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.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Smorball and Beanstalk: Games that aren’t just fun to play but help science too

As game players are growing beanstalks and leading the Eugene Mellonballers to victory, historic books are being saved from digital oblivion. In June of 2015, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and Tiltfactor released two games called Smorball and Beanstalk to help crowdsource the task of text correction.

What’s the Purpose? 

When a book is first digitized, its pages are merely image files and the text cannot be searched. Optical character recognition software (OCR) converts these page images into machine encoded text that can be searched, but historic literature has many idiosyncrasies that inhibit accurate OCR. BHL wanted to harness the power of crowdsourcing and the fun of gaming to allow humans to help correct inaccurate OCR. The games present extracted words from BHL books that users type out, thus verifying the spelling. These submissions are used to correct the OCR in BHL. By presenting users with a high volume of words in rapid succession during each play-through, we can receive a large number of word corrections and achieve a significant level of OCR correction.

Sample of poor OCR output.

Who are the Audiences for each Game? 

Smorball, which presents words at an increasingly rapid pace, is designed for a gaming audience with experience tackling progressively challenging levels and speedy data-entry. Beanstalk was designed for players that are not typically gamers, and are thus not as comfortable with gamification techniques such time-bound typing, but still want to help improve access to BHL books. Beanstalk allows players to type words at their own pace, but incorporates evolving sights, sounds, and a leaderboard to keep the game engaging and dynamic.

What are players saying? 

Over two thousand people have played the games since the launch, and we have received positive feedback from players and news outlets.

Mini games to improve library digitization” by Antoine Oury.

Some users have asked questions about typing strategies.

Other users have asked about the sometimes odd behavior of the games.

Repeated words occur when that word appears more than once on a single page. If OCR software misinterprets a word once, it will likely misinterpret it again. Sometimes it will even misinterpret in more than one way e.g. (“fish” may be interpreted as “f1sh” and “flsh”) which means that the game can’t filter out these duplicates from being shown to the player. Symbols may show up in the games when the OCR software has misinterpreted them as alpha-numeric characters. We suggest choosing the “skip” option or substituting any alpha-numeric character for the symbol.

The Buzz 

The games have been demoed at several conferences and sites since launch including Empire Farm Days and the Howe Library in Hanover New Jersey.

Smorball will also be featured at this fall’s Boston Festival of Games (BFIG).

Reviewers at BFIG had this to say about Smorball:

  • “The world of the sports game isn’t innovative or unique, but it’s an original made-up game where humans get to smash robots, which makes it fun to watch and play.” 
  • “ I do feel that this is a complete game, very polished, and addictive.” 

Smorball is now available on – a site for “artists, game developers, musicians, voice actors and writers to share their stuff on the web.”

Reviewers on had this to say about the game:

We Need More Players! 

In order for us to scale to an effective level we need tens of thousands of players. If you have not played Smorball or Beanstalk please give them a spin and let us know what you think. Submit your feedback here: Smorball and Beanstalk.

Please share widely with your friends, family and co-workers who would enjoy playing a good game and helping science research at the same time!

Finally, we couldn’t end this post without acknowledging some of the top players from our Beanstalk leaderboard. Thanks to “mlwoodward” “patty_john” and “ldv27” - Keep growing those beanstalks and helping us improve our texts!

Trish Rose-Sandler 
Principal Investigator
Purposeful Gaming and BHL

Smorball and Beanstalk were designed as part of the Purposeful Gaming and BHL project, which explores how digital games can make scanned content more accessible and searchable for cultural institutions. Based at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, “Purposeful Gaming and BHL” was established in 2013 through an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant and includes partners at Harvard University, Cornell University, and The New York Botanical Garden.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Brilliant and Remarkable Birds of Brazil

One of the joyous things about being a Librarian caring for special and rare collections is that you frequently find something remarkable and new to you in those collections. Add on the role of BHL staffer and this multiplies through digitization requests posted by users of BHL.

Approximately five years ago a request was posted for a book unknown to me by an artist I had not come across. The catalogue record flagged that it was a folio of coloured plates which consigned the volume to a long queue for bespoke in-house scanning. Time passed and circumstances changed, and earlier this year I was informed that it had been scanned and was ready for loading to BHL. We have access to a new cloud-based system for loading our scans into BHL, and this volume was to be our test subject. A little bit of research indicated that this volume was indeed remarkable.

Descourtilz, J. T. (Jean Théodore). Oiseaux brillans du Brésil. (1834).

