Thursday, October 1, 2015

What Makes a Citizen Science Project Successful?

BHL supports a variety of crowdsourcing, or citizen science, initiatives that allow our community to help enhance our data, making it easier for scientists, researchers, educators, students, and others around the world to discover BHL content and use it to support scientific, conservation, and historical research. These initiatives include Flickr image tagging, transcription, image description via Science Gossip, and games that help improve our OCR.

But what motivates a citizen scientist to volunteer their time on a crowdsourcing project? How do they discover new projects or get support while tackling a challenging question? What can we do to keep our communities engaged and interested in our projects?

These are questions that any institution or organization that supports crowdsourcing activities might ask. Here at BHL, we figured the best way to get some answers was to ask our citizen scientists. We decided to start with one of our most dedicated volunteers, Siobhan Leachman.

Siobhan Leachman.

Siobhan lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She initially trained as a lawyer, but became interested in crowdsourcing and citizen science after she decided to stay home to raise her children. About two years ago, her sister, who works in a museum, introduced her to the Smithsonian Transcription Center, which offered just the sort of challenge that Siobhan was looking for.

At the time, the Transcription Center was still in its beta phase, and at first, Siobhan's activity in the project was occasional. Then, Vernon Bailey's field books were added to the site, and that all changed.

"I became hooked," Siobhan enthused. "I helped transcribe the field book in about three days. I loved his spare writing style, his drawings and occasional lyrical prose mixed in with unfamiliar North American species names that forced me to investigate further and in turn learn about various birds and animals. His writing was also quite an intellectual puzzle that I found fun to solve."

"JOURNAL KEPT BY BAILEY ON FIELD TRIP TO WYOMING AND NEW MEXICO, MARCH 15-JUNE 1906." Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Transcription Center.

For the next six months, Siobhan worked exclusively on the Transcription Center. The variety of projects (including bumblebee labels, field books, and astronomy logbooks), the inviting and lively conversations among participants on social media, and the opportunity to provide input on improvements to the site (which was still in its beta phase), continually sparked her interest and nurtured a sense of community and teamwork.

Then one day, an "unassuming log book on Cacti written by Joseph Nelson Rose," led Siobhan to expand her crowdsourcing activities. The log book included a list of people who collected specimens for Rose, and Siobhan was surprised at how many women were listed. Research on one of them, Charlotte Cortlandt Ellis, led her to the JSTOR Global Plants database, where the record for Ellis was lacking a death date. Siobhan emailed JSTOR with the information, the database was updated, and the Transcription Center, delighted by the links and connections that the transcription projects were inspiring, highlighted the work in a blog post.

Rose's log book, containing mention of Charlotte Cortlandt Ellis. ROSE, CACTI, 1909 - 1917. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Smithsonian Transcription Center.

"I found this positive reinforcement very gratifying and inspiring," explains Siobhan. "I continued to research other women listed in the project and in the process started to realize that these amazing botanists were frequently overlooked. I also realized that few if any had a presence or mention in one of my main 'go to' sources of information – Wikipedia. So I began the journey of learning how to edit Wikipedia by focusing on writing articles about women I discovered via this project [see Siobhan's articles on Charlotte Cortlandt Ellis and Rose E Collom]."

It was social media that introduced Siobhan to BHL. By following the Transcription Center on twitter (@TranscribeSI), Siobhan became aware that BHL was seeking volunteers to add species name tags to images in Flickr, and that these tagged images would be added to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). She frequently used EOL to research species names when transcribing field books, and she knew that many species pages lacked images. She realized that, by tagging BHL images, should could help enhance one of her go-to sources for species information.

"My sister, Victoria, had been involved in machine tagging of the British Library images on Flickr and was able to get me up to speed as well as give me resources to assist in helping the BHL," explains Siobhan. "I started out being keen about the species shown but expanded my interest in the artists of the images. The quality of the scientific illustrations in these old texts amazed me, and again I fell into a world I knew little about but found absolutely fascinating as well as beautiful."

BHL Flickr image tagged by Siobhan. Alecedo vintsioides. Artist: Jean-Gabriel Prêtre. Oiseaux. 1839.

