Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

138 posts categorized "Science"

23 August 2023

50 years on: Information Retrieval and the British Library

The logo of BLAISE, showing BLAISE in angular letters in white on blue, with the full title "British Library Automated Information Service" and the original "open book" British Library logo
The fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the British Library is an opportunity to look back at the leading role the Library and its parent bodies played in introducing computerised information retrieval for science and medicine to the UK. Between 1965 and 1975 experiments in searching databases of medical research were carried out in partnership with the US National Library of Medicine (NLM)  together with computer scientists and medical users in the UK. Following the success of these experiments the Library launched BLAISE (British Library Automated Information Service)  as a national public service in 1977.

The NLM began publishing Index Medicus, an index of medical journal articles, in 1879. In 1960 printing was computerised and the machine readable data on tape became available for information retrieval. A publicly available US service, MEDLARS (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System) opened in 1963 with MEDLINE  (MEDLARS online) going live in 1971. [1]

 In 1965 the NLM agreed with the National Lending Library for Science and Technology [2] to supply tapes in exchange for MEDLARS records of UK medical literature. With these tapes in hand the Office of Science and Technology Information [3]  funded Newcastle University to develop a retrieval package based on NLM’s IBM software to run on the university’s English Electric computer. Subsequent projects in 1973-74 tested the online environment and current awareness services with medical researchers and librarians in Leeds and Manchester over an online telephone link. [4]

The next step in service delivery was to establish online access to the NLM. University College London had set up a link to the US through ARPANET, the early version of the internet [5], and in 1973 British Library Research & Development [3] along with other public bodies, joined this network. This programme was historically significant as the first international communication over the internet. Project STEIN (Short Term Experimental Information Network) involved sixteen centres (e.g. the Royal Post-Graduate Medical School) each with its own terminal and trained intermediary.  The number of users (362) and searches (1217) was substantial and the study confirmed the need for intermediaries who were experienced in using the system and formulating searches. The clinicians and researchers who accompanied each session evaluated the results and gave feedback. Despite difficulties with telecoms, satisfaction was high as searches delivered articles that were new together with articles that were familiar to the users, thus increasing their confidence in the search. [6]

These encouraging results led the Library in 1977 to launch BLAISE, a fully supported public service providing Medline and databases for toxicology and cancer. Tapes were delivered monthly from Washington by diplomatic bag to a computer bureau in Harlow to run on an IBM 370 machine with NLM’s ELHILL retrieval software. Mounting tested software on an established bureau service meant that BLAISE went live within a year. Users benefited from the dedicated BLAISE PSS (Packet Switched Service) network and a support team that provided training, documentation and a help desk, alongside document supply from the British Library Lending Division at Boston Spa.[7] At first researchers and clinicians used Medline for checking references or keeping up to date but it has since become an essential tool for the evidence based medicine community to generate systematic reviews and contribute to the Cochrane Library.[8] From 1977 the Library was the sole provider of NLM databases in the UK but in a political decision in 1982 NLM, as a federal agency, was required to release its products to US online providers. With the ensuing competition BLAISE was no longer able to support a UK based service and it was relaunched as BLAISE-LINK, a UK portal for online access to NLM. Within a few years customers moved over to commercial online hosts and BLAISE-LINK closed. 

Today, the Library continues online healthcare with the publication of AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database). This database supplements the coverage of Medline in areas such as alternative medicine, palliative care and rehabilitation. [9]

We have come a long way in fifty years.  In 1973 searching involved expensive telecoms and computer access, clumsy equipment  (who now remembers audio-acoustic couplers?) minimal records, complex Boolean search strings and the need for skilled medical librarians to navigate all these obstacles. Now, there is free access to the internet and PubMed, open access full text and sophisticated relevance searching empowering every user. Information has exploded:  in 1976, Medline and its associated files had 3.5 million records, by 2022, PubMed had 35 million. [10] 

References [BL shelfmark]

All URLs accessed on 7 July 2023.

[1] MEDLINE History.

[2] The National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST) was the predecessor of the British Library Lending Division and later, the Document Supply Centre. The service is currently available as British Library On Demand.

Barr, D. P. The National Lending Library for Science and Technology. Postgraduate Medical Journal42.493 (1966): 695.

[3] The Office of Science and Technology Information (OSTI) was the predecessor of British Library Research & Development which promoted and funded R&D by the UK library and information community until its merger with the Library and Information Commission in 1999.

Baxter, P. "The role of the British Library R&D department in supporting library and information research in the United Kingdom." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 36.4 (1985): 276. 

[4] Barraclough, E. Information Retrieval, its origins in Newcastle.

Harley, A. J., and Elizabeth D. Barraclough. MEDLARS information retrieval in Britain. Postgraduate medical journal 42.484 (1966): 69.

[5] Kirstein, P. T. "Early experiences with the Arpanet and Internet in the United Kingdom." IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 21.1 (1999): 38-44.

Computer History – Internet history of the 1970s.

[6]  Holmes, P. A description of the British Library’s short-term experimental information network project. pp 231-237 - 1st International On-line Information Meeting, London 13-15 December 1977 / organised by On-line Review, the international journal of on-line information systems. (1977). Oxford ; New York: Learned Information. [available in the British Library at shelfmark 2719.x.4085 ]

Holmes, P. (1978). On-line information retrieval: An introduction and guide to the British Library's short-term experimental information network project / P.L. Holmes. Vol.2, Experimental use of medical information services. (Research and development reports (British Library) ; no.5397). London: British Library Research and Development Department. [available in the British Library at shelfmark 2113.560000F BLRDR 5397 ]

Trials were also made with other scientific and engineering databases on the Lockheed Dialog system.

(7) Holmes, P. L. The British Library Automated Information Service (BLAISE). Online Review 3.3 (1979): 265-274.       

BLAISE also provided bibliographic databases for the British National Bibliography and the Library of Congress, finally closing in 2002.

[8] McKibbon, K. A. Evidence-based practice. Bulletin of the medical library association 86.3 (1998): 396.

Cochrane Library.

[9] Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED)

[10] Miles, W. (1982). A history of the National Library of Medicine : The nation's treasury of medical knowledge. (NIH publication ; no.82-1904). Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. [p.386 -3.5 m records, 1976]

PubMed Milestone - 35 Millionth Journal Citation Added.