Jean-Theodore Descourtilz was born in 1796 in France, one of eight brothers. His father was Michel Etienne Descourtilz (1775-1836), a physician and botanist who wrote Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles (1821-1829). Jean-Theodore produced the 600 plates which illustrate this tome. He seems to have been well travelled with evidence of being in Haiti aged 3 and in the Antilles by 1821 in order to make the illustrations for his father’s book. Jean-Theodore seems to have arrived in Brazil around 1826 and in 1831 had presented a manuscript on hummingbirds to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Histoire des Oiseaux-mouches Habitant des Districts de Rio de Janeiro, Bananal, San-Paulo, Macahé, Canta-Gallo et Ilha-Grande contained full colour illustrations and meticulous notes about the hummingbirds and their habitats. Two of the species were very rare and had been seen only twice by Descourtilz since he arrived in the country. The original paintings were sold by Christies in 1992 for over £85,000 and a facsimile edition was produced in 1960 as limited run entitled Beija-flores do Brasil- Oiseaux-mouches - orthorynques du Brésil.

Descourtilz, J. T. (Jean Théodore). Oiseaux brillans du Brésil. (1834).

In 1834, Descourtilz published his first book, Oiseaux brillans et remarquables du Brésil, containing 60 beautifully coloured plates lithographed by Callier. There appears to have been no title page or text in the published edition, however the copy held by the Natural History Museum has handwritten title page and a page of text for each illustrated species. It is notable that Descourtilz illustrated the birds on appropriate food plants and captured detailed information on habits, customs, behaviour and habitat as well as the usual dates and location. This book is one of the rarest tomes of birds of the Americas. The Sotheby’s sale catalogue for the H. Bradley Martin Ornithological Library sale in 1989 states there are only four known copies; the copy for sale from H. Bradley Martin, a copy in the Teyler Foundation in Haarlem (Netherlands), a copy in the British Library, and a copy in the Library of Congress. At this time I can state there is a copy in the Natural History Museum (from the Rothschild Collection) and the Teyler Foundation copy was used to produce a facsimile edition Pageantry of Tropical Birds. However I have been unable to confirm that copies are held by the British Library or the Library of Congress, and have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the H. Bradley Martin copy.

Descourtilz, J. T. (Jean Théodore). Oiseaux brillans du Brésil. (1834).

Between 1852 and 1856, Descourtilz's book Ornithologie Brésilienne, ou Histoire des Oiseaux de Brésil, remarquables par leur plumage, leur chant ou leurs habitudes was published in four parts. Forty-eight of the plates were developed from Oiseaux brillans du Brésil, and it contains fifteen species and one genus previously undiscovered.

Descourtilz, J. T. (Jean Théodore). Oiseaux brillans du Brésil. (1834).

The National Museum of Brazil recruited Descourtilz in 1854, but unfortunately he died the next year from arsenic poising while preparing specimens for the Museum. Very little else is known about his life, and he is buried near Aracruz, near the coast of Brazil a few hundred kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro.

Descourtilz, J. T. (Jean Théodore). Oiseaux brillans du Brésil. (1834).

So five years on Oiseaux brillans du Brésil is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library! Please enjoy it. You can browse the illustrations from this stunning work in Flickr.

Alison Harding
Librarian, Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries 
Natural History Museum at Tring

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Beyond Shells: The Birth of Malacology

Until the late 18th century, the study of mollusks was based largely on shells. Very little research or published information existed about molluscan anatomy and soft tissues. Giuseppe Saverio Poli, recognized by many as the father of malacology, changed this with his monumental publication, Testacea utriusque Siciliae eorumque historia et anatome (1791-1827).

Poli, born in 1746 in Molfetta, Italy, studied classics, theology, and natural sciences at the University of Padua. In 1774, he traveled to London during an appointment at the Royal Military Academy, where he met physician and collector William Hunter, who suggested that he study the mollusks of the Mediterranean.

External morphology of a female paper nautilus (Argonauta argo) with egg case. Poli, Giuseppe Saverio. Testacea utriusque Siciliae. (1791-1827).

In the midst of a turbulent time in European history, with the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Poli published his groundbreaking treatises on the comparative anatomy and classification of mollusks of Naples and Sicily, complete in three volumes under the title Testacea utriusque Siciliae eorumque historia et anatomeThe first two volumes were published under Poli's supervision in 1791 and 1795, but the outbreak of civil war in 1799 delayed the publication of the third, which was eventually published posthumously in two parts from 1826-27. The first part of volume three lists Poli as the author but provides annotations by Stefano Delle Chiaje, while the second part was authored by Delle Chiaje and describes the remaining species illustrated by Poli.

Shell morphology and internal and external anatomy of Mediterranean scallop (Pecten jacobaeus). Poli, Giuseppe Saverio. Testacea utriusque Siciliae. (1791-1827).

