Crowdsourced Transcriptions of Humphry Davy's Notebooks

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: English and Creative Writing


The Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) holds an unparalleled collection of Sir Humphry Davy's notebooks. One of the most famous chemists of the nineteenth century, Davy used these notebooks to record his experiments and to write poetry. There is much evidence from the previous AHRC project on Davy's letters that the public is interested in Davy, in his unpublished manuscripts, and, particularly, in his poetry and its relation to his science. Davy's notebooks have yet to be transcribed and they are only available to readers who visit the RI archive in person. This project will crowdsource transcriptions of five of Davy's notebooks from the Zooniverse ( community of 1.7 million registered volunteers. High-quality images of the manuscripts will be produced and made available on a freely accessible website accompanied with the transcriptions. This current project will ask the Zooniverse participants to reflect upon how poetry helped construct scientific knowledge using the example of Davy, and to think about how the arts and sciences might work together today. Digitising the notebooks makes them available to a much larger audience and creates a resource for future research. It also means that the manuscripts themselves, which are very fragile, can be carefully preserved by the RI while promoting their historical holdings to the world. The Zooniverse participants will learn new skills with an innovative new project builder created to render Davy's notebook page on screen. Previous surveys of the Zooniverse community have found that, overwhelmingly, people engage in transcription projects because they enjoy contributing to a scholarly endeavour. Related activities pursued during the previous grant demonstrated how transcription can be both personally satisfying and confidence-building. Learning about Davy caused people to change their minds about the idea of science and the arts as 'two cultures'.

Planned Impact

The proposed project continues the impact work of the previous AHRC Leadership Fellowship to 'encourage a wide range of beneficiaries to rethink the relationship of science to society and culture through the example of Humphry Davy'. Primary beneficiaries are the Zooniverse participants but members of other user-groups can also take part: e.g. the University of the Third Age (U3A); local and family history groups in the UK; members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI); participants in the 2017 and 2018 Davy MOOC; and those who attended impact events held during and since the fellowship (total of 16 events; 594 attended). Lancaster University, the RI, and the PI will promote the project.

According to a 2015 survey, the Zooniverse community is made up of more men than women (roughly a 60/40 split) and includes people aged from 18 and 71. They are mostly UK- or USA-based and over half are in full or part-time work employment ( This new audience differs from that of the MOOC as surveyed, the demographic of which was overwhelmingly female (606 to 210) and older: 365 of the 816 were over 65 years old and only 30 were aged between 18 and 25.

It is likely that many of the 2633 who participated in the MOOC will register with Zooniverse and take part in this project. The pre- and post-course surveys for the MOOC, filled in by 572 people and 197 people respectively, revealed the range of people interested in Davy who had taken this course: ex-miners; dentists; anaesthetists; drug counsellors; chemists; historians; historical novelists; geologists; teachers; museum workers; and family historians. MOOC feedback demonstrates how this project will benefit users. When asked why they had decided to take the course, 37% respondents said in order to 'learn a skill'; 63% said 'to be informed about social, cultural or political topics and current affairs'; and 57% 'to share what I've learned with my community, friends or family'. 79% chose to do the course 'to vitalise my mind, learn for pleasure or satisfy intellectual curiosity'. 72% of respondents said the course had helped them meet their learning goals; one specifically mentioned 'Reading the manuscripts which I have found very difficult in the past'.

The resource produced by this project will broaden debate about poetry and science. In the pre-course MOOC survey respondents said that they wanted 'To learn how science interacts with poetry' and were 'Interested in how arts/sciences used to coexist more in the past'. In the MOOC steps on the 'two cultures' of the arts and sciences, one participant responded with 'We need more spaces where both sciences and arts can come together'.

The motivations of massive virtual communities, including the Zooniverse, have been much discussed; see, for example, Eveleigh et al., 'Designing for Dabblers and Deterring Drop-Outs in Citizen Science' ( This article finds that benefits are intrinsic (i.e. a result of the task itself), such as 'subject interest and curiosity, competence in the transcription task, and an enjoyment derived from taking part in the project' (p. 2986). Participants' identification with the goal of the project is a strong motivation too. Extrinsic factors, such as 'interaction with other volunteers, e.g. status gained for expertise or high quality work', were found to be less motivating by comparison (p. 2987).

The general public will benefit from the digitisation of this material as will the RI and the purchase of a scanner will have considerable impact on the RI's future digitisation work, including opportunities to further train staff. The PDRA will benefit from this project because the technical, public-facing, and project management skills required will be of use in a future career. The MA student will similarly gain useful project experience for his/her CV.


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