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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Zooniverse releases Science Gossip

Zooniverse unveils its latest project called Science Gossip which is an investigation into the making and communication of science in both the Victorian period and today. This project is born from a collaboration between an Arts and Humanities Research Council project in the UK, called ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ (ConSciCom) and the Missouri Botanical Garden who provided content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The publication of books and periodicals are key locations for knowledge about the natural world. The BHL has digitized millions of pages of historic literature on biodiversity from the 1400s to today. Hidden within these pages is a treasure trove of illustrations that you can help identify, classify and correlate. The data you create by tagging illustrations and adding artist and engraver information will have a direct impact on the research of historians who are trying to understand why, how often and who made images depicting a whole range of natural science topics during the Victorian period.

Victorian Periodicals: A Thing of Beauty


Dr. Geoffrey Belknap, historian of Victorian Science, explains the role of natural history publications in the life of a non-professional, or what today we would call “citizen scientists”, and their value for researchers studying them in the 21st century.

Victorian Periodicals as a source base for research are endless fun. They are loaded with odd stories written by characters that you tend not to hear about that often in histories of science. When I was starting my research for the ConSciCom project – which focuses on the use of illustrations within 19th century natural history periodicals – I came across a periodical full of interesting people, images, and even an object!

While perusing the pages of one particularly intriguing periodical, I encountered something I wasn’t expecting. Pressed between the pages of two issues, was a fern – placed there by a yet unknown (and likely never to be known) collector.


For a historian of periodicals, this is treasure indeed! Periodicals are notoriously bad at retaining traces of their readers – or, in this case, users. Unlike books, periodicals were more often than not discarded – unless they were originally purchased by a library. The placement of the fern on a page – incidentally entitled “A Thing of Beauty” – acts as a reminder for me in my research. When I’m reading the articles or looking at the illustrations – which constitute the central focus of my research – I need to keep in mind that these texts are three-dimensional. That they held knowledge, and that readers could add to this by using the pages of periodicals to their own ends.

The periodical containing the fern is called Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature. This may sound familiar, as it is the inspiration for the latest zooniverse project. Science Gossip is a title that is compelling for both 19th and 21st century audiences – and in many ways the content of this Victorian natural history periodical encapsulates exactly what we are attempting to do here. That is, to bring together a whole range of interested non-specialists to engage with science and history through compelling stories and solid facts! Science Gossip (the periodical) was originally written for a broad Victorian audience interested in all things natural history.


When I first came across Science Gossip, sitting on a shelf in the University of Leicester library, it really drew my eye. Boasting an enticing blue cover with a golden embossed name plate, this is a luxurious object. Of course, this would not have been the way that a Victorian would have first encountered this periodical – they were only bound after a year’s run was complete. And often – unless the subscriber was a library – they would never have been saved week by week, let alone bound in garish fashion.

So what first attracted my attention, has little to do with why a Victorian would have spent the two shillings (about £8 today) for their monthly issue of natural history knowledge.

The most enticing aspect of the Science Gossip, for both Victorian and modern readers, is the illustrations dotted across almost every page of the journal. What a reader could see on any given page ranged from Diatoms to imagined 17th-century apes, and everything in between.


The illustrations constituted an essential part of Science Gossip’s appeal, which in turn encouraged a wide range of contributors. Over a 15-year period – beginning in 1865 when the periodical was founded – Science Gossip gave space to over 550 individual authors. Finding out more about the range, social, economic and scientific position of these authors will be a central part of my research over the next three years. But a cursory investigation shows that the authors for Science Gossip are largely unknown. For a project looking at the relationship between the production of images and the production of science by the non-professional, Science Gossip offers a great starting point!


Help Us Uncover Victorian Treasures


Help us unlock these illustrative treasures by adding your own observations to these images. Let us know who created them, their subject matter and any particular species they portray. Having a better understanding of the range of individuals who made science through their images will help us ascertain what constituted a nineteenth century citizen scientist. This is the first Zooniverse project where citizen scientists are both the researchers and subject of the research. Citizen scientists of today can have a direct impact on how we understand historical and modern notions of what it means to do science.

Geoffrey Belknap
Post Doc Research Assistant for Constructing Scientific Communities and historian of Victorian Science, Visual Culture and Periodical History 
Trish Rose-Sandler
Data Analyst, BHL and Data Projects Coordinator, Missouri Botanical Garden 
Victorian Van Hyning
Zooniverse

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