Testacea utriusque Siciliae is not only exquisitely illustrated with engraved colored plates featuring matching line-drawing versions with labels, but it also provided significant and novel insights about mollusks. While most of his contemporaries studied mollusks only through the lens of their shells, Poli recognized the importance of the information available in the soft tissues and documented molluscan morphology in great detail. Many of his observations were new to science; Poli was the first author to identify structures on the mantle edge of some bivalve mollusks as eyes.

Testacea utriusque Siciliae was also the first treatise on molluscan biochemistry and physiology. A variety of tools, developed by Poli himself, were used to study reproduction and digestion, measure the contractile force of adductor muscles, trace blood flow and study blood composition, and describe the crystalline structure and chemical composition of shells in mollusks.

Instruments used by Poli, including dissecting tools, microscopes, and tools to measure the contractile force of adductor muscles in clams. Poli, Giuseppe Saverio. Testacea utriusque Siciliae. (1791-1827).

Finally, Testacea utriusque Siciliae was the first work to propose a classification system for mollusks based on soft anatomical characteristics. The predominant classification system of the day was based on the structure of the shells.

External morphology and dissections of the Mediterranean pen shell (Pinna nobilis). Poli, Giuseppe Saverio. Testacea utriusque Siciliae. (1791-1827).

In short, Testacea utriusque Siciliae established molluscan comparative anatomy as a distinct discipline, secured Poli's position as the father of malacology, and provided an essential foundation for the work of future malacologists.

You can view this monumental publication for free in BHL, digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Information for this post based on the essay "At the Dawn of Malacology: The Salient and Silent Oeuvre of Giuseppe Saverio Poli" by Ilya Tëmkin from Natural Histories (2012).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Historic Field Diaries from BHL Australia Now in BHL!

This post was originally published on the Museum Victoria Blog. See the original post here.

By Nicole Kearney
Coordinator | Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia

In November 2014, Museum Victoria started a project to digitize and transcribe the field diaries in our collection. These diaries, handwritten by Australia's early field naturalists long before the days of electronic notetaking, are rich in scientific data and historic detail. They provide insights into past species distribution and abundance, as well as the trials and wonders experienced on historic expeditions.

Afternoon tea with Graham Brown (this diary, volume 4, is now viewable on the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Image: Museum Victoria. Source: Museum Victoria.

They are fascinating sources of information and yet very few people have ever read them. As handwritten documents, each was created as a single hard copy. They have been carefully stored in the museum's archives for decades, protected from dust and light but inaccessible to anyone but the few curators who knew of their existence. Until now.

Rebecca Carland, Museum Victoria's History of Collections Curator, with Graham Brown's field diaries. Image: Nicole Kearney. Source: Museum Victoria.

Over the past nine months we have digitised 24 historic field diaries from our collection and have been steadily uploading them onto DigiVol, the online volunteer transcription portal developed by the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Museum. In DigiVol, the pages can be individually transcribed, with a verification process ensuring the quality of the result.

We are immensely grateful to the volunteers who have contributed their time and attention to transcribing our field diaries. Ten field diaries have been fully transcribed and the volunteers are now working on a diary written by notable ornithologist Frederick Lee Berney between 1898 and 1904. 

The first collection of five field diaries to be run through the digitisation and transcription process was produced by Graham Brown between 1948 and 1958. Now that they have been transcribed, the contents of the diaries can be searched and the data extracted. When analysed, Brown's diaries contained 5611 bird sightings, complete with dates and locations. This historic data will now be made available to scientists and can be used to inform climate change studies and species management plans.

A small fraction of the 5611 bird observations Graham Brown recorded in his diaries. Image: Nicole Kearney. Source: Museum Victoria.

The next step is to make the images of the field diaries available through a publicly accessible website. We have just uploaded four volumes of the Graham Brown field diaries and their transcriptions onto the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we will continue to add more over time. Museum Victoria has already contributed over 500 rare books and historic journals to this global repository of historic literature (through a project funded by the Atlas of Living Australia). We are thrilled that our field diaries are now joining these other significant volumes.

Help us unlock the observations in our historic field diaries
If you would like to become a transcription volunteer, sign up on the DigiVol website.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Tarantupedia, an online encyclopaedia for the biggest spiders in the world

Tarantulas are amazing. Not only do they include the largest of all spiders, with some species reaching a legspan the size of a dinner plate, but they are arguably some of the most beautiful too. While famous for giants that inhabit the jungles of South America, some species barely grow larger than your thumb nail. Some species live on trees in damp forests while others live in self-constructed tubular burrows in the ground in some of the most inhospitable deserts. Some have special protective hairs on their bodies which cause extreme itching when they come into contact with the mucous membranes of potential predators, while others produce a hissing sound in self-defence. While they are the stuff of nightmares for some people, they are the source of absolute fascination for others.

