Woodland Heritage backs digitisation of Oliver Rackham’s notebooks


A grant of £225 from Woodland Heritage is enabling the digitisation of five of Professor Oliver Rackham’s field notebooks that recorded his observations of Staverton Park in Suffolk. Listed by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts as 'primeval woodland', the site was described as 'a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty' in 1986. Today, it is a Special Area for Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has an awesome woodland of ancient oak and birch, and part of the site has holly trees reputed to be the largest in the UK.

Woodland Heritage, through its grant, will be supporting the project to digitise and display online the notebooks Professor Rackham kept during his life, and which are now incorporated into the college archive. There are some 1146 of these notebooks, kept by Rackham from his youth up until his death in February 2015, and the total cost of making them all accessible would exceed £40,000. At present the college is aiming to make accessible a selection of the total, adding to the number that are digitised over the years.

“Thanks to Woodland Heritage, to the Friends of Oliver Rackham and to many other supporters, great progress is being made to make accessible to all the incredible legacy of field observations that Professor Rackham made over almost six decades”, said Dr Lucy Hughes, Archivist at Corpus Christi College. “However, there are an additional 642 red notebooks and about 250 blue notebooks left to digitise, so if anyone is interested in a particular place, region, or period of Oliver’s research, we can help pick out the notebooks to sponsor, with priorities at present including Hatfield Forest and Buff Wood, Cambridgeshire. All sponsorships will be acknowledged on the Cambridge Digital Library’s website.”

The red notebooks form a chronological sequence and record observations on plants seen on Professor Rackham’s travels as well as in his home surroundings, together with other kinds of information, for example about weather and college duties. They are paginated continuously and include some sketches. A label on the outside usually lists the locations covered in each notebook, with page numbering, thus serving as a kind of contents page.

The blue notebooks are more location-specific than the red ones. They are divided into separate sub-groups according to location, with an abbreviated key on the spine. Within each sub-group (for example the Hayley Wood books) pagination is continuous from notebook to notebook. They tend to contain more raw data than the red notebooks, for example tally charts showing frequency of plant species in particular areas of woodland, with photocopied maps of woodland areas often pasted in. Although sequence is roughly chronological, information is entered in a more content-led fashion than in the red notebooks.

“Woodland Heritage is delighted to sponsor the digitisation of the Rackham notebooks that cover Staverton Park”, said the charity’s Development Director, Guy Corbett-Marshall. “The work he did on Staverton Park was very important and it was fortuitous that those notebooks should have been chosen for digitisation in the next batch, making our grant offer very timely.”

For further information about sponsoring a Rackham notebook(s), please contact Dr Lucy Hughes at lcb15@corpus.cam.ac.uk.

Editor’s Notes

Woodland Heritage was established as a charity in 1994 by two cabinet makers keen to ‘put something back’. A membership-based organisation, the charity supports the resilient management of woodlands, the development of the timber supply chain, the furthering of knowledge and skills within the forestry and timber sectors as well as within the general public, and the tackling of threats to the future supply of high quality UK timber. As well as running the popular ‘From Woodland to Workshop’ courses and a Field Weekend each year, Woodland Heritage produces an annual Journal. A current priority for the charity is supporting research into Acute Oak Decline.

Born in Bungay, Suffolk, in 1939, Oliver Rackham was educated at Norwich School, matriculated at Corpus Christi College in 1957, and was elected Fellow of the college in 1964. Although he began by studying physics, as a graduate student he turned his attention to botany, particularly the physiology of plant growth and transpiration. This became the subject of his thesis. From 1972 onwards he concentrated on historical ecology, especially the history of woodland and the landscape in England and Wales. He wrote prolifically on this, both in specialist journals, as well as for the general reader, and through a series of important books.

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