Environmental History Collections

Find out more about the environmental history collections in the IHR Wohl Library. We collect historical sources and guides to finding and using sources. This page shows examples from the collections.


Environmental history is a fascinating and relatively new area of historical study. This guide lists some of the works explicitly on the subject which you can find in our collections. These include works on historiography and methodology, small collections of secondary monographs and reference works as well as a growing number of published primary sources.

For environmental historians, these sources will include not only all the relevant books and articles, but, as the case dictates, business records, scientific reports, newspaper records, and literature revealing the attitudes of the people of the times.

J. Donald Hughes. What is environmental history?

As the quote above shows, relevant source material for researchers in environmental history can also be found within a wide range of works. Listed below are a few examples showing how some of the diaries and published correspondence, government records, chronicles, oral history and maps found in the library can be used.


Searching within the Library

Collection Arrangement and Searches

You will find works on environmental history across many of our collections. Our collections are arranged mostly geographically with some thematic collections. Searches can be done on the catalogue, both for items within the IHR library itself and for other libraries in the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library.

You can find out more about collection locations and requesting items from the closed stacks here.

Other Collections

Other collections with significant holdings relevant to environmental history include:

Also see the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland for details about other relevant collections.

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also join the library and book a help session.

Highlights from the Collections: Primary Sources

Letters and Diaries

The library has an extensive collection of published letters and diaries. Many make reference to a wide variety of subjects including those potentially of interest to researchers in environmental history.

As you may imagine letters and diaries of the landed gentry and nobility are rich sources describing how land was used and managed. For example The Letterbook of George, 16th earl of Kildare describes, among other things, the management and hunting of game, the repair of weirs and the crops and livestock grown and raised on his estate in Ireland.

Political diaries and correspondence collections can also provide some useful source material. For example passing references to Italy's measures to eradicate malaria in the 1920s and 1930s - involving the draining of marshes and the use of the pesticide DDT - can be found in some of the titles the library has from that period (e.g. Benito Mussolini. Corrispondenza inedita and Giuseppe Bottai. Diario 1935-1944).

More published diaries and letter collections are referred to in other parts of this guide.


Travel Writing

The library has many published travel accounts and many of the authors of these works understandably reflect upon the environments in which they find themselves. It is possible in some of the sources to track these shifting attitudes towards nature and the landscape.

When we entred at the South part of this County, I began indeed to think of Merionethshire, and the Mountains of Snowden in North Wales, seeing nothing round me, in many Places, but unpassable Hills, whose Tops, covered with Snow, seemed to tell us all the pleasant Part of England was at an end.

Daniel Defoe made this remark about the Lake District in the 1720s during his Tour of Britain.

By the mid-eighteenth century impressions of the area seemed to have shifted considerably. Richard Pococke describes, 'a most delightful ride' around Lake Bassingthwaite. Later he described his journey from Keswick to Ambleside as having, 'a most beautiful prospect, from the mixture of wood and rock, the mountains on each side of the vale being very high, in some parts adorned with wood and many cascades rushing down from them.'

Other works where this drift from austere obstacle to picturesque attraction can be noted include:

Other examples of travel writing are referred to in other parts of this guide. However, you can get an overview of the resources in the library in the Travel Writing collection guide.

Government and Diplomatic Papers

Covering a number of works such as published collections of governmental legislation and specific reports commissioned by both national and local government, official sources can prove to be a rich seem to search. Enigma Pombal, for example, indexes and provides summaries to much of the legislation spear-headed by the 1st Marquis of Pombal, including emergency measures taken after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Reports commissioned by the Board of Agriculture (1797-1804 and 1808-1817) also give a detailed description of the physical landscape in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as well as provide evidence about contemporary ideas of how these environments could be 'improved'. A similar source for Scotland can also be found in the Statistical Accounts (1st Account, 2nd Account, 3rd Account) first begun by Sir John Sinclair in 1791.

The London collection also has a number of reports about changes to the urban environment and condition of the river Thames especially during the nineteenth century such as the Thames Conservancy Acts of 1894 and 1905.

The library also houses long runs of published government papers, especially for the UK and the US where source material can be found to subjects such as the growth of conservation legislation, animal welfare as well as the history of nuclear power.

Diplomatic papers can also be a useful resource of potential source material especially if an incident is prominent on the global stage. One such example is the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; the volumes for 1986 from the Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland includes a number of documents where the West German authorities comment on the on-going crisis and its effects over Europe.

Another examples found within our collections of published diplomatic papers is the energy crisis of the 1970s; in a volume from the US State Department about this issue discussion naturally turns in a number of documents to alternative forms of energy.



Serial Publications

Regardless of the subject one is studying, relevant source material can usually be found in newspapers. For example the Times Digital Archive, accessible within the IHR library, produces over four thousand hits when doing a search for 'fox hunting', from a fox-hunting song published on the 22nd July 1785 to a story from the 19th November 2019 about Conservative MPs' pledge not to over-turn the ban on fox-hunting.

