Citizen Science Now and Then

Science Gossip investigates 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 are providing content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (

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 and classify. 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.

In this post, Dr. Geoffrey Belknap, historian of Victorian Science, explains the links between scientific investigation in the past, and the work of Citizen Scientists today:

Victorian Periodicals are endless fun. They are loaded with odd stories and illustrations made by people whose contributions are not widely recognized, but whose work was important nonetheless. Unlike books, periodicals were usually bought, read and then discarded, unless they were purchased by a library and preserved for posterity like those in the BHL collections. While many of the volumes I study are held in public libraries, sometimes they reveal traces of past readers. One day, while perusing a periodical, I encountered a fern specimen pressed between the pages of two issues. It was placed there by an as yet unknown (and likely never to be known) collector. For a historian of periodicals, this is treasure indeed!

2014-07-17 13.28.50Periodicals are notoriously bad at retaining traces of their readers – or, in this case, users. The placement of the fern on a page – incidentally entitled “A Thing of Beauty” – acts as a reminder for me in my research. These texts and the past that they represent are three-dimensional: they held knowledge in terms of articles and illustrations, but 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, and–as you’ll have guessed–it is the inspiration for this project. The aim of Science Gossip, then as now, is to bring together a range of people eager to engage with scientific discovery and research. The most enticing aspects of Science Gossip, for both Victorian and modern readers, are 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 published work by over 550 individual authors. Finding out more about the social, economic and scientific position of these authors will be a central part of my research over the next three years. One of the challenges I face is that the authors for Science Gossip are largely unknown. Help me and my collaborators at Zooniverse and the BHL unlock these illustrative treasures.   Let us know who created them, their subject matter and any particular species and other information they portray. Your work will help us understand what constituted a nineteenth-century citizen scientist, and indeed a twenty-first 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, Postdoctoral 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

Victoria Van Hyning, Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Zooniverse

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