In addition to the Transcription Center and BHL Flickr image tagging, Siobhan also participates in several Zooniverse projects, including BHL's Science Gossip, the Atlas of Living Australia's DigiVol transcription site, and several local Wellington initiatives, including Nature Watch, the New Zealand Garden Bird survey and the Great Kereru Count.

Social media is the primary way that Siobhan discovers new projects; she follows a variety of organizations on Twitter and Facebook. She also subscribes to mailing lists for institutions she's interested in, and relies on her network of fellow citizen scientists to alert her to new opportunities and developments.

Social media is also a critical source of support when she has questions. By reaching out to the organizations hosting the citizen science projects on Twitter or via the projects' forums, or asking for help via Twitter from her network of friends, Siobhan is able to get answers to even her toughest questions. As such, she emphasizes that developing a strong social media strategy is important for crowdsourcing success. The strategy should involve easy and frequent communication that encourages input from volunteers, welcomes new participants, and highlights volunteer contributions.  Furthermore, she believes institutions should facilitate community building and encourage conversations amongst participants. Such networks are not only vital sources of support, but can also be very rewarding.

"One of the most beneficial but unforeseen consequences of me volunteering for the Smithsonian Transcription Center are the friends I have made the world over who enjoy the same hobby as I do," affirms Siobhan. "They have and continue to enrich my life in numerous ways."

Forging and fostering friendships with like-minded people is a major motivator for Siobhan. But what else motivates her to participate (and keep contributing to) a particular citizen science project?

"I want to be entertained, interested and learn something new," divulges Siobhan. "I also want to feel like I’m contributing to the greater good and, in my small way, to the progression of science in general. I’ll keep working on a project if I believe it is worthwhile and interesting. I tend to be one of those people who finish what they start, so task completion is a motivation in itself.

"I also swap and change what I do depending on how I feel. Variety really is the spice of crowdsourcing. If I really want to concentrate and create, I’ll research and write a Wikipedia article. If I’m watching TV and want a relatively easy task, I’ll review bumblebee specimens. When I want to do something a bit more visually interesting, I’ll machine tag for BHL or contribute to projects like Science Gossip or Snapshot Serengeti on Zooniverse. And if I come across something that interests me such as a new artist or collector, I’ll head off researching and emailing organizations to hopefully make connections that aren’t easily obtained via a basic Google search."

Catharine Johnston. Wikipedia page created by Siobhan.

For Siobhan, the biggest challenge to crowdsourcing is the immensity of the task and the limited time she has to commit to projects. While she is energized by the discoveries made possible by unlocking the data contained in field books or specimen labels, and how connecting this often disparate data together allows for powerful new insights into questions related to, for example, extinction or invasive species, the reality of the amount of work to be done is daunting.

"So much to do, so little time, is my mantra," admits Siobhan.

But while there is much to do, the generosity of citizen scientists like Siobhan allows organizations the world over to consistently chip away at the work - work that may not ever get done otherwise.

We figured that someone who had dedicated so much time to citizen science initiatives probably had a pretty good idea of how they would design one if given the opportunity. So we asked Siobhan what her ideal project would be.

"My ideal citizen science project would entail everything that I do already but all in one place," reveals Siobhan. "It would be like a tail to nose (so to speak) project, where people could collect data on a particular subject, link that data, undertake research to obtain further data to link to the subject being crowdsourced, transcribe data relating to the subject, add images, maps etc. so that the end result would be the ability to have access to everything ever collected or known about the subject. And it would all be open access i.e. unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse for anyone, anywhere. This would result in artists, scientists, historians etc. the world over reusing the information to create new and wonderfully unforeseen ways of interacting with that knowledge. Now that I think about it, it sort of sounds similar to my ideal version of the Internet."

BHL Flickr image tagged by Siobhan. Artist: Plecotus auritus. Eleazar Albin. A natural history of birds. 1731-38.

We think that sounds like a pretty awesome aspiration, and hope that, as we continue to forge new partnerships and collaborations, we can all work towards that connected, open, and discovery-inspiring vision. And what will be the key to the success of such a project? An environment that offers a variety of activities, acknowledges and positively reinforcing the work of its participants, and facilitates active communication and community development.

And that's the kind of environment we hope to create.

