Thursday, October 23, 2014

BHL Adds the National Library Board, Singapore as a New Member

Oriental Scops Owl, a species found in South Asia, including Singapore. A History of the Birds of Ceylon. v. 1.
BHL is pleased to welcome the National Library Board, Singapore as a new member in BHL Central and simultaneously as BHL-Singapore, the newest node in Global BHL. The 16th member of the BHL Central consortium, BHL Singapore will help identify and digitize historical science literature from its collections and add these to the BHL’s online holdings, where all materials may be accessed free by the public.

“The Biodiversity Heritage Library is the preeminent global repository for historic science literature,” said Martin Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director and Associate Director for Digital Services at the Smithsonian Libraries. “We are pleased to welcome our first BHL member outside of our original United States and United Kingdom circle. Singapore’s importance as a regional coordinator for biodiversity research will directly expand the reach of BHL in this area of the world.”

BHL is a consortium of major natural history, botanical and research libraries. BHL’s goal is to contribute to the global “biodiversity commons” by digitizing and aggregating the resources housed within each of the participating institutions, providing free and open access to the legacy literature that underpins the work of the natural science community.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library also serves as the literature digitization component of the Encyclopedia of Life, a global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants and other forms of life on earth.

To explore the Biodiversity Heritage Library, visit

BHL now comprises 16 member and 5 affiliate institutions. View the list of our current members and affiliates here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

National Agricultural Library (NAL) Joins BHL!

We are pleased to announce that the USDA National Agricultural Library (NAL) has joined the Biodiversity Heritage Library as a BHL Affiliate. BHL has already ingested over 845,000 pages of NAL-digitized content made openly available within the Internet Archive. This formal partnership will allow us to strengthen our collection of agricultural-related content through direct collaboration with NAL.

The National Agricultural Library (NAL) comprises one of the largest collections of materials devoted to agriculture in the world. Collection concentrations include the fields of agriculture, forestry, horticulture, entomology, poultry science, animal science, nutrition, botany, natural history and agricultural history. By statute, NAL is the primary depository of publications and information concerning the research and other activities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As of October 2014, the total number of individual items in the NAL collection is 8.1 million. This includes a wide variety of formats such as books, journals, audiovisuals, motion pictures, photographs, posters, maps, manuscripts (papers of individuals and organizations), and objects. A large portion of this significant collection is held nowhere else in the world and constitutes a true national treasure.

Illustrated Hand-Book: Rawson's Vegetable and Flower Seeds. 1894. An image from just one of the 1000s of seed catalogs that NAL and other BHL partner libraries have digitized for BHL.
The National Agricultural Library is committed to digitization both as a method to increase access and to prolong the life of the increasingly fragile print originals. NAL is actively digitizing historic USDA and other high demand, public domain items from its collection. Many of these items, both serial and monograph, fit within the scope of BHL, and, when the subject area is appropriate, the digital copies will be added to our collection. For example, NAL is currently digitizing non-USDA seed catalogs in cooperation with other BHL members for inclusion in BHL.

“Our approach is not to think of these activities as small discrete projects but rather as a long journey of digitization that will take many years,” explained Christopher Cole, Business Development Manager at the National Agricultural Library and NAL representative to BHL. “The BHL provides a venue for NAL to work with other institutions to pool our digital collections and enables us to cast a wider net and reach more users.”

NAL represents BHL’s fifth affiliate institution. BHL Affiliates are institutions or organizations that wish to participate in BHL outside of the membership dues-paying structure. Affiliates can contribute content, provide technical services, and participate in BHL committees, task forces, and working groups.

In addition to its affiliates, BHL currently consists of 16 member libraries. BHL Members may contribute content to BHL, participate in appropriate groups and committees, provide technical services, contribute financial support, vote on strategic directives, and generally help govern the BHL program. Visit BHL to learn more about BHL Members and Affiliates.

