Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

4 posts categorized "Digital scholarship"

24 August 2021

'A Curious Herbal' inspiring current day creatives

Let us introduce you to a remarkable woman called Elizabeth Blackwell and her book, A Curious Herbal.  The British Library is lucky enough to have three copies of this important book.  Elizabeth Blackwell, born in the early 1700s, was the first British woman to produce a herbal.  She drew, engraved and coloured the 500 illustrations single-handedly.  The unusual story behind the herbal’s creation makes it even more interesting.

Garden Cucumber by Elizabeth BlackwellGarden Cucumber, Plate 4, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s husband Alexander was a shady character.  He practiced as a doctor in Aberdeen but had no formal medical training or qualifications.   When he was challenged the couple fled to London.  Alexander then tried to establish himself as a printer.  However, the authorities discovered that he hadn’t completed the mandatory apprenticeship.  His breach of regulations incurred a heavy fine which he couldn’t pay.  So he was sent to debtor’s prison.  Elizabeth decided to publish a herbal to support herself and her child, and raise enough money to secure her husband’s release from prison.

Love Apple by Elizabeth BlackwellLove Apple, Plate 133, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth published A Curious Herbal in parts between 1737 and 1739.  Several leading botanists endorsed her.  She also approached Sir Hans Sloane who granted her access to the foreign plant specimens in his collection (see the blog post Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane).  There were 500 engraved illustrations in total, all hand-coloured by Elizabeth herself.  Normally this would require three separate professionals.  She drew specimens not only from England but also many from North and South America.  These specimens were brought to England by colonists and botanists who often had links to slave labour plantations.

'Female Piony' by Elizabeth Blackwell'Female Piony', Plate 65, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Elizabeth’s plan worked. Her profits secured Alexander’s release from prison. But, despite his wife’s heroic efforts, he was not a reformed man. His debts built up once more and he became entangled in a political conspiracy in Sweden. He was beheaded for treason in 1748. Elizabeth Blackwell faded from the historical record after this – we don’t know much about the rest of her life. But she will always be remembered for being a pioneer in botanical illustration and for her heroic efforts to help her (useless!) husband.

Guinea Pepper by Elizabeth BlackwellGuinea Pepper, Plate 129, Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal, 1737-1739. British Library 34.i.12-13. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This summer A Curious Herbal is being used to inspire current budding botanical illustrators taking part in the Entangled Sketchbook Challenge organised by Lancaster University.  The Challenge invites people to examine the natural world around them using a series of prompts to make daily notes, doodles and drawings to record details of what they find, including the date, time and weather.  The hashtag for sharing these drawings on social media is #EntangledSketchbooks.

Challenge participants can also ask for their favourite sketchbook pages to be considered for an online exhibition that will be part of the Entangled Festival, a week-long celebration of arts, environment and technologies, which is taking place online and outdoors in Morecambe Bay from 18- 26 September 2021.  To submit drawings for this, please email good quality photographs or scans to [email protected] using ‘Exhibition submission’ in the email subject line.

Good luck to everyone taking part in the challenge.  We hope Elizabeth Blackwell’s wonderful illustrations provide delight and encouragement for you to draw some nearby plants, flowers and trees.

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections, and Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom), Digital Curator 


21 April 2020

From our homes to yours - the work of the Modern Archives and Manuscripts team

Like many people, British Library staff have been working from home over the past few weeks and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Whilst there are of course tasks we are unable to perform without direct access to the physical collections, we are utilising this time to focus on the many ways we can share the Library’s fascinating items and their stories with you digitally - from our homes, to yours.

The Modern Archives and Manuscripts team manages collections dating between 1601-1950. Here are just a few of the things they are working on, and some ways you can access and enjoy our collections from the comfort of your home.

Cataloguing Collections

Screenshot of Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue

The British Library is constantly adding, through gift or purchase, new manuscript and archive material to the collection.  Our teams record information on our collection catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts so you can discover and access the items.

At present we are focusing on some acquisitions that have been patiently awaiting cataloguing.  These include a harrowing day-by-day account by Herbert F. Millar of his failed polar rescue mission; a bundle of letters by playwright George Bernard Shaw; and a letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday.

Letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday
Letter from Jane Austen, written on her 41st birthday.

Once cataloguing is complete, these incredible documents will be discoverable online and ready to be made available in our reading rooms when the Library’s doors re-open.

Digital Engagement
The Modern Archives & Manuscripts team has an active presence on Twitter.  Our team has been using the platform to highlight our material on Digitised Manuscripts and Discovering Literature , to promote blogs and podcasts, and to engage with trending global topics.  Curator Alexander Lock gave a “Twitter Tour” of our William Wordsworth 250th birthday celebration display which opened in the Treasures Gallery shortly before the Library closed.  You can follow the Modern Archives and Manuscript team at @BL_ModernMSS.