Learn more about how you can volunteer with BHL today.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) Botanist, Western Australia

Guest Post by Bernice Barry.

Georgiana Molloy, 1829 © Mike Rumble. With permission of Mrs Dorothy Margaret Blaasch née Richardson-Bunbury.

Georgiana Molloy arrived in the Swan River Colony (now Perth, Western Australia) in 1830 and was among the small group of British colonists who founded the settlement of Augusta in the far southwest. Today, she’s remembered as the first internationally successful female botanist in Western Australia.

Specimens from two of her collections, including Type specimens, are archived in Kew Herbarium and Cambridge University Herbarium. Some of her letters and some diaries have also survived, held at the Cumbria Archive Centre in Carlisle UK and the JS Battye Library in Perth WA.

Georgiana Molloy specimens, Kew Herbarium © Mike Rumble.

Researchers unable to access these documents first-hand have been able to view some sources online for several years but things are changing. Libraries, herbaria and museums are increasingly digitizing new material as they acquire it. Other archives like the Biodiversity Heritage Library are making digital images of sources previously only available as microfilm or hard copy. Not only are many new items available now on a computer screen anywhere in the world, allowing you to look closely at a picture or photograph and transcribe from an original document, but also the sources are searchable. You don’t just have to search the Web for something you’re looking for in particular; using careful search techniques, you can find new sources you didn’t even know about.

The botanical work of Georgiana Molloy comes to life vividly through the images that are now available. Combining the content of her diaries/letters with online sources makes it possible to trace some of her specimens from the day she collected them in the bush, through their journey from collector to collector, and on to their current resting place in a herbarium.

Georgiana grew up in the north of England near the Scottish border, and like other girls in her social circle, she collected dried flowers and enjoyed gardening. In 1838, her amateur involvement, already remarkably accomplished, was recognized when collector Captain James Mangles RN asked her to send him specimens of Western Australian indigenous plants. She was only collecting for Mangles for the last six years of her life and taught herself the necessary skills from books - and trial and error - but the specimens she sent to England were of superior quality to those of experienced male collectors doing the same, including James Drummond who was 'government naturalist' in Perth until 1832. Her expertise was recognized by the most eminent botanists and growers of the time.

Mangles sent Georgiana’s specimens to (among others) Dr. John Lindley, Professor of Botany at University College, London, Joseph Paxton, head gardener of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, the Royal Horticultural Society and the Baumann brothers of Bollwiller in France. He also sent her seeds to successful nurserymen including George Loddiges, known for the orchids he grew in a huge hothouse.

Lindley was fascinated by the flora of Australia and the orchids in particular. In 1838 he was about to write a new article on the topic and was looking for perfect specimens. The selection Mangles sent from Mrs. Molloy didn’t disappoint.

'Your friend Mrs. Molloy is really the most charming personage in all South Australia & you the most fortunate man to have such a correspondent.  
That many of her plants are beautiful you can see for yourself & I am delighted to add that many of the best are quite new. I have marked many with a X.' i 

Paxton’s opinion was the same. He said her collection was 'collectively, the best and contains more good things than I have before received from that interesting part of the world' and described her 'important collection of seeds' as 'far superior to any we have received at Chatsworth,' with many new and 'splendid things in the hortus siccus.' ii

Chorizema varium. Paxton's Magazine of botany and register of flowering plants. V. 6, (1840).

Georgiana’s life as a settler was one of hardship and tragedy, and for most of her 13 years in the colony she was nursing a baby. Her days were filled with farm work and domestic jobs from before dawn until late into the night, and yet she always found time for her botanical passion. A medical condition meant that she risked her life with the birth of each baby and soon after her seventh child was born she died, still desperately longing to successfully collect and send the seeds of Nuytsia floribunda and Kingia australis to Mangles. She was thirty-seven.

Nuytsia floribunda, Busselton WA © Mike Rumble.

Kingia Australis, Molloy Island, WA © Mike Rumble.

Nuytsia floribunda. Appendix to the first twenty-three volumes of Edwards's botanical register. (1839).

In her last years, she was referred to in several botanical and horticultural publications, including three mentions in the 'Notices of new plants' in Lindley’s very successful Sketch of the Vegetation of the Swan River Colony.