We are excited to welcome the National Agricultural Library to the BHL family and look forward to the valuable contributions they will make to our library. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive updates about BHL Member and Affiliate contributions and events.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Field Book Project: Increasing Access to Researchers' Fieldbooks

American Archives Month celebrates the importance of archives and the work of archivists as they seek to collect, organize, and make accessible unique materials from our nation’s history. The Smithsonian Field Book Project is an exciting example of such work, an effort across SI departments and divisions to increase accessibility to field book content. Field books are important because they are the primary source records of flora, fauna, and ecosystem biodiversity research. They hold the first observations, thoughts, and reflections of scientific researchers when they venture out to observe, document, and collect specimens of the natural world.

A field book can contain everything from grass specimens to weather observations to recipes for native foods, and at the Smithsonian, document almost 200 years of history, going back to 1815! Field books not only provide invaluable access to species and habitat data, but also contain surprising insights and observations into the history of science and history in general – see Edward Chapin’s mention of the Panama Disease in banana plantations in Jamaica in 1941, for example, or Leonard Shultz’s observations during the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1952, or Devra Kleiman’s notes on how financial instability in Brazil in 1990 was affecting her project to save the Golden Lion Tamarin from extinction (she was successful!).

Rafinesque, C. S. Notebook kept by Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818.

The first part of the Field Book Project focused on discovering, documenting, and preserving these invaluable records, using customized cataloging and description standards to better suit materials that are not just historical, but that also function as museum and library reference materials for present-day researchers. Catalog records for the field books have been created and made available on several public, online platforms (such as Smithsonian Collections Search Center) in order to engage with as wide an audience as possible. Thus, field books that might have been previously scattered, stored amidst other materials, and unknown to any but those in their department can now be found and used by researchers across and beyond the Smithsonian Institution.

The next phase of the Project will focus on continuing to discover, catalog, and preserve Smithsonian field books, while expanding the goal of digitization and online availability. A selection of field books (2600) will be digitized using dedicated scanning equipment, and the fully digitized records will be published to both the Smithsonian Collections Search Center website and to the Biodiversity Heritage Library web portal. The renewed focus on not just discovery, but also digitization stems from the potential for connection that these field books represent. In many cases, we’ve found that our field books relate to field books and specimen collections of other museums and research institutions across the country, and even internationally!

Moynihan, Martin. Gull Notes, 1955-56. Fieldbook from The Field Book Project in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

We’ve seen new and expanded uses of our digitized field books that make us excited to provide more opportunities to the community of researchers. The Project has contributed many of the digitized field books to the Smithsonian Transcription Center. These resources have inspired the interest of our “volunpeers” who have not only described content for machine-readability and full-text searching, but have also discovered new information in the field books that the project team can use to enrich the catalog records. Now, we are even using the documentation and guidelines from this project to help support the creation and ongoing work of similar projects at Smithsonian and Biodiversity Heritage Library partner institutions.

The more field books and similar collections we can help make discoverable, the more we can connect the content to related research, and the more we contribute to ongoing projects in both the scientific and humanities fields. The Smithsonian Field Book Project is an exciting and ongoing example of how archivists help to find, preserve, and make available fascinating historical materials that still retain great importance for present-day scientific and historical research.

Silberglied, Robert E. Field notes, Mexico, July-August, 1965.

If you are interested in learning more about the project or in reading some of the transcribed content – or even in transcribing some yourself! – please visit the project website or our collection in the Smithsonian Transcription Center and see what you can do to help make field books, unique and invaluable archival, library, and museum resources, increasingly available and discoverable to the wider public.

Julia Blase
Project Manager, The Field Book Project 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Art of Science at Museum Victoria & in BHL!

This post originally published on the Museum Victoria blog to welcome the "Art of Science" exhibit to the museum and introduce audiences to BHL. Explore the latest BHL Australia developments in this past post. See the Museum Victoria collection in BHL here

The Art of Science exhibition presents the finest examples from Museum Victoria's remarkable collection of natural history artworks. These include rare books from the 18th and 19th centuries, field sketches from early colonial exploration of Australia's wildlife, and contemporary scientific photographs.