Twitter Tour of Wordsworth exhibition

We will be working on more in depth explorations of our collection material through the Untold Lives and the English and Drama blogs.  Look out for posts exploring the ‘lost’ manuscript chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, and a closer look at the Jane Austen letter pictured above.

The team are still available to answer enquiries although the extent of assistance we can offer may be limited at this time.

Collection Guides

A large selection of collection guides can be found on the British Library website, each providing an insight into the variety of material we hold on a number of fascinating subjects and themes.

Screenshot of Collection Guides webpage

Our team is working to create more guides on interesting new themes including Food, Architecture, and Politics.  These will provide a vital starting point for user research, whether for work or pleasure.

During this time, it is incredibly important to the British Library and its staff to do all we can to keep your library alive and accessible.  This challenging situation is affording the Library staff the opportunity to become digital users, so we can better understand and improve digital access, not only to mitigate short term restrictions, but for the long term as well. 

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts


07 January 2016


According to Picasso, a picture can serve as a stepping stone to other worlds.  A picture of a bookbinding, in itself a work of art, can do the same.  The thousands of images of bindings which the British Library released on Wikimedia Commons in August 2015 can take the viewer on unexpected journeys: to discover what Queen Elizabeth I’s books look like or to answer the question when is a binding not a binding? When it comes from Mrs Wordsworth’s wardrobe!  Robert Southey’s female friends were reputed to have covered his library books using dress fabric.

Scholars who appreciate the relevance of bookbindings to their field of study are familiar with websites which can help their research, for example the British Library’s image database of bookbindings but you do not need specialist knowledge to admire a bookbinding. 

  Bookbinding Collage
Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Serendipity occurs when we happen upon something amazing while seeking something else, and Wikimedia provides an exciting opportunity for bindings to be discovered in this way.  Publishing the Library’s bookbindings images on Wikimedia Commons means that they can be readily accessed and be easy to browse.  Hopefully the creative copyright commons licenced pictures will be available on other sites, guiding people to this fascinating but little considered subject.

At a time of limited resource, institutions can achieve a great deal with existing digital material, if they are prepared to be cooperative and generous. With this aim in mind, Mahendra Mahey and colleagues in BL Labs have explored how the bindings database could be exploited to reach a wider audience.   With the help of knowledgeable volunteers and students, notably Dimitra Charalampidou, who were given the opportunity of working with the Library’s technicians on real data (images and text), existing treasure troves were assessed, and others like Ed King’s research on stunning Victorian trade bindings were added, to expand the resource even further. We particularly thank Ed for his wonderful contribution.

The images are out there. We hope you enjoy them!

PJM Marks
Western Heritage Collections

View the collection British Library Bookbindings


06 November 2015

One Year of Qatar Digital Library

This month we celebrate the first anniversary of the Qatar Digital Library Portal, launched a year ago as a result  of the Partnership between the British Library, the Qatar Foundation, and the Qatar National Library. The Portal, available in English and Arabic, has been widely accessed from the Persian Gulf, and its Arabic version is extremely popular. 600,000 images have been uploaded to-date and more content will be made available in the coming years.

The Qatar Digital Library hosts a selection of India Office Records and private papers, maps of the Persian Gulf and the wider region, and Arabic Scientific Manuscripts from the British Library’s Manuscripts Collections.

During the first year, the most popular map was IOR/R/15/1/730 f 88  showing air routes, islands in the Persian Gulf;  and the boundaries of Kuwait and Trucial Area.

   Map showing (A) Air Routes, established and projected; (B) Islands in the Persian Gulf; (C) Boundaries of Kuwait and Trucial AreaNoc
IOR/R/15/1/730, f 88 – Map showing (A) Air Routes, established and projected; (B) Islands in the Persian Gulf; (C) Boundaries of Kuwait and Trucial Area. Map II (accessed in Arabic). 


The most popular manuscript was IO Islamic 1249 - Arabic versions of seven Greek treatises on mathematics edited by Naṣīr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Ṭūsī  طوسي، نصير الدين محمد بن محمد, (detail below, f 1v).

Noc Islamic manuscript - Arabic versions of seven Greek treatises on mathematics

 IO Islamic 1249 f.1v

The most popular India Office Records file was IOR/R/15/2/31 File E/8 I Ibn Sa‘ud.  The second most popular file was IOR/R/15/1/480 - 'File 53/7 X (D 54) Kuwait Affairs, Bin Saud (Captain Shakespeare's Deputation)' (detail from f ‎26r below, on the Death of Captain Shakespear).


Letter reporting death of Captain ShakespearPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence




The Qatar Digital Library also contains contextualised explanatory notes and links, in both English and Arabic. The most popular of these pieces is Robots, Musicians and Monsters: The World’s Most Fantastic Clocks, accessed both in English and Arabic. This was closely followed by The British in the Gulf, mostly accessed in Arabic, and The Death of Captain Shakespear, in English.

Keep following us on Twitter @BLQatar to see what the curators are working on, and what is being uploaded every week to the Qatar Digital Library.

Valentina Mirabella
Archive Specialist British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership



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