Appendix to the first twenty-three volumes of Edwards's botanical register : consisting of a completealphabetical and systematical index of names, synomymes and matter, adjusted to thepresent stateof systematical botany, together with a sketch of the vegetation of the Swan River colony ... / 

He wrote that Mrs. Molloy was 'a lady enthusiastically attached to the Botany of this remote region,' collector of Pultanaea brachytropis, a 'pretty little greenhouse shrub from Port Augusta,' Euthales macrophylla, 'a greenhouse perennial of the easiest culture,' and Eucalyptus calophylla, 'a beautiful plant.' Even though the professor wrote that her 'zeal in the pursuit of Botany has brought us acquainted with many of the plants of that little known part of the world,' her name was not included in his list of acknowledgements.

Mangles received recognition for Georgiana’s Pentandria monogynia in the Floricultural Cabinet and Florists’ Magazine 1841 but she was referred to as just 'a lady.'

Euthales macrophylla. Edwards's botanical register. v. 27 (1841).

The botanist George Bentham later acquired Georgiana’s collection from Lindley and deposited it with Kew when he took up office in 1854. His Flora australiensis was extremely successful, with thanks to Lindley (page 9) and Drummond (Page 10) but not Georgiana Molloy.

The online catalogues at Kew and Cambridge can be searched for 'Molloy' as 'collector' for digital photographs that reveal her skill and artistry. The most recently acquired Molloy journals at the JS Battye Library, partly written by Georgiana, are available online as images.

Although there were requests for plants to be named for her before and just after she died, she did not receive formal recognition as a botanist. The graceful, pink Boronia molloyae now bears her name.

Boronia molloyae © Mike Rumble.
Boronia molloyae. Curtis's botanical magazine. v. 103 (1877).

You can learn more about Georgiana Molloy on these resources from Bernice Barry:

i.  Letter books of James Mangles. 1839. JS Battye Library ACC 479A
ii.  Ibid.

Guest Post by Bernice Barry.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Nicole Kearney from BHL Australia visits BHL at Smithsonian Libraries

As the Coordinator of BHL Australia, I’m based at Museum Victoria in Melbourne. This is a very long way from BHL headquarters in Washington DC – in both space and time. The time difference between Melbourne and DC is 14 hours and, while I’ve had countless conversations with BHL staff via email, our opposing work hours make phone calls or virtual meetings almost impossible.

Last month I was able to visit my BHL colleagues in person. I had been invited to speak at the Society of American Archivists conference about my work digitizing and transcribing the handwritten field diaries of Australia’s early naturalists. I joined six other speakers, including BHL’s Julia Blase, in a session about the importance of natural history archives. The meeting was in Cleveland, only a stone’s throw (from my perspective) from Washington, D.C. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

I spent four days at the Smithsonian Libraries and had face-to-face meetings with every member of the BHL Secretariat, as well as with staff from the Transcription Center, the Digitization Lab and the Cullman Rare Book Library. Many of our discussions were about how to make BHL work even better for our users, such as how to display transcripts of handwritten items and ensuring we have the most accurate article-level metadata for historic journals.

Books on display at the Joseph F. Cullman, 3rd Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries. Image Credit: Nicole Kearney.

A highlight of my visit was seeing the rare books in the Cullman Library of Natural History. I had of course perused the digital versions of these treasures online (on BHL), but it was awe-inspiring to see them in the flesh and to listen to their Curator Leslie Overstreet speak so passionately about their history. I also particularly enjoyed seeing the Once There Were Billions exhibit, having read so much about it on the BHL blog. I took home origami versions of Martha (the last passenger pigeon) for my children and work colleagues so we too could #FoldtheFlock.

My visit coincided with that of Professor Ian Owens, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, London. In his presentation to Smithsonian staff, he emphasized the contribution BHL has made to our understanding of global biodiversity. To make his point, he showed the illustration from the first published description of the Platypus from The Naturalist's Miscellany, Vol. 10, George Shaw, 1799, a publication contributed to BHL by Museum Victoria. I was also proud to hear him mention the digitization and transcription initiatives of our funding partner, the Atlas of Living Australia.

Bone Hall, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Image Credit: Nicole Kearney.

