This post was written by Michael Townsend, Collections and Metadata Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research Library. It is part of a series of post celebrating Environmental History collections for History Day 2021. It is cross-posted from the Institute of Historical Research’s blog On History.

The library has recently published a new collection guide about environmental history. Here researchers can get an overview of the resources available in the library on this subject as well as links to other relevant collections. The guide is subdivided into several sections concentrating on types of source and specific subjects. However generally the works in our collections fall into one of two categories, explicit and implicit resources.


Explicit Resources

Over the years the library has acquired published primary sources, reference works and works on historiography and methodology relevant to environmental history and the guide lists many of them. As with other collection guides available on the library pages, one can view lists of relevant bibliographies, encyclopaedias, and books of essays specifically on environmental history. This includes a section on natural disasters containing works such as The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 : some British eye-witness accountsThe 1953 Essex flood disaster : the people’s story and Farming the dust bowl : a first-hand account from Kansas as well as more recent acquisitions about the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Katrina.

Readers will also find a section on environmental thought. Listed here are keystone texts in the field such as George Marsh’s Man and nature and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as well as more recent titles like Greta Thunberg’s No one is too small to make a difference and Extinction Rebellion’s handbook, This is not a drill.

A selection of titles from the library’s collections.


Implicit Resources

Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects in putting this guide together was mining the source material that were not explicitly works on environmental history yet still proved to be rich seams of relevant information. Perhaps understandably our extensive collections of travel literature and published letters and diaries fall into this category, and there are specific sections in the new guide on these types of sources.

The maps in our collection too are potentially a useful source. In the guide they have been used to highlight, for example, urban growth as well as changes in the physical landscape, where comparisons are possible. In the library’s editions of Ordnance Survey maps (1955 and 1974), for example, one can chart how erosion has affected areas of the UK coastline, especially when compared to contemporary satellite images.

From the library’s collection of Ordnance Survey Maps from 1955 and 1974

The collection of published diplomatic papers in the library’s International Relations collection are also a useful source of information, particularly when an incident becomes prominent on the global stage. Although concentrated on nations such as Germany, France, Britain and the United States, references can be found to the energy crisis of the 1970s and the history of OPEC. In Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland one can also find several of documents made by the West German authorities about the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Aerial view of the Chernobyl power plant with sarcophagus over reactor site (2007). Source

Of course, references to this incident, as well as to a myriad of other subjects, can be found in the newspaper collections accessible either electronically or physically in the library. Online resources are mostly limited for use within the library building. Library readers can access, for example, the Times Digital Archive 1785-2019, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection and the British Library Newspapers as well as the library’s physical run of the Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1868). Using these holdings one can track articles reflecting changing attitudes to a variety of subjects over an extensive period of time; in the guide ‘fox hunting’ is used as an example but other pertinent searches could include ‘whaling’, ‘fur industry’ or specific environments like ‘peat bog’ or ‘coral reef’.


History Day

This is a timely guide to release given the attention this subject deserves. Moreover, this year’s History Day will focus on environmental history. The day will consist of several online sessions interspersed with videos and other pre-made content showcasing the relevant collections of participating libraries, archives and institutions. You can find more details about the programme of events and sign up here. In the coming weeks we will also have a small display of IHR environmental history resources on the lower ground floor.