The books on display contain some of the most beautiful and significant illustrations of flora and fauna ever produced. The exhibition's curators must have had a torturous task selecting which page from each book to display. Because that's all they could display – a single double page spread from each precious volume.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, illustrated by Elizabeth Gould for John Gould's A synopsis of the birds of Australia, and the adjacent islands, 1st edition, London, 1837-38, on display at Melbourne Museum. The entire book can now be viewed online.
Image: Nicole Kearney
Source: Museum Victoria

The Art of Science has only just opened at the Melbourne Museum. Before coming home, it toured Mornington, Ballarat, Adelaide, Mildura, Sale and Sydney. Visitors to the traveling exhibition were awed by the stunning illustrations, but they were also a little frustrated. They wanted to turn those beautiful pages. They wanted to see more.

Wombat, from An account of the English colony in New South Wales, from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, David Collins, 1804. The entire book can now be viewed online.
Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library

And so, before the books went on display for this final time, we asked the exhibition's curators if we could borrow them. Each page of every book was carefully photographed and the images color matched to the originals. This work was meticulously performed by a group of dedicated museum volunteers, supervised by Museum Victoria's library staff.

Ground Parrot, illustrated by James Sowerby, for George Shaw's Zoology of New Holland, volume 1, 1st edition, London, 1794. The entire book can now be viewed online.
Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library

We then uploaded the scanned volumes into the world's largest online repository of biodiversity literature and archival materials – the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). BHL is a global consortium of natural history libraries working together to make biodiversity literature freely and openly available to everyone.

Museum Victoria coordinates the Australian component of this giant online library, and we are thrilled that the books displayed in The Art of Science exhibition are now part of it.

So if you too would like to turn those tantalizing pages, now you can (whether you're in Melbourne, or not):
Nicole Kearney
BHL Australia Project Coordinator

Thursday, October 16, 2014

BHL is Back

Access to the BHL website has been restored! Thank you for your patience, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Down the rabbit (Lepus curpaeums) hole: Edward A. Chapin

This post is a guest submission from Julia Blase, Project Manager for The Field Book Project. Learn more about the project here.

Last week, with the arrival of many more of the field books to the Biodiversity Heritage Library web portal, I had the chance to dive deeply into the field books of Edward Chapin, entomologist and Curator of Insects at the Smithsonian Institution from 1934 to 1954. I spent the most time in his field book covering a set of travels to Cuba and Jamaica, though mostly Jamaica, in 1937 and 1941. It was a fascinating adventure “down the rabbit hole” into another era of history!

The beetles, bad weather, and endless driving 

Entry from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cube and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, [1947]." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.
Several things struck me almost as soon as I began reading, the first of which was how closely Chapin’s descriptions of the insect life of the islands were wrapped with his observations of the weather, travel conditions, car problems, dinner menus, host families and housing arrangements, and even clothing purchases. A set of observations on insect collecting might be as short as a sentence or as long as a page, depending on what caught his attention that day. The second item that struck me was how frustrating these kinds of expeditions could be! Not only Chapin deal with the usual traveler’s woes of lost luggage and poor weather, but he also faced challenges unique to the scientist – the difficulty in finding many types of insects, or one insect in many life stages, or in finding relevant insects at all. It seemed that Chapin sometimes spent days driving from one end of the island to the other, looking for abandoned homes, downed trees, fence posts and post holes, and such beetle- and termite-friendly places to explore, and often finding nothing. However, on other days he was so overwhelmed with his findings that the problem became locating additional jars to hold them all!

Sugar factories, banana plantations, and Panama Disease 

I also went further down the field book “rabbit hole” with items that Chapin mentioned seemingly offhand. For instance, in one of his entries, he described his visit to a sugar factory and detailed the process by which cane became sucrose and molasses, which I found fascinating. He followed that entry with one describing the tour of the banana plantations on the island, and how the banana carriers (those who took bunches from the rows of plants to spots along the road where they would be loaded into trucks) received only “three shillings a hundred bunches. The work is hard as it means tramping through mud six or eight inches deep for fifty yards or so with about 150 lbs balanced on the head.” I immediately looked online for a recording of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and began to read about its history as a Jamaican folk song – the song seems so lighthearted, compared to the work it describes. I can hardly imagine the kind of daily labor that the banana carriers endured.