I had been to Washington, D.C. only once before, when I was fifteen. A highlight of that visit was the Bone Hall in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I was fascinated by the variety of skeletons and the way they had been arranged to demonstrate form and function. I went on to become a zoologist, specializing in science communication. I still think this display is one of the best I’ve seen, and I was thrilled to find it relatively unchanged on my return visit – twenty-three years later!

It was wonderful to meet the dedicated people who keep BHL running so smoothly, and I am most grateful for the time they spent with me, answering questions, walking me though procedures and making me feel so welcome. Now that I’m home, we’ve resumed our communication via email, but I can now picture the friendly faces that sent them. I hope our paths will cross again soon.

BHL staff with Nicole Kearney. Back Row, Left to Right: Martin Kalfatovic (BHL Program Director), Bianca Crowley (BHL Digital Collections Manager), Julia Blase (Field Book Project Manager), Nicole Kearney (Coordinator, BHL Australia, Museum Victoria), Carolyn Sheffield (BHL Program Manager). Front Row, Left to Right: Jacqueline Chapman (Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections Librarian), Grace Costantino (BHL Outreach and Communication Manager). Image Credit: Nicole Kearney.

From our end here in Australia, the BHL team at Museum Victoria have recently been focusing on the digitization of rare books relating to Antarctic exploration, including a number donated by local philanthropist Sir Thomas Ramsay. We have also continued to digitize works on Australian fauna. A particularly significant recent addition to BHL was A synopsis of the birds of Australia, and the adjacent Islands by John Gould. This work was issued to scope interest in what eventuated in one of his most celebrated works, The Birds of Australia.

Ross, James Clark. A voyage of discovery and research in the southern and Antarctic regions, during the years 1839-43. v. 1 (1847). Digitized by Museum Victoria.

Explore the books in the BHL Australia Collection today.

Nicole Kearney
Coordinator | Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia
Museum Victoria

Monday, September 14, 2015

BHL Exhibit at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In 2014, BHL welcomed the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a member. The University's Library is a campus-wide network of libraries serving programs of learning and research in many disciplines and is the largest public university research library in the country with more than 13 million volumes. The Biology Library collection alone contains over 137,000 volumes.

To date, the University Library has contributed over 1.2 million pages from over 4,400 volumes to BHL. Illustrations from many of these books have also been made available in the BHL Flickr. Explore the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Collection in BHL and Flickr.

"Celebrating the Biodiversity Heritage Library: Supporting Scientists Worldwide" exhibit at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Main Library Marshall Gallery. Image Credit: Kelli Trei.

On September 1, 2015, the University Library unveiled an exhibit about BHL at the Main Library Marshall Gallery entitled: "Celebrating the Biodiversity Heritage Library: Supporting Scientists Worldwide." This free exhibit highlights contributed materials from the University as well as the BHL collection itself and draws attention to Library digitization efforts and historic scientific materials on campus. The exhibit runs through September 30, 2015. Learn more.

"Celebrating the Biodiversity Heritage Library: Supporting Scientists Worldwide" exhibit at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Main Library Marshall Gallery. Image Credit: Kelli Trei.

Be sure to check out the exhibit if you're visiting or live near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and explore the University Library's collection on BHL!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"What a Gem!" BHL Supports Teuthology Research

Here's a word of the day for you: Teuthology.

What does it mean? It's the study of cephalopods. What are cephalopods? Well, they are a class of mollusks that include two extant subclasses: Coleoidea and Nautiloidea.

Still not sure what cephalopods are? You probably know them by their more common monikers: octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and nautiluses. There are over 800 living species of cephalopods known today.

Dr. Ian G. Gleadall, Reader in Marine Biology at the International Fisheries Science Unit of Tohoku University Graduate School of Agricultural Sciences, Sendai, Japan.