The Tarantupedia is relatively new venture started about three years ago by a tarantula enthusiast in South Africa, Dimitri Kambas. His goal is to produce the authoritative online resource for information on tarantulas. Importantly, his focus is on scientific information, something that stands in stark contrast with the majority of tarantula websites which are centered on keeping tarantulas in captivity. The Tarantupedia is different. You won’t find captive care sheets or guidelines on how to breed a particular species. Instead you will find the kind of the information reminiscent of a detailed scientific publication, but presented in an easy-on-eye, comfortable-to-work-with format intended for scientists and interested members of the general public alike.

Dimitri Kambas, Co-Founder and Editor, The Tarantupedia.

The project began with the construction of a digital taxonomic catalogue, a presentation of tarantula classification linked to information on taxonomic authors and their publications. The Tarantupedia uses modern web technologies, so the data are presented in a dynamic format where the user can view the same information from multiple different perspectives. You may want to know who described a particular species, or how many species a particular author has described. You can get lists of species mentioned in a particular publication, or if you’re interested, you can get a short biography for some of the better known tarantula experts. You can even see where the original type specimen for a particular species was collected, presented neatly on Google Maps.

Tarantula taxonomy had early beginnings, with Linnaeus himself even responsible for the descriptions of one or two species. Developing the Tarantupedia has required investigation of some of the earliest literature, and this is where the Biodiversity Heritage Library has been invaluable. Through the efforts of the BHL, many obscure and largely forgotten taxonomic articles were available for consultation where they were needed. The Tarantupedia links directly to the BHL so users can examine relative literature for themselves at the click of a mouse. Using the BHL API, Tarantupedia finds instances of species names in the articles stored on BHL and creates hyperlinks directly to those article pages where the species names are mentioned. Anyone who has worked with old literature knows how daunting it can be trying to track down old but important works. Thanks to the BHL, not only do you get the relevant literature, but you can go right to the parts of the literature that are of interest to you! This creates a resource that taxonomists can use to find the information they need fast, lowering the barrier to further taxonomic research which is sorely needed for many tarantula taxa.

Tarantupedia record showing links to BHL literature.

If you’re interested to learn more please visit the Tarantupedia at This is an on-going project with a growing base of contributors from around the world and new information is added almost daily. Suggestions for improvements are welcome, as are contributions in the way of photographs, sighting records, and missing literature. With continued support, particularly from other projects like the BHL, the Tarantupedia will become an invaluable resource for anyone interested in these amazing animals.

Enjoy a selection of historic tarantula illustrations from books in the BHL collection on Flickr:

Get the flash player here:

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Arcadia Fund Awards Grant to Support The Field Book Project

The Smithsonian Libraries received a $511,200 grant from the Arcadia Fund for The Field Book Project to provide free, online access to the Smithsonian’s field books on biodiversity research. Over a two-year period, the grant will support the cataloging of 2,000 field books and the digitization of 2,600 field books, which will be made openly available via multiple platforms, including the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The Smithsonian holds thousands of field books documenting the flora, fauna and ecosystems of the world. Launched in 2010, The Field Book Project is a collaboration to improve access to these field notes and other primary source documentation of field research related to biodiversity. As primary sources, field books are not only unique as material objects, but many also contain unique information on species and ecosystems – information that may be unpublished and unavailable through other sources.

Rafinesque, C. S. (Constantine Samuel). Notebook kept by Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818. Made available in BHL as part of The Field Book Project.

The Smithsonian Libraries, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, BHL and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will work closely together to conduct conservation reviews, catalog, digitize and provide open access to the natural history field books at the Smithsonian. “Bringing these works together with the published literature means we can begin to fill some of these information gaps to better understand ecosystem changes and the context behind the research. Such knowledge can empower scientists, regional and national leaders, and others to develop strategies for addressing biodiversity loss,” said Martin Kalfatovic, BHL program director.

Moynihan, M. Cephalopoda (Squid) 1971-1973, 1975-1979, 1981-1982 (1 of 3) Made available in BHL as part of The Field Book Project.

The work of initiatives like The Field Book Project directly relates to the Smithsonian’s grand challenge of broadening access to collections. “Original field notes are often hidden in larger collections of archival material and are difficult to find,” explained Anne Van Camp, director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. “Information contained in field books tells the stories of exploration, discovery and collecting events that have shaped our understanding of the natural world. The notes also provide deep insight into the personal nature of those individuals that first encountered the vast biodiversity across the Earth. Providing access to this information allows researchers to further understand the history of scientific exploration and to relate that past to the present.”

Browse over 500 field books from The Field Book Project in BHL. Stay tuned to our blog for future updates from The Field Book Project.