Tuesday, November 24, 2015

UPDATE: Technical Issues with BHL Custom PDFs 11/22-11/23

Problems with the custom PDFs created on the BHL website on 11/22 and 11/23 have now been resolved. The links to access any PDFs that were generated during this time should now work. If you still experience problems, please send us feedback: Thanks for your patience!

A Compelling Decade: Reviewing our Progress at the BHL Staff Meeting

Eight years ago I attended my first Biodiversity Heritage Library staff meeting at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and it was there I was asked to report at the meeting on what I thought the philosophy behind a project to build a global freely accessible online biodiversity library was. My thoughts at that time hovered somewhere around deeply idealistic and altruistic ideas having to do with like-minded libraries collaborating to make the foundation of legacy scientific literature, then accessible only to few, accessible to all. These ideas also related to the growing open access movement. When funding for BHL became available, this type of idealism helped fuel the development of the long-term dynamic form and function of the BHL.

Matthew Person, MBLWHOI Library. Author of this blog post.

I recently thought back to that 2007 BHL meeting in St. Louis as I prepared to attend the BHL Staff Meeting held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, on November 12-13 2015. After years of working as a BHL staff member (we originally called ourselves worker bees!), at this staff meeting I needed to find compelling reasons for us to continue the unfinished work of developing and increasing the sustainability of our freely accessible library of legacy biodiversity content. It was a privilege to be at the Smithsonian to once again meet up with colleagues from sister institutions like Chicago’s Field Museum, Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and Botany Department, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the distinguished Natural History Museums in New York City, Washington DC, and London…just to name some of the natural history institutions represented at this meeting.

BHL Staff at the 2015 BHL Staff Meeting at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Photo: Martin Kalfatovic. 

The hands-on portion for the staff of this project began in 2007 when we first physically explored and analyzed the volumes filling the library stacks of our institutions, selecting materials, preparing those materials for scanning, having them scanned, and transferring the files first to our scanning partner the Internet Archive and then on to the newly developed BHL web portal. This entire process has been improved through successive generations of technological developments, transparent project administration, commitments across the board from the administrations of the BHL Partners and Affiliates, as well as the generous support of many funding agencies and foundations.

Gathered for a pre-meeting dinner at Smithsonian Libraries' Metadata Librarian Suzanne Pilsk's house. Photo: Martin Kalfatovic.

As our staff meeting at the Smithsonian progressed, I looked for and found many compelling reasons for our project to move ahead. Foremost of these reasons and the cornerstone of any organization of course, is its staff. Our BHL Library Staff is a cooperative, intelligent, and forward thinking group of librarians and technical development experts. Seeing my BHL colleagues is like meeting up with old friends and dear coworkers who have the highest respect for each other, because we have worked so successfully as a team for nearly an entire decade.

The BHL Staff is no longer at the foot of a mountain at the beginning of an epic hike to the peak, as we were in 2007. It could be said we have scaled the mountain and have discovered that our plan has been sound. The BHL vision statement, “Inspiring discovery through free access to biodiversity knowledge,” has created a global horizon for us. Our online library holds over 170,000 scanned volumes – linked to digital tools which give legacy biodiversity literature as much power as newly published electronic content. The scientific literature content of our library is being given even more power by our technical team, who makes sure our metadata “knows” how to speak with databases and tools outside of the BHL, whereby more scholars and other library users will encounter more links to the literature in our library in more places.

William Ulate, BHL Technical Director. Photo: Martin Kalfatovic.

During the meeting we listened to a review of the last 10 years of the BHL by Program Director Martin Kalfatovic and a technical overview of the architecture of BHL by Technical Director William Ulate. We completed an enumeration and analysis of all the tasks performed by BHL staff members, directed by Martin Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Librarian Keri Thompson, and BHL Secretariat Staff members Grace Costantino, Carolyn Sheffield, and Bianca Crowley, during which we gave ourselves a report card on how well we have done and brainstormed on how to better meet the needs of our Biodiversity Heritage Library users now and in the future. We also shared a number of delicious meals and many conversations over the course of a couple of days.