Dr. Ian G. Gleadall has been studying the biology of cephalopods (particularly octopuses) for 40 years. Dr. Gleadall (a marine biologist who works in Sendai, Japan) discovered BHL in November, 2014 while visiting the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. It has had a profound impact on his research. As Dr. Gleadall explains:

"[BHL] is a truly wonderful tool. Highly useful, reliable in operation, intuitive and easy to use. I have been writing a complex systematic review of cephalopod taxonomy, with an emphasis on the octopuses of the Indo-Pacific region, particularly centred on the seas of the Japanese Archipelago. Because of many previous errors and unclear references to earlier studies in this field, I had recently decided to go deeper into previous naming systems for the Cephalopoda, particularly as regards the various groups of octopus. 
"There are a number of different, rival schemes in taxonomy, so it is necessary to read the original description for each name in order to assess which should be regarded as the most appropriate to use. Many of the earlier works were published in rare and valuable tomes which are now difficult to get hold of. These books are sometimes huge in size and libraries are reluctant to have them inspected at first hand because their condition is often deteriorating and they may be heavy and difficult to handle. Getting copies of such works is in itself often very difficult and the administrative procedures can be frustrating and time consuming. It is also expensive to visit each institution concerned in many different countries.

"However, the BHL online catalogue of works provides access to a large number of such rare works, allowing me to find and study many of the books I need to use from the comfort of my laptop computer and a wireless internet connection. If I want to have copies of relevant sections, it is very easy to mark pages for collation into a customized PDF file, or even to download an entire book. This service has proven to be extremely valuable to me.  
"Over recent months I have been able to quickly gain access to many older texts and this has enabled me to achieve my aims far quicker than would otherwise have been possible. For example, often when I read a new work, I find further references to works that I previously was not aware of. I can then quickly look for (and find) those using BHL. Normally, this could involve having to revisit a library in another country that I have already visited once, or I would have to try to get the library staff to send me a copy, neither of which is as fast or convenient as using BHL."

During intensive periods of study, Dr. Gleadall uses BHL daily, sometimes downloading up to four 4 custom PDFs in a day, in addition to studying other materials online. It's not surprising, then, that the ability to download custom PDFs is Dr. Gleadall's favorite feature on BHL.

"About half of the publications that I access on BHL I read online and take notes. Where there is a lot of material and I do not have time to complete my work in a single session (or if there are many data-dense tables, for example), I'll select the pages that I'm interested in and arrange for a custom PDF," explains Dr. Gleadall. "[The custom PDF service] is so easy and intuitive to use (why can't other internet services be so convenient and trouble-free?!)."

A book by Ian Gleadall (in the final stages of publication) concerning the classic 1929 monograph on the Cephalopoda by Madoka Sasaki. In writing this book, many of the references required to prepare the synonymies of various cephalopod orders, families, genera and species were viewed using the BHL online archive.

A highlight for Dr. Gleadall in his research is the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful works of art that are part of the heritage of biological description, such as the stunning cephalopod lithograph created by Ernst Haeckel as part of his Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

54th plate from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (1904), depicting squids and octopuses classified as Gamochonia. 
Key to Haeckel's plate, above. 1) Chiroteuthis veranyi (Férussac); 2) Histioteuthis ruppellii (Vérany); 3) Pinnoctopus cordiformis (Quoy and Gaimard); 4) Octopus vulgaris (Lamarck); 5) Octopus granulatus (Lamarck).
"In modern times, there are many artful illustrations and computer graphic images, but many people are unaware of the gorgeous images of more than 100 years ago, where no expense was spared to produce magnificent series of books reporting on the collections from localities far and wide by the early explorers," lauds Dr. Gleadall.

While the experience of seeing these illustrations in person creates an impression that a computer screen cannot quite replicate (as Dr. Gleadall explains, many of the rare volumes containing these artworks are massive in size), it is often difficult to gain access to such works in physical library collections. The availability of these books in BHL, and the artwork on the BHL Flickr, ensures that everyone can see and experience this wonderful biodiversity heritage.

It is this immediate and unrestricted access that has most-impacted Dr. Gleadall's work.

"BHL has considerably smoothed the way for me and speeded up the rate at which I can view a large number of relevant references. I look forward to being able to publish my results far more quickly than would otherwise have been possible without BHL. Many thanks."