Further reading

Bourne, C., & Hahn, Trudi Bellardo. (2003). A history of online information services, 1963-1976, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT. [Available in the British Library on open shelf: Humanities 2 Reading Room HUR 025.04]

Written by Richard Wakeford (Science Reference Specialist, Retired). Richard was a member of the BLAISE support team, 1981-1984.

15 August 2023

Wild British Library: Experiences of nature: goldfinch, pigeon and magpie

For us and for nature, facts are not enough. We need stories too.

Facts tell us something. We need facts, yes, but we need more. To understand facts, and for them to help us act, we need to connect with them in a way that is meaningful to us. Sharing our experiences of nature, especially in the form of stories, is one way of making connections, as Andrea Deri mentioned in her recent post. There, she described how naturalists over centuries have told us of their experiences of nature as well as their methodical observations. Although not a naturalist myself, I believe in the power of sharing stories. Here are two memorable experiences I have had at the Library.

A Charm of Goldfinches
Goldfinch: Carduelis carduelis

A goldfinch is seen perched on a twig in close up
Photograph courtesy of Greg Smith. Taken 2 Jan 2021, Alexandra Palace, London.

In the grey white days of one winter I frequently sat quietly in the staff lounge reading and looking out towards the Crick Institute. An occasional pigeon would attract my attention as it sped past. One day stands out in my mind, as I saw a flash of colour as well as movement. For a brief, beautiful moment, six goldfinches grazed on the grey, grassy mounds outside the window before taking to the air for some other, unimagined place.

The Pigeon and the Magpie
(Columba livia domestica and Pica pica)

A magpie is seen in close up perched on a rock
Photograph courtesy of Greg Smith. Taken 16 Oct 2022 at Alexandra Palace, London.

As I remember it now, it was a late winter’s day with just enough warmth and blue sky to raise my anticipation of spring. I was sitting on the piazza in the pale, promising sunlight when I turned my head briskly at a sudden movement sensed out of the corner of my eye. Up on the ornamental green bars at the corner of the Knowledge Centre, a pigeon was struggling to escape, one of its small feet apparently trapped. I winced after each desperate flutter, picturing its body hanging by a tendon in its tiny foot, imagining its pain. As I stared, I became aware of others around me who had also been captivated by the drama high above the ground. We released a collective groan as the drama darkened.
As we stared at the small body, hanging for longer and longer moments between flutters, a flash of black and white swooped and pecked. A magpie had seen an opportunity that none of us unwilling spectators could bear to watch. Nor could we look away. The pigeon, we realised as one mind, was not destined to starve to death, but to be eaten alive. Something the pigeon knew instantly. The magpie swooped again, then a third time, provoking the pigeon into ever more desperate beating of its wings. The magpie found a perch near enough to peck at its leisure, targeting the head and eyes. We tried to turn our eyes away but were irresistibly drawn back. As we began to lose hope, the pigeon made one superlative effort and broke loose. The relief swept through the light air of the piazza, drawing a soft ripple of applause from those of us who had borne witness to one soul who had raged successfully against the dying of the light.

Further Reading

Fischer, D., Fücker, Sonja, editor, & Selm, Hanna, editor. (2022). Narrating sustainability through storytelling. Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit
Friedmann, H. (1946). The symbolic goldfinch: Its history and significance in European devotional art. (Bollingen series; 7). Washington: Pantheon Books. Available in the British Library at shelfmark 7868.ff.36
Macfarlane, R. (2019). Underland: A deep time journey. Penguin. Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit or at shelfmark YK.2020.a.1303
Moreton, C. (2007). Maid and the Magpie An Interesting Tale Founded on Facts. Project Gutenberg.
Nanson, A. (2021). Storytelling and Ecology : Empathy, Enchantment and Emergence in the Use of Oral Narratives. (Bloomsbury Advances in Ecolinguistics). Available in the British Library through Non-Print Legal Deposit
Thomas, D. (1952). Collected Poems, 1934-1952. [With a portrait.]. J. M. Dent & Sons, 1952. Available in the British Library at shelfmark
Woodward, I., Arnold, Richard, and London Natural History Society. (2017). The London bird atlas. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd. Available in the British Library at shelfmark YKL.2019.b.1828

By Huw Rowlands, Cataloguer and Processing Coordinator, Western Heritage Collection
Photographs by Greg Smith, ESTC Support, Content and Metadata Processing South

01 August 2023

Wild British Library: The woodpigeon: from woods to trees

A woodpigeon, a plump grey bird with a pinkish breast, is seen in close up perched on a wall
Figure 1 Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) is alert, ready to take off (13 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

The woodpigeon (Columba palumbus L.) is one of the most noticeable birds around the British Library’s St Pancras site.

Left: a pigeon is seen from a distance perched on a wall at the British Library. Right: a pigeon is seen standing on the ground on wooden slatted flooring
Figure 2 Woodpigeon perches high (11 June 2023) and waddles low, searching for food under the terrace tables (22 May 2022) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

This affable plump bird can be seen perching high on building edges, waddling low on the ground in search of food or engaged in a variety of social behaviour [1]: courtship, posturing, wing fight, thrashing out of the foliage in a conceding flight, or flying over with powerful wingbeats [2] [Fig.1-5, 11].

Two pigeons are seen on the ground facing each other, one with a crest erected and with its head beneath the other's
Figure 3 Woodpigeon courtship (12 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

It is not only their sociability and size [3], about 500 grams, the largest [4] pigeon in the UK avifauna, but also their sheer number that makes the woodpigeon easy to spot throughout the year. According to The London Bird Atlas [5] the woodpigeon was the most abundant bird during the winter and breeding time surveys in 2008-13.

Left: a pigeon is seen close up among green leaves. Right: a similar view from a distance
Figure 4 Woodpigeon nest in ivy (Hedera helix) (11 June 2022) and in Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) (7 July 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

Woodpigeons have made their home around the British Library in London. They nest in the dense foliage of woody climbers: common ivy (Hedera helix) [6] and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) [7]. One of their fledglings was spotted on a chair in March 2023.

A fledgling woodpigeon (paler coloured and thinner than the adult) is seen perched on the back of a metal chair against a background of greenery
Figure 5 Woodpigeon fledgling near a nest in ivy (22 March 2023) British Library, St Pancras, Photo: Andrea Deri

Ronald Keir Murton’s monograph [8] and PhD thesis [9] provide comprehensive overviews of the woodpigeon’s biology, ecology, and behaviour.

