Crowdsourced Transcriptions of Humphry Davy's Notebooks

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

Abstract

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 There is much evidence from the previous AHRC project on Davy's letters that the public is interested in Davy, in his unpublished manuscripts, and, particularly, in his poetry and its relation to his science.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 (https://www.zooniverse.org/) 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 (https://blog.zooniverse.org/2015/03/05/who-are-the-zooniverse-community-we-asked-them/). 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' (http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1418573/1/p2985-eveleigh.pdf). 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.

Publications

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Description What were the most significant achievements from the award?

Using Zooniverse (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/humphrydavy/davy-notebooks-project), a platform that enables 'people-powered research', we crowdsourced transcription of five of Davy's early notebooks (dating from 1795 to 1805). The response was astounding: in only 19 days, 505 participants from around the world transcribed the 626 pages. The project discussion forum (called 'Talk' on the Zooniverse platform) was used simultaneously to ask what the notebooks told us about the relationship between art and science. During the pilot project there were 254 discussions and 896 comments posted.

To what extent were the award objectives met? If you can, briefly explain why any key objectives were not met.

Yes, objectives were met in full.

How might the findings be taken forward and by whom?

I have applied for an AHRC Research Grant to enable me to get the remaining 75 Davy notebooks transcribed.
Exploitation Route Through Davy's notebooks we can trace his thought processes as he worked. They record critical scientific experiments; drafts of important lectures and publications; geological drawings; character portraits of Davy's eminent scientific contemporaries; to-do lists, shopping lists, and autobiographical notes; references to Davy's reading (e.g. in 15/C, to Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts and notes from Francis Bacon); and contain a great deal of poetry. Lines of poetry jostle for space on the same page as accounts of chemical discoveries. Notebook pages - torn, stained, and burned - reveal that Davy wrote poetry in his laboratory while at his scientific work. The five notebooks have produced revelatory new material that will be of interest to academics and members of the public. For example, there has long been a debate about Davy's unorthodox religious beliefs in his early life, when he was the friend and almost daily companion of S. T. Coleridge. In notebook HD/13/D, Davy declares: 'Amidst the delightful scenery of the wye, I was sometimes for a short time a physiopatheist'. This newly coined term suggests a specific type of pantheism, influenced by his identity as a natural philosopher. In a different vein, transcription of notebook 13F has revealed, for the first time, Davy's racist stereotyping of different nations. Davy's political views need to be reassessed in the light of such discoveries. Transcription of the notebooks will benefit academics working in a number of fields, including History (early nineteenth-century History, the History of Science, the History of Medicine, and Cultural History), Digital Humanities, Literature (Romantic-Period Literature, Literature and Science Studies), Medical Humanities, Sociology (Science and Technology Studies), Cultural Studies, Scientists, Medics, and Engineers. There has been a huge surge of interest in Humphry Davy, partly because he is an exemplary figure in the study of the relationship between science and literature. The LitSci field has been growing over the past few decades and now has a dedicated society (the British Society of Literature and Science), journal (Literature and Science), and more than one book series (Professor Ruston, the PI, is a co-editor of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine). Davy's nitrous oxide experiments also mean that he is of interest to those in Literature and Medicine studies, which also have a number of dedicated conferences, societies, journals and publications.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://humphrydavy.org.uk/notebooks/notebooks/
 
Description Paper given at NASSR conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a paper on Humphry Davy's letters to the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism at the University of Chicago in July 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://nassrchicago2019.wordpress.com/
 
Description Plenary talk at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave the plenary talk for the British Association for Romantic Studies conference at the University of Nottingham in July 2019 to an audience of more than a c. 150. The talk was on Humphry Davy's notebooks and was the Stephen Copley Memorial Lecture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-arts/english/romantic-studies/index.aspx
 
Description Public Talk on Davy at the Royal Institution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk on Humphry Davy and the Royal Institution at the 'Romanticism and the RoyaI Institution' event organised by the in association with the London-Paris Romanticism Seminar and the Fordham Romanticism Group, New York. There were 225 present and it took place on 7/6/2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.rigb.org/whats-on/events-2019/june/public-romanticism-at-the-royal-institution
 
Description Third run of DAVY MOOC 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 605 people joined this massive open online course on Humphry Davy. This course was a repeat of the original course, which has now run three times. It runs for four weeks and learners gave excellent feedback on it once again.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/humphry-davy/1