Thank you, Dr. Gleadall, for sharing with us the impact that BHL has on your work. Do you use BHL to support your own research? Want to tell us about it? Send an email to!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Horses and the History of the Circus

The history of the modern circus is deeply rooted in horsemanship.  The first modern circuses, which took place during the 18th century, were primarily demonstrations of tricks performed on a horse, first by former soldiers who learned such skills during military training, and later by talented men and women trained from a young age to accomplish acrobatics and other feats atop a horse.  In order to teach horses to perform tricks for the circus amphitheater, horsemen relied upon instruction from mentors and in books such as Dr. Sutherland’s System of Educating the Horse, with Rules for Teaching the Horse Some Forty Different Tricks or Feats. . .  This 1861 text by Dr. G. H. Sutherland claims to be the first ever published on “Educating the Horse” (view in book here).  

Horse trainers in Great Britain were considered humane in their work, and as London trainer Charles Montague wrote in his 1881 book, Recollections of an Equestrian Manager (in Simon, 2014, pp. 29-10): “The horse must first be brought to feel that you are his master—his superior; not through fear of your power; but on the contrary, through his experience that though you have the power, it is always accompanied by kindness. . .never with cruelty.”  In America, Dr. Sutherland represented those using humane animal training practices, and in his text he stated that he was “convinced, by observations as well as experience, that we can successfully tame, subdue, and control the most wild and vicious horse by kindness alone. . .” (view in book here), and he proposed a training system that vehemently avoided "the use of the whip, drugs, or fetters. . .” (view in book here).

Horse at the circus in Stockholm (1905) | Unknown Attribution
Sutherland’s horse tricks are quite delightful, and include training the horse to remove the trainer’s “cap, coat and mittens” (view in book here).  Other tricks include teaching the horse to stand up, lay down, knock on a door, say yes or no, fetch and retrieve objects, walk on hind legs, to unbuckle his own saddle and remove it, open and close doors, pump water, fire a pistol, tell his A, B, C’s, spell, read, and more amazing things!  All of these tricks begin in the book here.  When Philip Astley created the first modern circus in 1768 in London, he had his horse count, perform mind reading, and play dead.  In addition, Astley, and later more performers he hired, would end up performing acrobatics on the horse.

Equestrian Acrobatics | Theatrical and Circus Life (1893)
The history of the circus goes back thousands of years, with early depictions of acrobats from Egypt from 1300 to 1200 BCE.  The Museo Egizio in Turin has an Egyptian wall fragment from this period showing a female acrobat in a backbend, with long, wavy hair flowing to the ground, large, gold hoop earrings, and wearing only a short sarong.  Mexican ceramic statuettes from 200 BCE to 500 BCE, and prior periods, show contortionists doing splits.  The Mexican statuettes, like a Hellenic Greek statuette depicting an acrobat, have in common a sense of joy and play: the subjects are smiling and theatrical.  

Of course most people might recognize the term, “circus,” or the idea of performances taking place in a circular venue when they think of ancient Rome and the gladiator contests and chariot races.  Chariot races began the trend of highlighting the horse’s—and his master’s—prowess in a circular arena during a longer period of entertainment by other performers.  These Roman gladiator and chariot contests included interludes with juggling, acrobatics, animal baiting, and sometimes people performing intricate religious rites.  

Ancient China and Greece each had their own forms of traveling circuses, and medieval Europe had local fairs with performers, as well as hosting traveling performers who included fortune tellers, jesters, dancers, musicians, and tight-rope walkers.  The medieval, and Renaissance, European Church denounced performers who walked over tight-ropes and hot coals, people who could drink boiling oil or swallow fire, strongmen, and others performing seemingly miraculous stunts, thinking the performers too arrogant, or unhappy that money which should go to the Church was being spent on frivolous entertainment; sometimes tight-ropes were strung between steeples and performers were banned from entertaining at religious festivals.

"Bicycle Riding Extraordinary" | Theatrical and Circus Life (1893)
The modern version of the circus which we know today has its roots in 18th-century Great Britain.  Philip Astley (1742-1814), the son of a veneer cutter and cabinetmaker, decided he wanted to be a horseman, since men on horseback were revered at the time as strong and brave, often prior solders.  Astley joined the Dragoons cavalry regiment, became a distinguished soldier during the Seven Years War, and left the military in 1766 as sergeant-major.  At six feet tall, Astley looked impressive atop a horse and easily started earning a living as a horseman with his white steed, performing trick riding and swordsmanship he had learned in the military.  After a few years of traveling to fairs to perform with his horse, he opened a riding school in 1768 close to Westminster Bridge, London, where he trained aristocratic young men and women.  After his morning trainings, he entertained to an audience in the school’s amphitheater.  He stood and performed acrobatics on his horse, adding ever more balancing tricks, a second horse, and a female equestrienne, Patty, who became his wife; their son John joined the act, as well.  He added clowns, magicians, tumblers, and rope dancers.  Astley gained competitors, but his was the first “modern” circus, and though the focus was mainly on the horses, he made the other acts integral to the entire spectacle. 