Timeline: from woods to trees

The woodpigeon, as its name suggests, was once only associated with forests and woods. The timeline of its journey from woods to trees, from the countryside to the city is revealed by ornithologists’ observations:

1544 – 1884 – 1888 – 1891 – 1957 – 2010 – 2014 – 2023
Woods                     Trees

1544 - William Turner, a physician and natural historian, referred to the woodpigeon as the “coushot” or “ringged dove” and described it as a forest dwelling bird [Fig. 6-7].

Pages of a printed book in Latin, with the English words "a ringged dove" underlined in ink
Figure 6 The woodpigeon’s name in Greek, Latin, English and German in William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

Turner’s treatise [10], written in Latin, is considered the oldest printed book dedicated to birds. It lists bird species mentioned by Aristotle and Pliny with Turner’s own observations.

Both the Latin editions (1544, 1823) [11] and the English translation (1903) [12] are available online.

Two pages of a hardbound book, held down with a book snake.
Figure 7 Description of the woodpigeon in William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

Turner’s bird book is a small thin volume that sits comfortably in the hand, without illustrations and pagination. [Fig. 7-8]

The spine of an old hardbacked book, and the closed book next to a paperback and a pair of binoculars
Figure 8 Spine, size comparison with a recent birdwatcher’s guide & binoculars: William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4

The British Library has two copies of Turner’s bird book. The copy at shelfmark 976.f.4 is particularly interesting because it belonged probably to Sir Hans Sloane [13], owner of one of the British Library’s founding [14] and named collections [15], now controversial due to his wife's inheritance of money obtained from slave-worked Jamaican sugar plantations. The black octagonal stamp “Museum Britannicum” on the title page verso was intended to distinguish Sloane’s books alone but later acquisitions were also stamped with it. [Fig.9]

The title page of a book, held open with a book snake. On the opposite page is a stamp of a horizontally stretched hexagon containing, in capitals, the words MVSEUM BRITANICVM
Figure 9 The black octagonal stamp “Museum Britannicum” marked items of the Sloane Collection including William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem mentio est brevis & succinta historia (1544): British Library, Shelfmark 976.f.4


1884 - Henry Seebohm [16], steel manufacturer and amateur ornithologist, portrayed the woodpigeon a “common resident in the wooded districts” of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, except those tame ones living in Paris’ and Berlin’s parks. [Fig. 10]

The title page and a text page of a printed hardback book
Figure 10 Henry Seebohm: A history of British Birds with coloured illustrations of their eggs, 4 volumes (1884): title page and page 396 in vol. 2, British Library, Shelfmark 7287.c.2.

1888 & 1891 - Tristram-Valentine [17] solicitor and amateur ornithologist, was genuinely surprised to see woodpigeons in London:

“Probably the last bird that a countryman would expect to find in London would be the ringdove or, as it is more commonly called, the woodpigeon; yet this bird, though not by any means common, is generally to be seen in the Parks, and certainly claim to be included in any list of London birds […].” (25 February 1888; page 193)

“It is certainly curious that a bird naturally so wild and wary as the wood-pigeon should so alter its habit as to live the year through in parks even as large as those of the West End, surrounded as they are by miles of streets and buildings.” (25 February 1888; page 193)

Three years later transformative change happened. The woodpigeon became “the most noticeable” London bird according to Tristram-Valentine:

“The enormous increase during the last few years in the number of wood-pigeons frequenting the London Parks must have struck the least observant. Formerly a few pairs bred there every year, Kensington Gardens and the grounds of Buckingham Palace being their favourite nesting-places ; but a few years since their numbers began to increase, and they are now— sparrows always excepted—the commonest of London birds, and are certainly, without any exception, the most noticeable.“ (4 July 1891 page 238)

1957 – The Committee of the London Natural History Society [18] referred to the woodpigeon as “common resident, breeding throughout the [London] Area.”

2010 – Robert A. Robinson [19], senior scientists of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) discussed the woodpigeon as a species of the towns and gardens habitats, not in woodlands and scrubs. Robinson listed the woodpigeon as one of the eight bird species typical of urban and suburban areas, “house sparrow, starling, blackbird, magpie, collared dove, greenfinch, carrion crow, and increasingly woodpigeon.”

2023 - BTO also refers to the woodpigeon as a common bird that can be seen across a range of habitats [3]. In addition to the woodpigeon’s biology and ecology, BTO also discusses various anthropogenic drivers of the woodpigeon’s population increase, 153% (1967-2020).

In the 2023 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch [20] the woodpigeon ranked fourth. It was seen in 76.8% of gardens (after the robin 84.5%, blackbird 82.5%, and blue tit 77.5%). This list shows that the woodpigeon is one of the most noticeable birds not only at the British Library’s St Pancras site but also in the UK.

A pigeon sitting on a concrete slab, its legs and feet invisible.
Figure 11 Woodpigeon resting (13 June 2023) British Library, St Pancras Photo: Andrea Deri

People and wildlife

When naturalists take note of their observations, they record not only what species they see, where, when and in what numbers, but also their thoughts and feelings about wildlife as some of the quotes above illustrate. This human connection makes their stories not only appealing but also indicative of their, the birdwatchers’ relationship with wildlife.
Given its size, tameness, and uninhibited social life the woodpigeon offers one of the best opportunities, if not the best, for people, all of us, to watch their behaviour closely, learn about their daily and seasonal routines, and connect with these birds.

The woodpigeon’s influence on people’s connection with wildlife cannot be underestimated.

Posted by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer


Ann McDermott, ESTC Cataloguer, Early Printed Collections, British Library for providing resources related to William Turner’s Avium (1544).
Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator, Incunabula and Sixteenth Century Printed Books and Greg Smith, ESTC Support for their suggestions.

References and further readings [British Library shelfmark]

All URLs were accessed on 10 July 2023.