Chapin even made a brief mention of Panama Disease affecting the banana plants on the island – I did a bit of research and discovered that another strain of Panama Disease is the current cause of problems with the Cavendish banana that we all enjoy at our local grocery stores. “Race 1” of the disease was the cause of the epidemic in the 1950’s that wiped out the previously farmed Gros Michel banana. Chapin’s 1941 journal was recording the disease almost 10 years before it became a widespread problem!

New Seville and Christopher Columbus 

I fell into more research when Chapin mentioned a visit to Seville, which was

“now a large coconut walk but originally the site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral (1505). The foundations have been cleared and in the center of the floor there is a hole about six feet across and ten feet deep, carefully walled with brick, from which a passage leads away to the west. In this passage we found a dozen pieces of very beautifully carved stone, probably the remains of the altar. One piece has the coat-of-arms of the Bishop of Seville, the others are mostly angels and cherubims.” 

I did a quick search for “Seville, Jamaica” and found a UNESCO world heritage website for “New Seville,” which hosted Christopher Columbus in the late 1490s and did indeed feature a Roman Catholic church of “Peter Martyr, the first abbot of Jamaica, having begun in 1525.” Someone’s dates are off…I’m inclined to think that Chapin was misled in thinking the church was from 1505, but who knows? At least I learned more about the history of Columbus’ voyages in the new world, and just in time for Columbus Day (October 13th).

WWII Internment Camps 

Entry from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cube and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, [1947]." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.
One more historical mention led me to another fifteen minutes or so of research – Chapin’s off-hand mention that the husband in one of the families he met on the island was “at present serving at the internment camp as a guard.” The history I knew of U.S. internment camps during WWII only covered the Japanese-American internment camps in the West. I had no idea that there were internment camps in Jamaica. Who did they hold? A quick search revealed that not only were there internment camps on the islands, but that they held both plantation owners who were of German descent and thus “possibly” sympathizers, as well as the German POW’s from U-boats taken in the Atlantic (see also the one-sentence mention of the German POW barracks in Up Park Camp on this page).

The mongoose and the dolphins 

And finally, there were two mentions of animals that I found fascinating. The first was a mention of the mongoose, an invasive species introduced to the islands to prey on the rats that destroyed large amounts of sugar cane. As in many other places, the non-native species proved far more destructive than imagined and became more of a problem than the rats themselves even in 1941. The mongoose lives on the islands to this day, and has contributed to the possible extinction of at least four native species. And second, a mention by Chapin of his journey home, where he was off the coast of Cape Hatteras and recorded being

“in the midst of the herd of bottlenosed dolphins headed north on their annual migration. As far as one can see, in every direction, there are thousands of dolphins moving steadily northward. On either side of the bow, our boat is convoyed by groups of from three to ten animals…we first sighted them at four in the afternoon and they were still with us at dark.” 

Today herds of dolphins are recorded as numbering only in the hundreds during their winter migration – nevertheless, what a lovely image with which to conclude my research adventures in the field notebooks of Edward A. Chapin, entomologist, traveler, and recorder of both scientific and humanist history.

For more information 

For more information about Edward Chapin, and to see the full records for his field books held at the Smithsonian Institution, please see his records in the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

As of this blog post, three field books by Edward Chapin have been fully digitized and are available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library site.

Each of the three field books in BHL has been fully transcribed by volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center. You can find them at the following three links: Cuba and Jamaica, Colombia, Chile.

Letter from Edward A. Chapin's "Field notebook, Cube and Jamaica, 1937, 1941, [1947]." Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA Acc. 11-085, Box 1, Folder 1.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Exploring the Rich History of Plant Science

Drawings of a grapevine stem showing the transport vessels, from Nehemiah Grew's The Anatomy of Plants (1682).
In 1682, the first known microscopic depiction of pollen appeared in Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants. Grew, now known as the “Father of Plant Anatomy,” revolutionized botanical science with his studies of plant structure. Exploiting the power of the microscope, he outlined key morphological differences in plant stems and roots and proposed the hypothesis that stamens are a plant’s male reproductive organs.