Small group brainstorming for analysis of tasks performed for BHL. Left to Right: Randy Smith (Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library), Diana Shih (American Museum of Natural History Library); Marty Schlabach (Cornell University Library); Cathy Buckwalter (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Library and Archives). Photo: Martin Kalfatovic.

Much like the first BHL meeting I attended, when the group adjourned we left with agreed upon follow-up tasks, comfortably knowing within a short period of time we’d be back in touch again via our regularly-held conference call meetings. The philosophy behind the concept of the BHL remains the same for me as it was almost a decade ago: we’re a global collaboration, working to ensure that the world’s legacy and select current biodiversity literature is accessible, usable, and sustainable. You can’t get any more compelling than that!

Matt Person
Tech Services Coordinator/Serials Librarian
Contributing Librarian 
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Travels in Southern Africa: William John Burchell

William John Burchell is credited "with having been the most prolific collector of botanical and zoological specimens." [1] During a four-year scientific exploration of South Africa, he amassed a collection of over 63,000 specimens. And yet, Burchell's contributions to science have been largely overlooked. As William Swainson bemoaned, "science must ever regret that one whose powers of mind were so varied...was so signally neglected in his own country." [2]

Portrait of William John Burchell by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1854).

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Burchell's return to Cape Town following his four-year expedition in South Africa. The University of Pretoria recently digitized Burchell's account of this journey, a two-volume work entitled Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (1822-24) for BHL. This offers an excellent opportunity to not only highlight this recent addition from our colleagues in BHL Africa, but recognize the incredible accomplishments of a remarkable man.

William Burchell was born in Fulham, England, in 1781. His family owned the prosperous nine-and-a-half acre Fulham Nursery and Botanical Garden, which afforded him many opportunities to study botany and interact with some of the most influential natural historians of the day. Sir William Hooker, the first director of the Royal Gardens in Kew, was Burchell's friend and mentor. The prosperity of his family's business provided Burchell with the means to travel and nurture his interest in natural history and particularly botany.

View of Cape Town, Table Bay and Tygerberg, 26 December, 1810. Engraved from a drawing by William John Burchell. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. v. 1 (1822). Digitized by: University of Pretoria.

In 1810, Burchell arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, and on 19 June 1811, he set out from that city on a four-year expedition throughout the interior of southern Africa "solely for the purpose of acquiring knowledge." [2] During the journey, he covered 7,000 km, mostly in an ox-wagon that he designed to serve as his home, laboratory, and library. He traveled as far north-east as the asbestos mountains just north of Chue Spring and became the first recorded European explorer to successfully travel through Bushmanland. The account of his expedition, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, covers only the period from his arrival in Cape Town through his departure from Litakun in August 1812.

"A view in the town of Litakun." Engraved from a drawing by William John Burchell. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. v. 2 (1824). Digitized by: University of Pretoria.

Burchell's accomplishments on the journey were extensive, particularly in the field of natural history. He collected 50,000 species of plants, seeds and bulbs, 10,000 specimens of insects, animal skins, skeletons, and fish, numerous anthropological artifacts, and created 500 drawings during the expedition. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew now holds a vast majority of Burchell's extensive botanical collections. His journals document the precise location, morphological features, and habitat of the specimens he collected.

"Rock Fountain in the Country of the Bushmen." 9 September, 1811. Engraved from a drawing by William John Burchell. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. v. 1 (1822). Digitized by: University of Pretoria.
In addition to natural history, Burchell made important observations in the earth sciences during the expedition, being the first recorded person to identify asbestos in the Northern Cape and the "first to describe glacial pavements in the country." [2] He also charted his entire route, creating a "Map of the Extratropical Parts of Southern Africa" (published in v.1 of his book), which was a "milestone in the cartography of the country." [1] In the field of astronomy, he observed the variability of Eta Carinae's brightness, and, by using a combination of Friar's Balsam (Compound Tincture Benzoin), laudanum, Buchu vinegar, and Wild Wormwood to treat a serious gunshot wound afflicting one of the expedition's members, became the first recorded person to successfully integrate indigenous herbal medicine with medicines used in Europe "into the management of such a serious condition." [2]

Map of the Extratropical parts of Southern Africa. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. v. 1 (1822). Digitized by: University of Pretoria.