[1] Gomez, Africa. ‘Woodpigeon Calls and Displays’. The Rattling Crow (blog), 27 March 2017.
[2] Pedley, William. ‘Woodpigeon Wingbeats’, 26 October 1975.
[3] BTO. ‘Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) (Linnaeus, 1758)’. BirdFacts: Key information about the UK’s birds and their changing fortunes, based on data collected by BTO and partner organisations., 2023.
[4] BTO. ‘Woodpigeon (Columba Palumbus)’, 2023.
[5] Woodward, Ian D., Richard Arnold, and Neil Smith. The London Bird Atlas. [London], Oxford: London Natural History Society; John Beaufoy Publishing, 2017. [YKL.2019.b.1828]
[6] Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Common & Atlantic Ivy (Hedera Helix s.l.)’, 2020.
[7] Plant Atlas 2020. ‘Virginia-Creeper (Parthenocissus Quinquefolia (L.) Planch.)’, 2020.
[8] Murton, R. K. The Wood-Pigeon. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1965. [(B) GD 29 (C5)]
[9] Murton, R. K. ‘The Ecology of Wood-Pigeon Populations with Special Reference to Their Breeding Biology’. PhD, University of Liverpool, 1962.
[10] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544. [976.f.4 and 954.b.11]
[11] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia, 1544.
[11] Turner, William. Avium Praecipuarum Quarum apud Plinium et Aristotlem Mentio Est Brevis & Succinta Historia. Cantabrigiae: typis academicis excudebat Joan Smith, 1823.
[12] Turner, William. Turner on Birds?: A Short and Succinct History of the Principal Birds Noticed by Pliny and Aristotle First Published by Doctor William Turner, 1544. Translated by A. H. Evans. Cambridge?: University Press, 1903. [7285.dd.9.]
[13] British Library. ‘Sloane Printed Books Catalogue’, 1 February 2023.
[14] British Library. ‘The Foundation Collections’, 2023.
[15] British Library. ‘Major Named Collections of Printed Books’, 2023.
[16] Seebohm, Henry. A History of British Birds, with Coloured Illustrations of Their Eggs. 4
volumes vols. London: R. H. Porter, 1883-85. [7287.c.2.], also online at
[18] Tristram-Valentine, J.T. London Birds and Beasts. London, 1895. []
[19] Homes, R.C. The Birds of the London Area since 1900. The New Naturalist. London:
Collins, 1957. pp. 211-212 [W.P. 12018/12]
[20] Robinson, Robert A. ‘State of Bird Populations in Britain and Ireland’. In Silent Summer: The State of Wildlife in Britain and Ireland, edited by Norman Maclean, 281–318. Cambridge?; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. [YK.2010.a.19902]
[21] RSPB. ‘The Results from across the UK Have Landed!’ Big Garden Birdwatch, 2023.

22 June 2023

Wild British Library: Snails, Sponges and Oysters – finding fossils at the British Library

Alongside the Animals exhibition the British Library hosts a permanent show of animal fossils, hiding in plain sight. As you cross the Piazza on a visit to the Library you tread on limestone brought from the Hauteville region of the French Jura. This stone formed in the early Cretaceous period (145 and 100 million years ago - Ma) in a warm, shallow sea, teeming with life. The commonest fossils found here are spiral gastropods, similar in appearance to auger snails found today. These snails are filter feeders, living partly buried in the mud and capturing particles of food as they pass by in the sea water. Other animals such as soft bodied marine worms have left no fossils, nevertheless, we can see the tracks of their burrows as dark streaks in the stone.

A photograph of brown limestone, showing fossils of molluscs and worm trails
Hauteville limestone


Outside the door of the Knowledge Centre a group of coin sized discs reveal the branches of a sponge, sliced in cross section. Compare this to a modern sponge such as the Mermaid’s Glove and again we see how little some marine animals have changed over the millennia.

A picture of stone with circular fossilised sponge cross-sections, about the size of a 1p coin for scale
Fossilised sponges, with a penny coin for scale


Entering the front door of the Library, the floor is made of Portland stone, formed in the Jurassic period (150-145 Ma) in another warm tropical sea. Fossil shells, similar to oysters, are scattered among calcareous algal pellets which show as small white patches.

Portland stone with fossilised shells visible, and a penny for scale
Portland stone flooring, with a penny to show scale


Moving to the Upper Ground Floor, Portland stone is laid alongside dark Purbeck marble, crowded with the fossil remains of bivalve mussels that thrived in a muddy fresh water lagoon.

Marble showing mussel fossils, smaller than a penny
Mussel fossils in marble, with a penny for scale


If you would like to find out more about our fossils and stones see our report A Geology of the British Library. Building stone makes an easily accessible introduction to geology; explore further with London Pavement Geology.

Written by and all photographs taken by Richard Wakeford (Science Reference Specialist, Retired)


09 June 2023

Wild British Library: The ant and the three-cornered garlic

Summer has arrived but some spring flowers are still around in British Library’s St Pancras site’s Floor 3 Garden. This three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753) is one of them [1,2]. It was prominent with its white flowers in May and covered half of the terrace’s wild area. Now, when its seeds are in the process of maturation, when its wilting leaves and stalks are lying on other plants and on the ground, they are less noticeable. However, they are worth finding. Something exciting is happening around the three-cornered garlic’s black seeds.

A white wild garlic flower hangs from a stem in close up
Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum L. 1753), 30-45 cm, in flower on 4 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
Close-up view of a garlic stem showing its triangular cross-section
The triangular (slightly winged) structure and rather familiar smell of garlic or leek is easy to feel when you roll the stalk of the three-cornered garlic between your fingers. Its Latin name refers to these qualities. The first name, Allium, refers to the onion genus; the second name, its species name within the genus, triquetrum, Latin for triangular in cross-section. 2 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


View of a bed of wild garlic plants with modern office buildings in the background
Three-cornered garlic covered half of the terrace’s wild area. 11 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri
A group of bell-shaped wild garlic flowers hanging from a stem
The wilting stalk and flowers are resting on other plants and the ground as the seeds are maturing. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


The white shiny oil-containing cap-like appendage on the black seed of the three-cornered garlic, called the elaiosome indicates a mutually beneficial plant-animal relationship [3]: myrmecochory, seed dispersal by ants[4,5].

Both terms, elaiosome and myrmecochory are combinations of Greek words.

Elaiosome: oil-containing appendage on the seed that “attracts” ants.

έλαιον (elaion)  - oil, oily substance[6]

σώμα (soma) – body[7]

Myrmecochory: seed dispersal by ants; literally: dance or movement of ants.

