Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

4 posts from July 2014

25 July 2014

Fossil hunting at the British Library

Natalie Bevan explores some interesting traces of the geological past buried in St Pancras stone...

Over on our Collection Care blog, Christina Duffy recently wrote a fascinating piece on the stones and brickwork of the British Library’s architecture, the variety and origins of materials that have gone into creating the St Pancras site.

Following on in this vein of urban geology we decided to take a closer look at the variety of fossils that can be found all around us in the different types of stone used in the library's building work.

Inside the main building Portland stone is used in the flooring. This is a pale smooth grained limestone. Examination of the material depicts brown shapes within the white stone, reflecting fragments of fossilised marine flora and fauna.


Here you can see shell fragments; calcareous algal pellets are in evidence also, which look like coin sized white patches in the stone.

A much darker material from the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous period has also been used; Purbeck limestone, from the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. This brown-blue stone has been placed on the flooring alongside and providing contrast to the white Portland, this is best seen on the upper ground floor.

Purbeck limestone contains a multitude of curious swirly patterns, clearly defined – fossils of ancient shells well preserved, of freshwater molluscs such as pea mussels of ponds and streams.

The final example here is Italian Travertine. Used along the walls and pavings of the interior. It is a cream-coloured, rough textured stone.


The occasional indentations in the stone, shown here, are remnants of aquatic plants; the hollow stems of rushes.

Travertine limestone is a calcareous mineral deposited by flowing water, and originates from the Tivoli Hills outside Rome. It is the material often used in Rome’s classical buildings.

For more information on this topic please see Eric Robinson’s ‘A Geology of the British Library’

Interested in urban geology? You may find these two books of use:

Stories in stone; travels through urban geology / David B. Williams

Geology on your doorstep : the role of urban geology in earth heritage conservation / edited by Matthew R. Bennett [et al.]

For geological research the British Library’s contains a wide ranging collection of geological literature and resources.

Becoming a reader will allow you access to some of the best online resources available in this field, such as Geobase and GeoRef.  We also provide access to a variety of up to date reference books, some of which can be browsed on the shelves in the Science Reading Room; please search our library catalogue for further details.


18 July 2014

British Library connecting with the flooding community

Johanna Kieniewicz reflects on Envia, a new tool for flooding researchers and practitioners

This past winter, the UK received unprecedented amounts of rainfall. I returned from Christmas holidays to find a big damp patch on a south-facing wall of our Victorian terrace house. Our mild inconvenience was nothing compare to others across England who faced disaster, as rivers overtopped their banks, flooding communities for weeks on end.

A debate played out in the press about whether dredging the Parrett and Tone rivers might have saved the Somerset Levels. The then Chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith,  defended the work of his organisation, standing firm in the face of enormous pressure from politicians and communities alike. In the end, pumps were imported from The Netherlands that sucked the water away, and some dredging is now planned. In the wake of this, the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management published an interesting report: Flooding and Dredging: A Reality Check, in which they examined the impact of dredging rivers on flooding. They concluded that although dredging may benefit flood risk management in some cases, it is not a standalone solution and should be viewed as part of a larger suite of tools and that the risks that it poses must be well understood at a local level.

Flooded farmland in the Somerset Levels (Image: Shutterstock)



To me, the debate whether to dredge or not highlighted the importance of the scientific evidence base to flooding researchers and practitioners. The ability to easily access trustworthy information quickly, particularly in a crisis, is of paramount importance. Intuition might say that if a river that accumulates sediment over time is flooding, then it might be a good idea to dredge it from time to time. Fair enough. But evidence also suggests this may speed up the movement of flood water (increasing risks to communities upstream), destabilise river banks and result in loss of fluvial and floodplain habitats. I can’t say whether the dredging debate would have played out any differently, had politicians and the public had better access to information. However, it did emphasise how important it is for everyone involved in tackling flooding—from local authorities, to charities, to academics, to the Environment Agency-- has the very best evidence available.

At the British Library, we are keen to help make that possible. A few years back, we started to look at whether we could make more of our environmental science collections, providing instant access to information online, to anyone, anywhere, for free. To that end, we now have Envia, a new tool that allows users to discover and access a curated selection of reports (including UK government, EU and more), PhD theses, and data resources online. It’s a simple search box, either on the Envia website, or something embeddable in browsers or webpages, that you can use to search over a wide variety of content.  We had good evidence from our own research that flooding would be remain a high priority across the environment sector in the UK, and so decided to focus on content relevant to flooding experts for our pilot.



Over the past few months, we’ve been adding more content and functionality that will make Envia as useful as possible to people.

New Content – Envia will now connect you to reports from EU institutions on topics including water management, meteorology, coastal protection, climate change and more. We have developed our selection relating to the social impacts of flooding, and flooding and habitat management. We are also experimenting with content that you may need to pay for in order to access.