After Burchell's return to Cape Town in April 1815, he went on to travel in Brazil, collecting over 23,000 additional specimens. However, after his return to England, Burchell became increasingly reclusive and protective of his collections, focusing on cataloging his vast botanical specimens but also refusing to allow others to access his collections. Some historians hypothesize that he may have suffered from a bipolar-type disorder. [2] In 1863, at the age of 82, after one unsuccessful suicide attempt by gunshot, he hung himself in a small outhouse in his garden. He is buried near his home in Fulham, in the family tomb at All Saints Church, Hammersmith.

Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii), named after William John Burchell by John Edward Gray. Brehm, Alfred Edmund. The Animals of the World (1895). Digitized by: Cornell University Library.

Though his life had a tragic ending, Burchell's accomplishments are remarkable. In addition to the many specimens he collected, a species of South African wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) is named after him, and the common names of many animals bear his moniker, including Burchell's zebra, Burchell's coucal, three birds (Burchell's starling, coarser, and grouse), a lizard (Burchell's sand lizard), and the white rhinoceros (for which Burchell was the first to give a scientific name and is also known, although less-commonly, as Burchell's rhinoceros). He also recommended the establishment of a public garden in Cape Town. He described the Kirstenbosch area as "the most picturesque I had seen in the vicinity." [2] The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was founded in 1913.

We are honored to have a copy of Burchell's Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa in BHL, thanks to the University of Pretoria, as, to quote historian George Theal, it is "one of the most trustworthy and valuable books ever issued upon South Africa." [1]

William John Burchell was an extraordinary man. We have not forgotten him.

[1] Stewart, Roger. "William John Burchell's Medical Challenges: A 19th Century Natural Philosopher in the Field." South African Medical Journal: 2012;102(4). pgs. 252-255.
[2] Stewart, Roger and Brian Warner. "William John Burchell: The Multi-skilled Polymath." South African Journal of Science. 2012;108(11/12), Art. #1207, 9 pages.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Australian Lepidoptera Heritage

Have you ever stumbled across a caterpillar and wondered what kind of adult moth or butterfly it would metamorphose into?

Short of catching the caterpillar and actually observing what adult it becomes, this answer might be harder to come by than you might think. Most taxonomy and identification has been performed on the adults of various Lepidopteran species, and there are still many species whose caterpillar forms are not readily known.

This is particularly true for many Australian species whose early life stages remain a scientific mystery.

Dr. Don Herbison-Evans hopes to shed some light on these Australian larval mysteries through the website Australian Caterpillars and their Butterflies and Moths, which is hosted by the Coffs Harbour Butterfly House in New South Whales, Australia.

Dr. Don Herbison-Evans

Dr. Herbison-Evans has professional experience in a variety of scientific disciplines, including information technology and computer science, astronomy, and chemistry. His interest in entomology, however, was sparked when he emigrated from the UK to Sydney to start his academic career in the 1960s. He and good friend Dr. Stella A. Crossley (who also emigrated from the UK to Melbourne around the same time to lecture in the Psychology Department at Monash University) were fascinated by the number of caterpillar species they found in their gardens.

"I remember taking one beastie to the enquiries desk at the Australian Museum, and asking what species it was," recalled Don. "The lady there laughed, and then explained that most of the taxonomy of Australian Lepidoptera was done by entomologists at the British Museum on dried adult specimens sent back to the UK by Joseph Banks and other British explorers, so the entomologists had no idea what the early life stages, such as the caterpillars, were like."

