This blog post is from UCL Library Special Collections as part of a series of posts on the theme of ‘Human Discovery: Experiencing Science’ for History Day 2022.

UCL Library Special Collections is one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. We look after over 10km of material which includes over 500 archive collections and around 150,000 rare books. Our collections are open for everyone to enjoy, and we work closely with both academic departments and schools and community groups to expand knowledge of what we curate.

History of Science is one of our core collection strengths – so much so that one blog post can barely do it justice! UCL’s Special Collections are particularly rich in material relating to Medical Science and Genetics, but we also look after the largest collection of mathematics rare books in the country and over 900 volumes relating to vulcanology and natural history.  It’s hoped that this summary will encourage you to get in contact with us and use our collections to experience science for yourself.


History of Science Subject Guide


Illustration of a volcano with text: The History of Science is one of the greatest subject strengths of UCL Special Collections. Material dates from the early modern period onwards with particular focus on the late 19th and early 20th century.

A great starting point to find out about UCL’s History of Science material is our subject guide which includes collections spanning archives, rare books and manuscripts. Everything is alphabetised for easy reference and there are links to our catalogues and further information about the material.


Mathematics Subject Guide


A picture of a green polyhedron from a mathematical text with the caption: UCL Special Collections holds one of the largest and most comprehensive printed mathematical collections in the UK, as well as several important archival collections from the 19th and 20th centuries

Mathematics is a discipline in its own right, but the crossovers it has with science exploration are fundamental to how we understand the world. Our subject guide brings together collection descriptions and links from all our material and is a great starting point for researchers.


Exhibitions Past and Present


An exhibition poster for "We Are Not Alone": Legacies of Eugenics

We regularly display material relating to the History of Science across UCL and beyond. Currently the Institute of Education Library has an adapted version of the “We are not alone: Legacies of Eugenics in Education and Society” exhibition on display which first opened at the Weiner Holocaust Library in 2021. It explores the global impact of Eugenics and examines how attitudes from the movement became embedded in the British education system.


Montage illustrating previous exhibitions

Previous exhibitions exploring science and mathematics include ‘Life Study: Representations of Health and Disease’ (2007), ‘Charles Darwin of Gower Street’ (2009), ‘Jolly Good Fellows: UCL and the Royal Society’ (2010), and ‘Queen of the Sciences: A Celebration of Numbers and the London Mathematical Society’ (2015).


Cataloguing Collections


Montage of images showing records

Work to improve metadata and catalogue our many archives is – as for many institutions – a continual process. What’s great is that we get to know even more about the History of Science material in our care! Last year our Cataloguing Archivist Kurt completed work on the admin records of the National Society for Health and Development (NSHD), Britain’s longest running birth cohort study. We’re also continually adding material to our Records department, which includes the College Collection (UCL’s history) and the records of University College Hospital.


Digital Access for everyone


Screenshot from a digital portal

Whilst physical access to our material is vital, our incredible digital collections continue to grow in order that anyone, anywhere in the world can start experiencing science through our items. We’ve recently updated our Digital Collections portal which is a great place to start, and there’s an entire page dedicated to our Modern Genetics collections. We’ve also worked with other science institutions including the Wellcome to put material online, and our Galton Laboratory publications are available through the Internet Archive. UCL Special Collections collaborates closely with our Digital Humanities Centre on many projects which you can read more about.


Liberating the Collections


Montage of illustrations

The History of Science spans many topics, and we’re always looking to uncover more stories within the material we hold. Recently we’ve been running a remote volunteer project where participants research our items to uncover material relating to less privileged groups in our collections. This work has only just begun, so keep checking back to see how you can get involved!