New Layout –Envia now has a cleaner layout that also displays beautifully on your smartphone or tablet computer. So now, whether in the field or whilst travelling, you can search and discover environmental information.

New Functionality –Envia now supports the export of search results by email, as well as in formats suitable for Refworks and Endnote.

So, if you are a flooding researcher or practitioner, or anyone interested in research and policy information relevant to flooding , do please try Envia, and tell your colleagues. We are keen to know how we might make Envia more useful to you, so don’t hesitate to give contact us at [email protected].

While Envia itself might not be able to hold back the waters of the future floods that will undoubtedly come our way, we hope that it may help those in search of the evidence they need to make the very best decisions possible to protect homes, businesses and habitats.

10 July 2014

My Internship with the British Library Science Team

NERC Science Policy Intern Adam Levy sums up his three months with the Science Team

I applied to undertake a NERC policy internship, hoping to be presented with the opportunity of working at one of eight fantastic organisations.  When I received an email to offering me an internship with the British Library, I was thrilled.  Not only did it feel like a huge achievement to be offered any of the schemes, but the British Library is also a great institution that many of my peers find invaluable to their research.  That said, I was as yet unsure exactly how my time would be spent with the Science Team.  Well, I’m pleased to report, it has turned out to be a hugely varied and rewarding three months.


Without a doubt, the biggest responsibility I’ve had during my time at the Library has been to organise an event for the Science Team’s long running TalkScience series. I am thrilled by the amount of creative control I was entrusted with – from picking the topic and speakers, to tweaking the format of the discussion.  The event took the form of a panel discussion, titled Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action?, and my aim was to bring together four panellists from distinct spheres (science, policy, press and communication psychology).

When the day itself came around, it felt hugely personal, and I fully expected to be too nervous to hear anything our panellists discussed.  Thankfully, this wasn’t the case, and I was delighted by how broad the conversation was – discussing not only the science linking extreme weather to climate change, but also why improvements in scientific understanding haven’t led to significant changes in public attitudes.  This was also one of the first TalkScience events to be filmed, so feel free to judge the outcome for yourself!

Enjoying the outcome of my hard work at TalkScience!

Continue reading "My Internship with the British Library Science Team" »

07 July 2014

Crick retreat moves forward

Katie Howe reflects on the 3rd Francis Crick Institute post-docs’ retreat held at the British Library in June.

Over the past few years Team ScienceBL have watched with interest over the building site located at the north end of the British Library’s St Pancras site. The building under construction is the Francis Crick Institute, which when it opens its doors in 2015 will be a leading centre for biomedical research employing over 1000 scientists.

The Francis Crick Institute - viewed from the ScienceBL office window

We are excited that the Francis Crick Institute will be our newest neighbour and were particularly pleased to collaborate with the Crick on this year’s post-docs’ retreat. The event was hosted at the British Library Conference Centre and brought together about 200 post-doctoral researchers from the Crick’s partner institutes for an interactive day of science, careers and networking. This is the third such retreat and the second time we have hosted the event here at the British Library.

The programme was organised by a committee of post-docs from the Crick’s partner institutes and included a range of sessions, covering everything from careers advice to the parasitic behaviour of cuckoos. There was plenty of time for scientists from all six institutes to get to know each other over lunch and in the coffee breaks as well as during a dedicated post-doc networking session. One thing that stood out for me was the non-linear career trajectories that were followed by many of the speakers. Especially enlightening in this regard were talks from Dr Nessa Carey and Prof Mark Lythgoe, both of whom had had varied and non-conventional career paths before ending up where they are now. This was a very refreshing insight for early career researchers who are considering their career options.

L to R: The post-doc networking session; Nessa Carey (Photos: David Bacon, LRI)

The ScienceBL team were pleased to be invited to host a session entitled ‘Open Access for Early Career Researchers’. From our work with biomedical researchers we know that it is not always clear what is meant by the term Open Access and so in this session we wanted to shed some light on this complicated and often misunderstood area. Our own Anna Kinsey (EuropePMC Engagement Manager) kicked off the session by breaking down some common misconceptions about Open Access and explaining what it means for researchers. Anna went on to explain how EuropePMC can help biomedical researchers access a wide range of Open Access content. The Open Access session also included a thought-provoking talk from Steve Royle (Senior Cancer Research UK fellow at Warwick University) who shared his perspectives on Open Access publishing from the point of view of an early career researcher. Steve pointed out some of the pros and cons of publishing your research Open Access and explained why he felt that it is important for early career researchers to embrace this new development in publishing practice.

The Crick-BL retreat was finished off with a drinks reception in the Library’s terrace restaurant overlooking the Crick building before the post-docs headed off on an urban orienteering trail around the St Pancras area. We think we can safely say a good time was had by all and we look forward to working with the Crick in future years!

Katie Howe