Thus, Don and Stella started photographing the caterpillars they found and rearing them into adults to discover their mature counterparts. In an effort to share what they discovered, they wrote a manuscript entitled 100 Common Australian Caterpillars, but unfortunately, publishers' interest in caterpillars in the 1970s was virtually nonexistent. So Don and Stella shelved the manuscript.

And then, some twenty years later, along came the Internet.

"We were encouraged as univerisity staff to put potted biographies of ourselves on the web for students to know more about us, and of course we included a note in ours that we were interested in caterpillars," explained Don. "We then got increasing numbers of people sending descriptions and photos of caterpillars asking what they were. So we said: 'OK let's just put our book on the web.'"

And so Australian Caterpillars and their Butterflies and Moths was born. The website contains webpages for over 3,600 Australian Lepidopteran species (having grown from an original 100). These webpages include descriptive information about the species as well as, where available, images of the adult and caterpillar forms. The pages are grouped according to family, and these pages are linked via a single page for moths and another for butterflies.

Example of BHL image in Australian Caterpillars and their Butterflies and Moths. Hesperilla bifasciata species page.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library serves as an excellent source of information for the website.

"BHL has enabled me to add historical richness to my popular descriptions of the biology of the Lepidoptera of Australia," stated Don.

Using BHL everyday, Don searches for references to species of interest in BHL using our taxonomic name finding tool. If this does not yield results, he searches the OCR of likely journal issues for genus or species names. He then links these pages to relevant content in the website. Where illustrations are available in BHL, these are also uploaded to the corresponding species pages. These illustrations, which offer an interesting juxtaposition to modern photographs, are, in fact, Don's favorite feature on BHL.

Example of BHL image in Australian Caterpillars and their Butterflies and Moths. Diduga flavicostata species page.

In addition to information about specific species, the website also provides some pretty incredible facts about caterpillars. For example, did you know that caterpillars have thousands of muscles, whereas humans only have about 500? Or that the female moths of the Australian species such as Teia anartoides have no wings, and the species disperses by the young caterpillars making an open gossamer sail out of silk, and sailing away on it in the wind?

Teia anartoides young caterpillars ballooning (Photo: courtesy of Rudie Kuiter, Aquatic Photographics, Victoria).

The website has become an incredible resource for those interested in exploring Australian Lepidoptera. Don particularly hopes that it will help spark an interest in these insects among younger audiences.

"Our idea in the webpages is to help, particularly young Australian people, understand and value the unique entomological heritage to which they are heirs, and to foster an understanding of how to preserve that heritage for future generations," Don explained. "The webpages try to be chatty and intriguing to, say, an intelligent 12 year old, but to include enough technical information to tempt them deeper into the ecology and taxonomy of Australian Lepidoptera. With the help of the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Wikipedia, we are able to link the current descriptions of the biology of the species to the original descriptions from two or more centuries ago and to biographies of their authors who can be seen to have been real people, who too were intensely interested in Australian fauna. I think this helps establish the idea in our readers that these organisms have perhaps as much right to live in Australia as they do, and that our living biological heritage can be preserved and maintained, just as [BHL] preserves our literary and scientific heritage."

We think the website is well on its way to achieving this goal. After all, what young person wouldn't want to learn more about a caterpillar that can fire fecal pellets from its anus?

Thanks very much to Dr. Herbison-Evans for sharing his work and use of BHL with us. Be sure to explore Australian Caterpillars and their Butterflies and Moths today.

Do you use BHL regularly for your work? Want to be featured on our blog? Send a message to 

Monday, November 9, 2015

BHL receives the Internet Archive's Internet Heroes award at the 2015 Library Leaders' Forum

Photo credit: Brad Shirakawa, Internet Archive
The Biodiversity Heritage Library was honored to receive the Internet Archive's Internet Heroes award at the 2015 Library Leaders' Forum in San Francisco, 21-23 October 2015. Hosted by Brewster Kahle and Wendy Hanamura, the Leaders' Forum was attended by Internet Archive partners from across the world of cultural heritage institutions. The theme of the meeting, "Building Libraries Together," drew together the many threads of activities that the Internet Archive has fostered for over ten years that create an open, participatory virtual library of books, music, websites, television, and more.