As a source, newspapers are of course subject to biases of individual authors and editors, necessitating the need to consult a number of different publications, charting how a particular subject has been depicted. To do comparable research of this kind you can also access the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th century newspapers and the British Library's collection of 19th Century Newspapers. We also have a physical run of the Gentleman's Magazine from 1731 to 1868.

Oral History Sources

The library has a growing selection of oral history sources which often touch upon a variety of subjects. Below are a few examples from our collections.

When we lived in Aggu, before my formative years, the summer was hardly a summer. The first snowfall of the season that would melt immediately is called qitiqsuut...Instead the wind started to blow accompanied by a heavy snowfall, it kept snowing and the snow was building up, and it started to turn into a blizzard...They thought the snow was to be temporary but it kept right on through to autumn and winter.

This is taken from an interview with Inuit elder Noah Piugaattuk, published in Uqalurait: an oral history of Nunavut. The interviews included in this work comment on issues such as hunting, housing and ceremonies and celebrations, all in the backdrop of the tundra and ice-sheets of northern Canada.

A similar broad range of topics are raised in Wiyạ́xaỵxt/Wiyáakảaawn = As days go by : our history, our land, and our people, although in the very different climate zone of the north western United States.

In a very different setting is An East Kent Quintet which includes interviews from inhabitants of five villages in Kent. As well as subjects such as railways and schooling, the interviewees comment on changes in agriculture witnessed throughout the twentieth century, camping in the local countryside and specifically memories of the Sturry flood of 1927.

Reference to more published works of oral history, especially about Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake of 2010, can be found elsewhere in this guide.


The library has a large collection of maps especially for the English counties and London. For the latter we have copies of maps from the sixteenth century to the 1940s and one does not need to be too familiar with London's history to observe its growth over the last five centuries. The three examples below are from Norden's Map of London and Westminster (1593), Langley and Belch's New Map of London (1812) and the Municipal Map of London (1930)

Image showing three maps from the library's map collection

Loose-leaf maps can be found in our map collection while many maps can also be found in our extensive collection of directories. For more information see the Map Collection Guide.

Environmental Thought

The library currently has a small selection of texts on ecological thought ranging from seminal works in the field such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and George P. Marsh's Man and Nature as well as more recent examples such as the writings of the German environmentalist, Loki Schmidt and the Extinction Rebellion movement and Greta Thunberg.


As well as general anthologies of sources such as Making Climate Change History relevant source material on specific environments can be found in a wide array of works. These range from travel accounts and ships' logs and diaries to published statistics and sources on agricultural and mining history. Below is a selection of what can currently be found in the library.



Grasslands and Plains


Rivers and Lakes

Seas and Oceans

Tundra and Ice-fields

Wetlands, Bogs and Marshes

Highlights from the Collections: Secondary Works

Finding Aids, Historiography and Reference Works

Below are listed a number of works not only explicitly about environmental history but on allied subjects too such as agriculture and land management, urban history and Big History and Data.

Bibliographies and Archive Guides

Historiography and Methodology

Reference Works

Books of Essays, Victoria County History Publications and Other Secondary Works

Below is a selection of some of the secondary works you can find in our collections.

The Victoria County History has also been publishing volumes since the late nineteenth century. These are crucial to anyone researching English local history. They cover a myriad of subjects including landscape archaeology, geology and natural history as well as agriculture, mining and land management. Our physical run of red-book volumes can be found on the open shelves within the library. Recent volumes published include:


The library holds University of London history theses from the early 20th century to the early 21st which can be found on our online catalogue. Many titles are also increasingly available online via EThos(Opens in new window). Below is a small selection of titles available in our collection.


Many journal titles are increasingly available in an open-access format. One such example is the Journal of the History of Environment and Society which was established in 2016. Other open access journals can be found on the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Relevant articles and book reviews can also be found in many of the general titles the library subscribes to. Other titles from our periodicals collections that may be particularly useful include:

Case Studies

Late Medieval and Early Modern Weather Events

Many of the library's collections have large runs of published medieval and early modern chronicles, and among some of the incidental details they contain are descriptions of acute and seasonal weather events, as well as theories for their cause. The entry for 1588 contained in the Annals of Loch Cé, for example, describes,

There was a wicked, heretical, bishop in Oilfinn; and God performed great miracles upon him...and a shower of snow was shed for him, and a wild apple was not larger than each stone for it; and not a grain was left in his town; and it was with shovels the snow was removed from the houses; and it was in the middle month of summer that shower fell.

Not so incidental was the Great Famine of the early fourteenth century. Many of the chronicles record the harsh rainfall and a series of catastrophic crop failures. The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi notes how, 'By certain other portents the hand of God appears to be raised against us. For the past year [1315] there was such plentiful rain that men could scarcely harvest the wheat', and continues by saying, 'the inclemency of the weather destroys the fatness of the land...Spare, O Lord, spare thy people!' Besides the crop failures, the famine would also decimate livestock populations; the chronicle attributed to John Somer would record,

hoc anno [1319] & sequenti fuit morina taurorum vaccarum bovum & vitulorum per totam angliam tanta quod in regno toto anglie fuit illa species animalium quasi de[leta].