Science has progressed significantly since the 17th century. Microscopes are no longer novel but commonplace, and scientists occupy their minds with theories about dark matter and quarks. Yet despite the centuries that have elapsed, today’s advances are founded squarely on the discoveries of these bygone eras. Likewise, modern theories often cause us to re-examine assumptions from the past.

Dr. Mary Williams is particularly drawn to this interplay between historic and modern scientific study, specifically in the field of botany. Dr. Williams has been studying and educating people about plants since she began her PhD in Plant Molecular Biology 30 years ago. Serving as a professor at Harvey Mudd College from 1995-2009, Dr. Williams is now a Features Editor for the American Society of Plant Biologists, writing a series of educational articles about plant biology called “Teaching Tools in Plant Biology.” The series connects advanced undergraduate students to current research in plant sciences through textbook-style review articles, diagrams and images.

Mary Williams demonstrating the size of giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). 

A comprehensive biological education is not just about current research, however. “Educating students about science involves more than teaching them our current models,” explains Dr. Williams. “We also have to help them learn to synthesize information and develop their own models. One way to do this is by asking them to examine how our ideas and understanding have changed with time. As an example, students can read Vegetable Staticks published in 1727 by Stephen Hales, who is considered one of the pioneers of plant physiology. This book is an account of his studies of water transport in plants. In spite of having only simple tools he made key discoveries and developed models that are still useful.”

Investigations into the forces and nature of xylem sap, from "Vegetable Staticks," published in 1727 by Stephen Hales

BHL has become an important resource for satisfying Dr. Williams’ need for historic botanical literature. Some serendipitous Google searching in 2012 brought her to several digitized classics in the BHL collection, which has since transformed into monthly searches for materials. BHL’s Twitter account, @BioDivLibrary, has also proven helpful for uncovering hidden gems in the collection. Dr. Williams includes links to relevant material and images in her teaching articles.

“BHL makes great scientific works available for students to explore,” lauds Williams. “It can be both fascinating and challenging to see how early scientists conducted experiments and described their results. I particularly like to direct students to “The Power of Movement in Plants”, written by Charles Darwin and his son Francis. Reading it reveals how these exceptional scientists first observe a phenomenon and then set out to understand it. Their investigations of phototropic movement of Phalaris canariensis are brilliant studies that set the stage for the discovery of the plant hormone auxin.”

Providing access to historic literature isn’t the only thing that makes BHL an important resource for Dr. Williams. The diversity and openness of the collection are equally important. “I wrote an article about medicinal plants and was able to draw on BHL for access to dozens of books from across the world and across the ages. Also, the fact that many of the resources are in the public domain makes them easier to share.”

The ability to see the primary sources as they were originally published is another of Williams’ favorite BHL qualities. “Although it would be possible to learn from a transcribed document, somehow seeing the original publications with the old type and especially the old drawings has so much more impact and makes me feel connected to the writers across the centuries.”

Drawings of a grapevine stem and leaf showing the transport vessels, from Nehemiah Grew's The Anatomy of Plants (1682)
Her one complaint? “It would be nice if it were easier to search within a book (although I do enjoy scrolling and browsing).” Improved search is a component of the Mining Biodiversity, Digging Into Data project that BHL is currently engaged in. Deliverables will include enhanced search functionality incorporating text mining, semantic metadata, and result visualizations.

So, which books would a botanical educator choose as her favorite within a collection of more than 150,000 volumes? “It would have to be the two important plant anatomy books from the 17th century, Marcello Malpighi’s Anatome Plantarum (1675) and Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682),” asserts Williams. “The detail and observational quality of the drawings is fantastic. Because of their simplicity in some ways these centuries-old line drawings are clearer and easier to comprehend than an image taken today using a powerful microscope. When I look at these books I am struck by the power of the giants whose shoulders we stand on.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Thank you, Dr. Williams, for taking the time to tell us how BHL has impacted your work. Do you use BHL regularly? Tell us about it by writing to