μυρμηξ   μυρμηκος (myrmex, myrmekos) - ant, ants[8]

χoρεια  (choreia) - dance, choral dance with music and also movement of animals[9]

A head of garlic flowers showing white flowers, green closed fruit, and opened fruit with black seeds and white jelly
Under the white petals the bulky green fruit encapsulates black seeds with white appendages. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
Close-up view of a green garlic fruit
Wrapped around white petals the translucent green bulky fruit reveals the black seeds inside. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan


A green garlic fruit, split open to show the black seeds and white jelly
Having opened the green bulky fruit one of the black seeds with shiny white appendage, the elaiosome, oil containing body, becomes visible. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan

Attracted by the elaiosome, ants pick up it up with the seed, which together are often larger than the ants’ body, carry it to their nest, eat and feed their young ants with the nutritious oily tissue of the elaiosome, and then dump the stripped seed away from their nest. 

A black seed with a piece of white jelly attached, shown next to a toothed piece of white plastic
The elaiosome (white cap on the dark seed) is about the same size as one tooth of a recycled plastic table knife in the canteen. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan
A garlic seed shown next to a ruler for scale, with an inked line indicating its length of around 4mm
The seed and the elaiosome together are about 3-4 mm. 25 May 2023, Floor 3 Garden, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Methaporn Singhanan, Andrea Deri
Title page of a book "Monographie der Europaeischen Myrmekochoren
Title page of Rutger Sernander’s (1906) monograph on European myrmecochory. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Both ants and plants benefit from this movement of seeds. Ants profit from the nutritious seasonal food source; the three-cornered garlic is getting its seeds moved to new germinating grounds.

According to a recent study[10] over four percent of known plant species are myrmecochorous, that is, their seed dispersal is facilitated by ants. As an adaptive reproduction strategy myrmecochory appears to have evolved several times in phylogenetically unrelated plants.

Johan Rutger Sernander (1866-1944) [11], a Swedish botanist, published the first monograph on myrmecochory in 1906. The British Library holds a copy of this rare opus. Sernander’s comprehensive work is unique for his field experiments related to several European ant species’ preferences between various plants’ seeds and their elaiosome. The three-cornered garlic was included in the experiments and in the monograph’s splendid illustrations.

An image of a book page showing engravings of various types of flowers, fruit and seeds
Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. 7-8 Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum) in Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]
Close-up engraved image of a garlic fruit and seed
Enlarged image: 7-8 Three-cornered garlic in Table I Fruits and seeds with elaiosomes of various plant species. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]


Engraved cross-section of various plant tissues showing individual cells
Table 4 Cross-section of elaiosomes of various plant species under microscope. 135 (bottom-centre) Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum). Note the large oil containing cells. Sernander (1906) [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

While the three-cornered garlic benefits from myrmecochory it also spreads by bulbs. Furthermore, milder winters due to unfolding climatic changes also facilitate the plant’s expansion. The three-cornered garlic, native to the Mediterranean[12,13] is spreading fast towards the north[14,15]. It is now considered an invasive species in the UK and “it is an offence under Schedule 9 [16] of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales to plant or otherwise cause to grow this species in the wild.”

While you can’t grow this species in the wild, you can eat it as much as you like[17]. Unlike ants that eat only the elaiosome, foraging people consume all parts, raw or cooked[18]. 

So, how did the three-cornered garlic find its home on the British Library’s Floor 3 terrace garden? This is an enigma. Certainly not by our gardeners’ intentional planting. Perhaps non-human gardeners, including ants and other animals?

A garlic plant shown growing against a braided wooden fence
Three-cornered garlic in Camley Street Natural Park, London, 11 May 2023 Photo: Andrea Deri


Having checked all other public green spaces around the British Library in St Pancras in May 2023, three-cornered garlic was not found in the neighbourhood. The nearest place where its blossom and whiff of garlic were impossible to miss was Camley Street Natural Park [19]. Perhaps a visit to Camley Street facilitated the seed dispersal to the British Library in a bit of soil stuck to a pair of shoes or claws? Perhaps other unintentional actions? Anyway, the introduction was successful. Compared to last year (2022), significantly more three-cornered garlic flowered in the British Library Floor 3 garden this year (2023).

Woodcut image showing an ant and a grasshopper conversing beneath a tree, in a landscape with towns and hills in the distance
Illustration of the ant and the grasshopper in winter from Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]


Many generations have grown up on Aesop’s (d: 564 BC) [20] tale and morals about the ant and the grasshopper.

Pen and ink cartoon showing three ants dancing in a line on their hindmost legs
Dancing ants inspired by myrmecochory by Matthew Waters, 23 May 2023.


I am curious, what counter-stories myrmecochory could inspire about the “dancing” gourmet ants?

Written by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer, British Library


Special thanks to Matthew Waters, Manuscript Cataloguer, British Library for drawing dancing ants to illustrate this blog post and inspire counter-stories of Aesop’s classic tale, and Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 for engaging in the exploration of wildlife around the British Library and sharing her photographs.

References [BL shelfmark]

All URLs accessed on 5 June 2023.

[1] Rose, Francis. The wild flower key: How to identify wild flowers, trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. Revised and Extended edition. London: Frederick Warne, 2006. pages 514-15 [YK.2007.a.20577]

[2] IPNI. ‘Allium Triquetrum in International Plant Name Index’, 2023.

 [3] Jones, Richard. Ants: The Ultimate Social Insects. Vol. 11. British Wildlife Collection. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2022. [ELD.DS.666937]

[4] Morley, Wragge. Ants. Vol. 8. New Naturalist Monograph Series. London: Collins, 1953. [W.P.12018/5., W41/8118, (B) G 65 (F1)]

[5] Brian, M. V. Ants. The New Naturalist. London: Collins, 1977. [(B) G 61,
Document Supply 79/34771]

[6-9] Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones. A Greek - English Lexicon …  A New Edition Revised and Augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones [and others] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. Page 527, 1749, 1154, 1998 [Open Access Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 483]

[10] Lengyel, Szabolcs, Aaron D. Gove, Andrew M. Latimer, Jonathan D. Majer, and Robert R. Dunn. ‘Convergent Evolution of Seed Dispersal by Ants, and Phylogeny and Biogeography in Flowering Plants: A Global Survey’. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 12, no. 1 (2010): 43–55. [6428.149200]

[11] Sernander, Rutger. Entwurf einer Monographie der europäischen Myrmekochoren ... Mit 11 Tafeln und 29 Textfiguren, etc. Stockholm, 1906. [(P) BX 80 -E(11)]

[12] Allium triquetrum L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science

[13] BSBI. ‘Definitions: Wild, Native or Alien?’, 2023.