Photo credit: Brad Shirakawa
Internet Archive
Earlier during the multi-day event, John Perry Barlow, lyricist of the Grateful Dead, founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and general Internet visionary (see, e.g. his "Economy of Ideas" published in Wired Magazine in 1994) accepted from Brewster Kahle the "Internet Archive Hero Award to the Grateful Dead–Pioneers in Sharing."

Accepting the award on behalf of the past, present and future hard working contributors to the success of the Biodiversity Heritage Library were Martin R. Kalfatovic (BHL Program Director), Carolyn Sheffield (BHL Program Manager), Keri Thompson (Smithsonian Libraries), and BHL Founding Technical Director, Chris Freeland (Washington University).

Photo credit: Brad Shirakawa
Internet Archive
The two-day meeting also provided participants the opportunity to engage in discussion with Internet Archive staff and colleagues in the areas of sustainability, copyright, access, and technology. Attendees had an opportunity to try out the new Table Top Scribe, hear about and provide input into Internet Archive's goals, and learn about some innovative pilot projects under development at Archive Lab including the IIIF viewer and new search algorithms.

Biodiversity Heritage Library
Internet Archive Hero Award 2015

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Using Art to Document Species: Cramer and the Lepidoptera

How could you make a visual record of a collection before the advent of photography? Through illustrations, of course. It was a desire to produce just such a record that prompted the creation of the magnificent plates accompanying De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America (1779-1782), by Pieter Cramer, which has been digitized for BHL by Mann Library, Cornell University.

De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America. 1779-1782. Digitized by Mann Library, Cornell University. 

Pieter Cramer was a wealthy linen and wool merchant from Amsterdam. Born in 1721, he had a keen interest in natural history - particularly Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Through purchase and trade, Cramer amassed a large collection of Lepidoptera specimens from Suriname, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Indonesia, North America, Africa, and Asia. Cramer hired Amsterdam artist Gerrit Wartenaar to illustrate his collection in order to make a permanent record of it. The resulting hand-colored plates were so magnificent that Cramer was encouraged to publish them. He did so via De uitlandsche kapellen, which includes 400 plates featuring 1,658 moth and butterfly species, each accompanied by a brief description of the antennal shape and wing pattern. The plates and text were published in thirty-four parts between 1779-82, with one issue being sent out to a list of subscribers every three months. The final work consists of four volumes.

De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America. 1779-1782. Digitized by Mann Library, Cornell University.

Sadly, Cramer died of a fever in 1776, after only the first volume of the work had been published. His nephew and business partner, Anthony Wellemzoon van Rensselaar, enlisted the help of Caspar Stoll (who had been involved in the production of the first volume) to complete the final volumes. Stoll wrote most of the text for volume four, and, between 1787-90, published a supplement to the work that included forty-two plates of 250 additional species.

De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America. 1779-1782. Digitized by Mann Library, Cornell University.

De uitlandsche kapellen is important for a number of reasons. It depicts each species at life-size and illustrates both the upper and lower wings for each. It was also the first treatise on Lepidoptera to use the newly-introduced classification system from Carl Linnaeus. Cramer and Stoll assigned each butterfly and moth to one of the three then-existing Lepidopteran genera (designated by Linnaeus) - today there are thousands of genera for butterflies and moths. In providing scientific names to the species, they not only used any existing binomials for the specimens included in the work, but, as many of the species had not yet been named, they also assigned a name and provided the first formal scientific description for many species depicted in the volumes. As a result, De uitlandsche kapellen contains hundreds of "original descriptions" and as such is still integral to the work of scientists today.