"Bareback Riding" | Theatrical and Circus Life (1893)
Circuses developed in Europe and America between the 18th and 19th centuries, with more and more death-defying feats, skimpier outfits on female horse riders and acrobats, and larger-scale performances of plays or poems recreated as stories acted out by performers and horses (and sometimes, elephants).  The circus, after Astley’s time, was considered by some critics to be less of an aristocratic affair and more of a degraded mixing of high and low classes in order to see licentious performances.  However, people of all social ranks were dazzled by the spectacles and continued to attend the circus.  People especially loved women who performed feats on horseback, viewing these women as dominant and yet feminine at the same time, able to control the mighty beast and look dainty while doing so. 

"Circus Riders" | Theatrical and Circus Life (1893)
The circus had come to represent a close-knit community that offered performers a chance to travel the world, and be praised for their physical feats and appearance.  Many children and adults dreamt of “running off to join the circus,” a 19th-century idea that stayed in the public’s imagination through the late 20th-century.  (Did you know that when she was a little girl in the 1940s, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis wore a crown when she rode her horse and said she would grow up to be “Queen of the Circus?”) 

Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (1810-1891) was a man of many trades before he became a legendary circus entrepreneur.  He had a successful traveling circus, and purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841 and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum.  It housed sensational curiosities like the fake “Fiji Mermaid”, wax historical figures, relics from the American Revolution, taxidermy specimens, live performers, animals (including hippos, monkeys, snakes, a kangaroo, giraffes, and tigers), and an aquarium with whales.  A horrific fire broke out in 1865, tragically killing most of the animals, and destroying most of the objects and exhibitions.  Barnum re-opened the Museum at a different location but it burned down once again in 1868, again killing animals and destroying relics, although human performers were saved by firefighters. 

First Fire at Barnum's American Museum, 1865 | Harper's Weekly
Second Fire at Barnum's American Museum, 1868 (stereoview image) | Courtesy of Jack Mord, The Thanatos Archive
After the second American Museum fire, Barnum focused on traveling with his circus, engaging in several partnerships—the most famous, perhaps, with the owner of the very successful Great London Circus, James Anthony Bailey.  Bailey was an excellent circus director, and Barnum continued to be in the spotlight as he promoted the circus.  By 1889, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was comprised of 1,200 people, and hundreds of horses and animals, and traveled on tour in Europe.  When the Circus returned to America in 1903, Barnum & Bailey had serious competitors in the form of the Ringling Brothers.  When Barnum died, he left the Circus to Bailey, whose widow, when Bailey died, sold it to the Ringling Brothers.  Thus the creation of the “Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus,” which still operates today.

While the grand days of the circus died down by the 1950s due to new forms of entertainment, such as Disneyland, there are still active circuses to this day.  The circus has always been fraught with the tension of death-defying feats, and the idea of whether it was a moral or immoral concept of entertainment.  However, people continue to be dazzled by the magic of spectacle which the circus provides, and has provided, in its many iterations over the years.

Laurel Byrnes
Social Media and Outreach Volunteer
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Special thanks to Jack Mord (The Thanatos Archive) for special use of the stereoview image of the second fire at Barnum's American Museum in 1868. 


Jennings, J. J. (1893). Theatrical and circus life. . . Chicago: Laird & Lee, Publishers. 

Simon, L. (2014).  The greatest shows on earth: A history of the circus.  London: Reaktion Books.

Sutherland, G. H. (1861).  Dr. Sutherland’s system of educating the horse, with rules for teaching the horse some forty different tricks or feats. . . Potsdam, NY: Fay, Baker & Co.’s Steam Power Presses.