[14] Taylor, I., and K.J. Walker. Three-Cornered Garlic Allium Triquetrum L.  in BSBI Online Plant Atlas 2020. Edited by P.A. Stroh, T.A. Humphrey, R.J. Burkmar, O.L. Pescott, D.B. Roy, and K.J. Walker. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Biological Records Centre, 2020.

[15] Botany in Scotland. ‘Plant of the Week, 27th March 2023 – Three-Cornered Garlic -Allium Triquetrum’. Botany in Scotland (blog), 27 March 2023.

[16] UK Government. ‘Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 You Are Here: UK Public General Acts1981 c. 69SCHEDULE 9’, 1981.

[17] Wild Food UK. ‘Three-Cornered Leek’, 2023.

[18] Samangooei, Mina. ‘Individuals Cultivating Edible Plants on Buildings in England’. Oxford Brookes University, 2016. [EThOS DRT 800185]

[19] Camley Street Natural Park | London Wildlife Trust (

[20] Aesop. ‘Fab. CXXI. The Ant and the Grashopper’. In The Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into English And a Print before Each Fable by Samuel Croxall, D.D. Late Archdeacon of Hereford, The tenth edition carefully revised, and Improved., London: Printed for W. Strahan, J, [and others], 1775. Pages 205–206. [Digital Store 1568/8258.]

27 April 2023

Wild British Library: A feather

What’s going on in the British Library at night? A creamy-brown mottled feather with a broken quill might shed light on some unexpected activities.

A feather

A feather was spotted on a sunny crisp lunch break walk on 15 February 2023. [Fig. 1, 2]

(a brown feather with a break near the end of the quill is shown next to a ruler to give scale, showing it to be around 10cm long)
Figure 1 Feather found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri


the underside of the same feather, showing lighter brown stripes
Figure 2 Feather (under side) found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London Photo: Andrea Deri

The feather lay on the moss carpet of the second-floor terrace garden, behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall [Fig. 3, 4]. The wall may hold the key to the enigmatic feather. [Fig. 5].

the feather, marked with a yellow dot, is seen on a garden plot covered with moss and larger plants
Figure 3 Feather in situ, see the yellow dot, found on 15 February 2023 in the ‘moss-garden”, The British Library St Pancras, London. Photo: Andrea Deri


the corner of the British Library terrace, showing a wooden pergola, wooden and metal chairs, and an abstract bronze sculpture
Figure 4 ‘Moss garden’ behind the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and the pergola of the British Library (BL) St. Pancras site under a four-floor high wall, London


the corner of the British Library terrace seen from further away, showing the high windowless brick wall of a taller section of the building at the end of it
Figure 5 High wall above the ‘moss garden’, The British Library St Pancras, London.

The shady moss-garden is one of the least exposed public green areas in the BL [Fig. 6].

a Google-branded satellite view of the British Library from above, showing the terrace at the rear of the building
Figure 6 ‘Moss-garden’, see the yellow dot, Google map (23 March 2023).

Compared with reliably identified woodcock feathers from a bird found dead in a private garden a couple of years ago, our feather showed striking similarities. But it was just hard to imagine what a woodcock would be doing on the BL Floor Two. Woodcocks are elusive nocturnal woodland birds with a preference for the area between forests and fields [1]

It’s a woodcock!

Having contacted the Angela Marmont Centre for the UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in London (AMC-NHM), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and experienced London-based naturalists, we got confirmation that the feather indeed belonged to a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola Linnaeus, 1758). [Fig. 7]

a painting of two woodcocks with a chick before a background of rushes
Figure 7 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) with chick in J.A. Naumann 1902 Unsere Schnepfen.

It is an exciting thought that woodcocks might be around the British Library.

In addition to expert knowledge, we also received helpful resources: a reference image of woodcock feathers; link to Featherbase, a website where exhibits of feathers of a range of species can be studied, several blog posts, and recommendation of a book: Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe [2]

But what would a woodcock be doing on the BL Floor Two?

The 18th century Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant started the description of woodcocks in his British Zoology (1776) [3] with discussion of their migration, as if it were their most important feature [Fig. 8, 9, 10]:

“These birds during summer are inhabitants of the Alps, of Norway, Sweden, Polish, Prussia, the march of Brandenburg, and the northern parts of Europe: they all retire from those countries the beginning of winter, as soon as the frost commence; which force them into milder climates, where the ground is open, and adapted to their manner of feeding.“ [3]

a brown leather book cover, showing a lighter-coloured abstract pattern on the leather and an engraved royal coat of arms with "G III R" above
Figure 8 Cover of Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology


a page of a book, with a faint sepia picture of two woodcocks forming a background to the text
Figure 9 First page of the Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) chapter in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 365.


a black and white engraving of a woodcock on the bank of a pool
Figure 10 Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) in Thomas Pennant 1776 British Zoology page 364 Plate XV No. 178.

Pennant did not mention woodcocks in London.

Pennant’s book is part of the King’s Library collection in the British Library. The style of binding is called ‘Tree calf’; an acidic mixture is applied to the leather to create the effect.  The coat of arms could have been added at any time – as we learned from Philippa Marks and John Goldfinch, Curators of Bookbinding. Descriptions of the books and pamphlets in the King's Library (shelved in specific shelfmark ranges: 1.a.1 – 304.k.23 and C.1.a.1 – C.16.i.16) appear in Explore the British Library. Most volumes can be ordered into the Rare Books and Music Reading Room using Explore.

Late 19th century bird books, including the ‘London Birds and Beasts’ already made reference to woodcocks in London [4, 5, 6]:

“In the autumn and early winter woodcocks often drop in town [London] sometimes in most extraordinary places, the overhead wires being in many cases, no doubt, accountable for their appearance.” [5]

The 21st century ‘London Bird Atlas’ features high numbers of woodcock observations plotted on a London map [7].

Most woodcocks in London are winter visitors, arriving in Britain and Ireland between October- December from their breeding sites in the north including Scandinavia, Finland and Russia (from as far as Siberia) [8]. The Eurasian woodcocks’ migration routes and timing is explored by Woodcock Watch organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust by tagging individual birds.