De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America. 1779-1782. Digitized by Mann Library, Cornell University.

You can explore De uitlandsche kapellen voorkomende in de drie waereld-deelen, Asia, Africa en America (1779-1782), by Pieter Cramer, for free in BHL, digitized by Mann Library, Cornell University Library. You can view the illustrations in this work on Flickr: Pts. 1-2 | Pts. 3-4.

Source: James, Miller. "The Volumes of Cramer and Stoll: A Timeless Contribution to the Science of Butterflies and Moths." Natural Histories. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 2012. 57-58. Print.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Retirement to Chris Mills!

This week, Chris Mills, Head of Library, Art, and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, celebrates his retirement. Chris has served as the Head of the Library at Kew since 2006, before which he served as the Head of Collections and Services at the Natural History Museum, London.

The Library, Art and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has the distinction of being one of BHL's 10 founding institutions, and now represents one of BHL's 16 Member Libraries. Chris has served as Kew's representative to BHL since its beginning, and has been an important member of BHL's community.

"Chris made sure that Kew Gardens was a founding member of the Biodiversity Heritage Library and has continued faithful representation as a valued colleague on the BHL Members Council," emphasized Dr. Nancy Gwinn, Chair of the BHL Executive Committee and Director of the Smithsonian Libraries. "His wisdom and good humor will be missed!"

One of the most important botanical reference sources in the world, Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains more than half a million items, including books, botanical illustrations, photographs, letters and manuscripts, periodicals, biographies and maps. From this impressive collection, the Library has contributed over 13,000 pages to BHL to date, thanks in large part to Chris' leadership.

"We have all benefited widely by the expertise and humor that Chris has brought to BHL," stated Martin R. Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director and Associate Director, Digital Services Division, at the Smithsonian Libraries. "His personal contributions and support of Kew’s participation in the BHL will be greatly missed.”

Jane Smith, Head of Library and Archives at the Natural History Museum, London and Secretary of the BHL Executive Committee, also expressed her appreciation of Chris' contributions to the program. "Chris’s wit, lovely sense of fun and kindness makes him a good companion," she said. "His considerable knowledge, expertise and understanding of natural history collections, particularly of botanical art, and good judgement has made him a valued colleague."

David Iggulden, Electronic Resources Manager at the Library, Art, and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, will serve as the Kew Member Representative to BHL following Chris' retirement. David has long represented Kew on the BHL Staff Committee, making him highly qualified to now represent the Library on the Members Council.

“Chris first introduced me to BHL when I started at Kew in 2007," remembers David. "He explained how he and a few colleagues had come up with the idea originally for a joint union catalogue of their library resources which could be searched online. But as time and technology moved on, they decided that this wasn’t enough and that perhaps instead digitisation of the collections was the way to go. The aim then (as now) was to provide the digitised content free of charge to all, online via a web portal.

"Chris truly inspired me about BHL with his highly infectious enthusiasm for the resource and its aims. He quietly helped me to further develop my professional interest in BHL over the years and always supported our involvement even when times were tough. In 2009 I was delighted to deputise for Chris at the Institutional Council meeting in Boston, representing Kew in the discussions as BHL began to go global. After this he fully supported me to attend the BHL Life and Literature conference in 2011. This incredible event uncovered the huge potential for the BHL to further develop its services and content in response to the challenges of working with biodiversity literature.  
"Chris will be sorely missed but I very much hope to continue Kew’s involvement with BHL and progress towards Chris’s and the other founder members’ original vision for this ambitious resource.”

While he will indeed be greatly missed, we are excited to celebrate with Chris as he begins this next chapter in his life. We wish him happiness and a wonderful retirement, and extend a warm and hearty thanks for all of his wonderful contributions to BHL. We look forward to the many wonderful contributions to BHL still to come from Kew under David's able leadership.

Thank you, Chris, and Happy Retirement, from your Family at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.