteenth century books, you immediately realise means something sleazy and disreputable, even if you don’t exactly know what it means, and move on.

Well, maybe it means something something more.

Thackeray, as we know, was born in Calcutta and had East Indian connections, and if you look up ‘opera girl’ on the free dictionary, it come up with opera girl being used as the name for a species of ginger, Mantisia saltatoria (

Given Becky Sharp’s character, I wonder if Thackeray had this plant in mind when choosing to describe Becky Sharp as the daughter of an opera girl, rather than some other declassé profession ….

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One aspect of the Catherine Morton case that puzzled me was just how common was chloroform in colonial Australia.

So I did some digging.

The key date in the story of chloroform is 1847, the year when Simpson first started using chloroform for pain relief and anaesthesia in childbirth.

The discovery clearly took the world by storm – as early as 1848 there were adverts in the Sydney Morning Herald for dentistry under chloroform:

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.04 SMH 03 Jul 1848 via

and wholesale druggists were advertising its availability as in this advert from the Colonial Times (Hobart) of 16 February 1851

Screenshot 2018-09-29 13.19.51

So, when Meard asked Mr Witt the chemist for chloroform to anaethetise a favourite dog he wished to castrate, the use of chloroform was most definitely common knowledge – after all Queen Victoria had used it as early as 1853 to relieve the pain of childbirth …

[update 01 October 2018]

Just for fun, I ran a querypic search on the word chloroform, and as expected it confirmed that the discovery of chloroform was an overnight sensation:


with mentions (in Australia) peaking in 1848 and  minor peak around 1853, doubtless as a result of Queen Victoria being administered chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold …

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Magic Lanterns on easy terms

I recently came across a study carried out by a researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK where, by searching old newspaper adverts, they found evidence that people in Victorian times could hire magic lanterns and slides for an evenings entertainment.

I fund this idea mildly intriguing, so I thought I would try a quick and dirty search of the NLA’s Trove to see if the same thing was happening in Australia.

First of all I used querypic to have a look at the occurrence of the phrase magic lantern in the newspapers of the time:

magic lantern

which shows that the phrase certainly was in use from the 1850’s to the 1900’s, when it started to tail off, perhaps because of the advent of the movies.

Naively, I though it would be quite easy to see if magic lanterns were being hired out. I thought that if I restricted my search to only advertising between 1850 and 1900 in Trove’s collections of digitised newspapers I would find evidence of people hiring out magic lanterns and slides.

Not a bit of it. All these lectures by worthy Victorian vicars on the lives of the indigenous population, or missionary work in China overwhelmed any adverts for the hire of magic lanterns.

There is of course the questions as to where the aforesaid vicars got their magic lanterns from. Did they buy them?, where they hired out by missionary societies, did they get the slide sets separately from the lanterns?

All questions for another day.

One thing that was clear though, was that by the 1890s, stores were advertising magic lanterns for purchase, as in this example from the Daily Commercial News of 11 May 1899:

which suggests that if people bought them for home use, they must have hired sets of slides separately.

Which of course begs the question of what sorts of slides. While undoubtedly some of the slide set would have been worthy, we know from the example of stereoscopes in the 1850’s, that one of the drivers could well have been to provide a means of viewing pornographic images at home.

While people might have been quite happy to got to an illustrated talk on missionary work in China, it was after all a social occasion that provided an opportunity to meet people, what people did behind closed doors and the sorts of lantern slides they looked at may well have been different …


A little more searching, this time for the phrase magic lantern slides has revealed that, as in this advert from the Express and Telegraph of 24 June 1868 in Adelaide, that slides and magic lanterns were hired out

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.59

and that there were retailers of slides, both new

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.19.05

and second hand

Screenshot 2018-09-09 15.18.38

what’s also interesting is that some of these must have come with pre written lectures to accompany them …

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Almost an unfortunate misunderstanding …

Recently we’ve been going out for the day scoping out places that might repay a visit, places such as local museums, abandoned town sites and the like.

We might pretend that this is related to our interest in local history but in truth it’s because we have builders, and sometimes they take over the house with machines and noise, and the simplest thing is to give them the keys for the day, and go for a drive.

Now if we were organised we could take a picnic, but we never are so we usually end up having lunch at a bakery in a small country town.

People in country bakeries are universally friendly and usually want to know your business, so we give them the abbreviated version of having builders in to renovate the bathroom, and usually they commiserate and we move on.

Not yesterday. After wanting to know what we were doing and where we were from, the bakery person gave us a curve ball.

‘My Tamsin’s going to Beechworth for the nipple’

I was sure she hadn’t said what I thought she had. And, in Australia it sometimes seems that everyone is from somewhere else and eccentric English pronounciation is not unusual. Best thing is to appear interested and hope things will explain themselves.

“Oh yes?”

‘Yes, there’s lots of girls going from all over for the nipple this weekend’

At this point I had a brain freeze. Ever since Ned Kelly was arrested at Glenrowan in the 1880’s Beechworth has been a sedate kind of place. All I could think of was a ‘free the nipple‘ demo disrupting the Saturday farmer’s market.

But then it all became clear:

‘There’s a big college nipple competition with teams from Bright, Thurgoona, Chiltern and all over.’

And then it clicked. The lady was saying netball, not nipple …

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It was only a throwaway comment, but one thing that tickled my fancy about the presentation on the MAMA archaeological dig was the comment that paperclips were not used before the 1890’s.

Actually they were. While the machinery was for making what we now think of as the classic paperclip was patented in 1899, paperclips were around well before then, as can be seen in this stationer’s advert from the Quenbeyan Age of 1880

Screenshot 2018-08-20 16.39.04

and there are others from the late 1870’s. If you do a search for “paper clip” in Trove you get the following result:chart

The peak in the 1850’s are possibly an artifact caused by a sudden burst of adverts in a West Australian paper, the peak around 1880 probably represents paper clips becoming common and a normal stationery item. Certainly the date coincides with the group of late 1870s patents in the US for paper clips.

This of course didn’t mean that people stopped using pins entirely – even when I started work you would still occasionally get documents pinned together, and banks in France used to pin banknotes to payment slips well into the 1980’s.

Still it’s interesting to realise that something you think of as pretty mundane was once new and innovative …

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