Migration is a high-risk activity for these birds. In addition to being hunted in large numbers, they can be blown off-course and drowned during storms when crossing the sea. Woodcocks can also starve when they cannot replenish their energy if the soil freezes over and they cannot access their food: worms, soil-dwelling insects [Fig. 11].

a black and white engraving of two woodcocks digging in soil with their beaks
Figure 11 Hungry woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) feeding on earthworms in L. H. De Visme Shaw 1903 Snipe and woodcock. Page 193.

Their feeding habit is captured in the woodcock’s Romanian name: sitar (from the noun sită: colander, sieve). Sitar can be translated as ‘colander maker’. In this case, it refers to the birds making the ground look like a colander, full of holes, as they poke the soil in search of worms – explained Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum.

With the increase of tall buildings in London (and other cities), especially with glass windows that woodcocks might perceive as water bodies and fly directly towards them, the exhausted migrating birds can get disoriented and collide with walls when they fly over at night [9, 10]. Predation poses additional hazards: peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) have been spotted on live web camera attacking woodcocks during the peak migration time, November – December [11].


So, back to the question: How would a woodcock end up in an urban ‘hanging’ garden and disappear with only one broken feather left behind?

Most probably, this was a migrant woodcock, flying over the BL St Pancras site at night. The circumstances of the ill-fated flight are not known but two of several possible scenarios are described here: collision and predation by peregrine.


The unfortunate woodcock might have collided with the tall wall of the BL [Fig. 5] when it was flying over central London at night on its migration from the breeding sites in the north. After the collision, the bird might have dropped to the moss garden where a fox (Vulpes vulpes) found it, grabbed it, leaving one broken feather behind, then hurried away with its ‘take-away’.


A peregrine (Falco peregrinus) could have captured the woodcock and torn it apart while sitting on the high wall ledge above the moss garden. One of the broken feathers of the fast feast made its way down to the moss-carpet.

Both foxes and peregrines have been spotted around the BL St Pancras site. The break on the quill could not have happened by the impact of a fallen bird or its feather but more likely by active force.

When did the feather get separated from the bird?

The woodcock feather was found on 15 February 2023. But it is not known when the feather landed in the place where it was found, the time of the woodcock’s demise. As the majority of continental woodcocks leave the UK during late February and early March to breed [10, 12] the woodcock could have perished either in the autumn or an early homebound flight in the spring migration.

The significance of the feather: monitoring urban wildlife for wildlife-inclusive cities

Wildlife monitoring benefits from citizen science, also referred to as community science. The woodcock feather identification engaged both citizen scientists and professional ornithologists. The feather story generated a peer-reviewed observation, uploaded to iRecord, a UK citizen science biodiversity monitoring tool. iRecord feeds into the National Biodiversity Atlas, a source of evidence for decision making about the natural environment. We hope observations like our woodcock feather will ultimately contribute to evidence-based wildlife-inclusive urban development [13]

The collaboration of libraries, museums, conservation charities and citizen scientists presents a so far under-utilised approach to wildlife conservation. The quick and generous response to our feather query from AMC-NHM, RSPB, and London-based naturalists [Fig. 12] shows the professional strengths of UK wildlife monitoring and conservation networks. With growing urban development and increasing complexities of human-wildlife interactions, monitoring urban wildlife is ever more important [14].

a photograph of a woodcock crouching in short grass
Figure 12 Woodcock in Norfolk at night with flash, January 2023. Photo: Henry Wyn-Jones. Published with permission.

Starts with a walk

The British Library’s remarkable collections are widely known. Yet, the wonders of the Library’s wildlife habitats are under-appreciated. They are here to be discovered for their fabulous biodiversity in addition to provide us with beautiful background. It all starts with a curious walk. The walk becomes a journey of discovery. Curiosity connects wildlife, collections, and people.

Written by Andrea Deri and Greg Smith

We would like to thank to Florin Feneru, Identification and Advisory Officer, Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, The Natural History Museum, London; Hein van Grouw, Senior Curator, Bird Group, Dept. of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Tring; India James, Supporter Adviser, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK Headquarters The Lodge Sandy; Philippa Marks, Curator, Bookbindings, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library; John Goldfinch, former Curator, Printed Heritage Collections, Western Heritage Collections, The British Library ; Huw Rowlands, Map Processing Coordinator and Cataloguer, India Office Records Map Collection, The British Library; Henry Wyn-Jones, ecologist, ornithologist, wildlife photographer.

References, links and further readings [BL shelfmark]

[1] Davis, J., 2023. European woodcocks have the brightest feathers known to exist. Available at: <>.

[2] Brown, R., Ferguson, J., Lawrence, M. and Lees, D., 2021. Tracks & signs of the birds of Britain & Europe. Helm identification guides. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Wildlife. page 511 [ELD.DS.659867]

[3] Pennant, T., 1776. British Zoology. London: Printed for Benj. White. page 365 [40.d.10-13]

[4] Dixon, C., 1909. The bird-life of London. London: Willam Heinemann. [7285.e.29]

[5] Tristram-Valentine, J.T., 1895. London Birds and Beasts. London. page 252 []

[6] Swann, H.K., 1893. The birds of London. London. page 103-104 [7285.b.5]

[6] Woodward, I.D., Arnold, R. and Smith, N., 2017. The London bird atlas. [London], Oxford: London Natural History Society?; John Beaufoy Publishing. page 168 [YKL.209.b.1828]

[7] RSPB, 2023. Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). [online] Available at: <>.

[8] RSPB, 2018. Danger low flying woodcock. Available at: <>.

[9] Hoodless, A.N., Heward, C.J. and Williams, O., 2020. Migration and movements of Woodcocks wintering in Britain and Ireland. British Birds, 113, pp.256–278.

[10] Davies, E. and Hendry, L., 2022. Peregrine falcons are the top birds in town. Available at: <>.

[11] Hoodless, A., 2002. Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). In: C. Wernham, ed. The migration atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland, Repr. 2008. London: T & A D Poyser. pp.319–322. [(B) GC 32]

[12] Kay, C.A.M., Rohnke, A.T., Sander, H.A., Stankowich, T., Fidino, M., Murray, M.H., Lewis, J.S., Taves, I., Lehrer, E.W., Zellmer, A.J., Schell, C.J. and Magle, S.B., 2022. Barriers to building wildlife-inclusive cities: Insights from the deliberations of urban ecologists, urban planners and landscape designers. People and Nature, [online] 4(1), pp.62–70.