Due to this tendency to record everyday, acute and devastating weather events chronicles have been a valuable source not only in the historiography of the Great Famines, but more broadly in determining the climate history. They are included within wide array of source material, from additional textual sources and paintings to archaeological and palaeoclimatological data, which has informed the historiography of such subjects as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.

For more information about the library's chronicle collections see the Medieval History collection guide.

Disappearing Lochs

Maps, whether loose-leaf or included in atlases and directories, offer some of the starkest indications to changes in the geography of an area, illustrated by the two following examples from our Scottish History collection.

The Nor Loch

The area to the north of Edinburgh Castle was a marshy bog up to the 15th century until in 1460 James III ordered the area to be flooded to aid the defence of the castle. For over three centuries the Nor Loch was a feature of Edinburgh's geography until the early nineteenth century when draining what had become a large, stagnant lake got underway. The two maps below show this disappearance. The map on the left, included in A Directory of Edinburgh in 1752, clearly shows the extent of the Nor (or North) Loch in the mid-eighteenth century. While the one on the right from the Edinburgh Directory of 1835/6 shows the Prince Street Gardens in the spot it once occupied as well as the rapid growth of Edinburgh's new town.

Loch Spynie

A similar process can be observed with Loch Spynie just north of Elgin. Prior to the nineteenth century Loch Spynie was a large loch close to the coast in Moray, although by the eighteenth century it had already started to silt up. Plans were drawn up by Thomas Telford between 1808 to 1811 to drain much of the loch and convert if to agricultural land. In the subsequent decades the loch shrank which can be seen in the two maps below; the one on the left is from Pigot and Co.'s Directory of Scotland (1837) while the one on the right is from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Atlas of Scotland (1895)

These are two examples how maps can be used to chart changes in physical geography. Processes such as urban growth and coastal erosion can also be tracked in other cartographic works found in the library. For more information see the library Map Collection Guide.

Theodore Roosevelt and the 'Midnight Forests'

One of the achievements of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency was the establishment of dozens of forest reserves covering thousands of square kilometres of land. The process had already got underway in the 1890s with the passing of the Forest Reserve Act of March 1891 and Roosevelt had commented on its importance at the time; in a letter dated August 24th 1897, he argues,

It was a serious matter taking this great mass of forest reservations away from the settlers. That it needed to be done admits of no question, but the great bulk of the people themselves strongly objected to its being done; and a great deal of nerve and a good deal of tact were needed in accomplishing it. I am exceedingly glad that President Cleveland issued the order; but none of the trouble came on him at all. He issued the order at the very end of his administration...

Although William McKinley succeeded Cleveland his presidency was cut short with his assassination in 1901; the execution of this 'serious matter' would fall upon Roosevelt himself and the head of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot.

Debates about the Forest Reserve Act and the establishment of the United States Forest service can be found in the library's holdings of the Congressional Record and journals of the House of Representatives and the Senate. These sources show that this process of reserve creation was in effect brought to an end in early 1907. It had angered some members of the timber industry and industrial farming community as well as some members of Congress, who sought to end what they dubbed 'Pinchotism'. In an amendment attached by Senator Charles W. Fulton of Oregon to the Agricultural Appropriation Bill of the 25th of February 1907 forbade,

That hereafter no forest reserve shall be created, nor shall any additions be made to one heretofore created, within the limits of the States of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, or Wyoming, except by act of Congress.

Roosevelt had no choice but to pass this into law by the 4th of March. However, that gave him and Pinchot and his staff at the Forest Service a few days to create new reserves and extend existing ones before the 4th March deadline, Roosevelt calling them the 'midnight forests'. In total twenty-one new forest preserves were created and eleven were enlarged.

Environmental Movements in Britain from the 1970s

At present the library only has a handful of physical works specifically about environmental movements; for example one can find the Extinction Rebellion handbook This is not a Drill in our collections. However, delving into the resources accessible in the IHR one can glean more relevant source material. Diplomatic papers include a whole range of subjects, especially if a cause or event comes to global prominence; in a report on UK-Brazilian relations from 2010-12 the efforts of conservation movements such as the World Wildlife Fund are noted.

Some of the online resources accessible within the library can also be mined for relevant information. Even though results reflect the editorial bias of a given publication newspapers can be useful source for those researching environmental history, as we have seen elsewhere in this guide. Carrying out a number of searches, limited to after 1970 in the Times Digital Archive produced the following results.

Search Term Hits
Friends of the Earth 2731
Greenpeace 3771
Rainbow Warrior 466
Extinction Rebellion 297


Accessible within the library, another useful online resource showing a range of hitherto unrecorded opinion is Mass Observation Online. Popular searches include, 'farming', 'mining', 'natural disasters' and 'weather' while specific searches for terms like 'RSPCA' and 'animal welfare' produced twelve and ninety-one hits respectively. Similarly its companion site, the Mass Observation Project 1981-2009 produces results for search such as 'Friends of the Earth' (128 hits), 'Rainbow Warrior' (4 hits) and 'Nuclear Power' (433 hit).