[13] Gaston, K.J. and Evans, K.L., 2010. Urbanization and development. In: N. Maclean, ed. Silent summer: the state of wildlife in Britain and Ireland. Cambridge?; New York: Cambridge University Press.[YK.2010.a.19902]

Birdwatch Magazine [2092.507500]

Birdwatch Monthly [2092.507800]

Hoodless, A. N., 1994. Aspects of the ecology of the European woodcock (Scolopax rusticola L.) []

24 April 2023

Introducing the Wild British Library

The advertising banner for the British Library's Animals exhibition, showing various animals

Our current flagship exhibition on our St Pancras site is “Animals: Art, Science and Sound”, covering how the animals sharing our planet with us have been depicted, recorded and investigated by humans. It runs from 21st April to 28th August 2023.

Wildlife is widely represented in the British Library’s remarkable collections.

Yet, wildlife living around the British Library often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Wild BL, a series of blog posts, will highlight a range of life forms that live and occasionally move around the British Library’s sites in St Pancras, London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

The aim of the series is to inspire new approaches to the ways wildlife and people can thrive together in both cities and in the countryside.

Wild BL will feature what’s going on around the British Library at night and during the day in various wildlife habitats and highlight some of the resources about these wild activities in various British Library collections.

The blog posts are authored by British Library members of staff.  Each story reveals where wildlife can be encountered in public areas, so more people can notice and enjoy the presence of various fellow creatures living around the British Library.

Blog readers are encouraged to share their observations in iRecord, a peer-reviewed biodiversity monitoring community-science initiative that connects individual sightings with the National Biodiversity Network. The National Biodiversity Network provides planners and policy makers with evidence for taking biodiversity into consideration in decisions.

By linking wildlife, collections and people, the blog contributes to the British Library’s activities in addressing the biodiversity and climate crises.

Written by Andrea Deri

19 July 2022

Gold - why is it so valuable?

Our current Gold exhibition explores the use of gold in books and documents around the world. This blogpost looks at gold from a scientific perspective, and why it has the properties that have caused it to be so valued throughout human history.

Gold is probably the first metal to be known to humans. Unlike other metals, which need to be extracted from their ores, gold exists in the environment as the metal itself, from tiny specks up to large nuggets. This is because it rarely reacts with other chemicals, which also explains why it does not tarnish in air like silver or rust like iron. The oldest gold items in the exhibition are two gold plaques, with shelfmarks Or 5340 A and Or 5340 B, with inscribed Buddhist scriptures in Pali. They were discovered buried at the base of a stupa in Maunggan in Myanmar and are dated to the 5th or 6th centuries CE.

Two strips of gold inscribed in Pali, with a ruler for comparison showing them to be around 25cm and 35cm long.
The Buddhist gold plaques

Because of its lack of corrosion, gold has been seen as mystically special, and used for objects of high prestige and to make coins. One notable object in our exhibition is the treaty between the rulers of the Indian city of Calicut (now Kozhikode) and the Dutch, which was inscribed into a two-metre-long strip of gold. Gold was used to symbolise the importance of the treaty but also for practical reasons, as a material that would not rot or decay in a tropical climate.

The reason why gold is so unreactive is because of the number of electrons in each atom. This is the same as the number of protons, and it is this which decides which element an atom is. Within atoms, electrons are arranged in layers called "shells", and gold is particularly unreactive as its outermost shell is full of electrons, which is a particularly stable state for an atom.

Unlike some atoms with full outermost shells, like helium and neon, gold can react with some other chemicals. This is because gold can lose one to three electrons if the reaction can release enough energy to strip them off - called "oxidation", and it can also share electrons with other atoms, without giving up any of its own.

The first material to be discovered by medieval alchemists which can react with gold is the famous aqua regia, Latin for "king's water". Despite the appetising-sounding name, this is very dangerous and you should not try this at home - it is a very corrosive mixture of concentrated hydrochloric acid and nitric acid in water. Because of the hydrochloric acid, the mixture contains chloride ions, which are chlorine atoms which have received an extra electron from the hydrogen atoms in the water. The chloride atoms can share their electrons with the gold atoms to create what are called complexes, and this makes it easier for the nitric acid, which is an oxidising agent, to strip electrons away from the gold atoms, creating gold chlorides which dissolve in the water. Gold compounds do have some uses, such as treating arthritis and in some kinds of traditional silver-based photography.
Fortunately aqua regia doesn't occur naturally, so our gold exhibits are perfectly safe.

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20th May 20 Sunday 2nd October 2022, and you can book tickets online to visit.

Supported by:

The logo of BullionVault shows an isometric gold cube inside a larger transparent cube.

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

23 November 2021

Climate change resources at the British Library

The British Library main building in St Pancras, seen over a hedge with a small tree to the left
(Photograph by Tony Antoniou)

The COP26 conference in Glasgow has ended, but the real work of reducing carbon emissions must now begin. The science staff and the British Library Green Network have created a collection guide now available on our website, which includes key items to provide information on the problems and potential solutions.

The guide includes books, journals and online databases that you can only access within the British Library if you have a Reader Pass, but there are also many links to trustworthy websites that contain a wealth of information on climate change, the Earth's climate, and the wider issues.

We will be keeping it up to date so that it will continue to be useful into the future.

18 October 2021

From Turning the Pages to Virtual Books

A hand-painted illustration of a cut cucumber and a portion of a cucumber plant.
"Garden cucumber" from Blackwell's Herbal, British Library 34.I.12 -13

Some of our earliest high-quality digitised manuscripts and printed books are now available again through our website for anybody to read. They were digitised from the mid-1990s on, using the "Turning the Pages" software created by the Library in collaboration with Armadillo Systems. You might remember seeing them on stand-alone electronic consoles in various parts of the Library. The digitisations include realistic animations of the pages being physically turned and laid down.

Some of the items involved are important in the history of science:

  • The complete Codex Arundel, a collection of pages from the private sketchbooks and notebooks of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, predominantly dealing with physics.
  • Highlights of Andreas Vesalius's "De Humani Corporis Fabrica", the first modern anatomical textbook, with artwork thought to be by the studio of Titian.
  • Highlights of Elizabeth Blackwell's "A Curious Herbal", the first British herbal by a woman, created in the 1730s to buy her ne'er-do-well husband out of debtors' prison.
  • Highlights of John James Audubon's famed "Birds of America".

Feel free to browse them on your computer.


Science blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs