Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book of the Week: Halloween, Witches, and Cattle

It's almost Halloween, and to celebrate, we wanted to feature a book that properly connoted the Halloween spirit. What did we find? Observations Suggested by the Cattle Plague, About Witchcraft, Credulity, Superstition, Parliamentary Reform, and Other Matters (1866), by H. Strickland Constable. This book is a delightful, tongue-in-cheek discussion of the unconventional cures for ailments and diseases that were popularly accepted during the time period. You might be asking, why is this kind of a book in BHL? The answer: Cattle! The whole discussion around which the book is based relates to a outbreak of Cattle Plague that was sweeping the globe, and Mr. Constable had quite a few things to say about some of the methods employed by citizens attempting to protect their livestock from such a devastating catastrophe.

For our post, we want to concentrate on the first chapter, entitled "Charms-Witchcraft-International Veterinary Congress." Mr. Constable starts by observing that, over the past year, there had been many "valuable precautionary measures" utilized by various cattle ranchers and farmers to protect their livestock from the deadly outbreak of the plague (called Rinderpest). These included "hanging camphor bags or strings of onions round the necks of all healthy animals, painting their noses with tar, etc." Apparently, all such measures had met with "great success!" Mr. Constable points out, however, that he was surprised at the apparent lack of awareness that many people demonstrated regarding similar devices that were used in the past, and this is where things really start to get good.

Since people seemed to be largely unaware of the methods taken over previous centuries to protect against ailment and disease, Mr. Constable makes sure to enlighten us. He facetiously demands, if onions and camphor are already being used, that these alternative methods also "ought at least to have been tried." For instance, there is the use of the word "Abracadabra," which, according to Serenus Sammonicus, is "of the very utmost value in all cases of...fever." And then one must consider the use of precious stones. Camillus Leonardus asserted that emeralds prevent epilepsy and "unmask the delusions of the devil," serpentine cures dropsy ("because if people stand with it in a very hot sun for three hours, they break out into a profuse perspiration"), red coral "strengthens digestion," red cornelian cures dysentery, green jasper prevents fever, and chrysolite "held in the hand cures fever." Mr. Constable asserts that, since Rinderpest is a fever, chrysolite and green jasper should be tied around the cattle's neck.

And, since we're talking about unconventional methods, why not bring witchcraft into the mix? Constable states that the 1489 book of witchcraft, Hexenhammer, "teaches witches how to make magic ointment for the destruction of cattle," which can be applied to cow-house door posts to spread the disease. And, while we're talking about witches, although it has nothing to do with cattle, Constable thought it fitting to bring up the 1669 incident in Sweden in which 62 witches were executed for bewitching children. It seems that, riding on goats, these witches would abduct children and take them to a rock in the sea called Blokula, after which they, the children, and the devil would "feast on cabbage and oatmeal porridge." However, only the older witches were allowed to feast. The younger witches "were set to take care of the toads and keep them in order with long, white sticks." And if that wasn't enough, for his amusement the devil would "make the witches ride on long poles, and then all at once he would pluck away the poles, when down would tumble the witches, to his very great glee."

Constable ends the chapter by discussing, with extreme gusto, the Grand International Veterinary Congress, as recounted by Mr. Gamgee in "The Cattle Plague." It appears that the purpose of this Congress was largely to debate the origin of Rinderpest in German cattle, with some additional mention of scab, pigs, malignant disease in Stallions, and the keeping of dogs. Constable writes, "It is exceedingly entertaining. Such as charming farrago of antiquated ideas about contagion, infection, Government interference, official inspections, police regulations, veterinary supervision, restrictions on traffic, quarantine, inoculation, etc. etc., I could not have believed possible to find extant in any civilized country in this the nineteenth century." The conclusion of the Congress? Rinderpest comes only from Russian cattle, and that "the Russian cattle will impart the disease in any country, at any distance of time after leaving Russia, and without ever having any disease themselves."

So, what does our good Mr. Constable conclude after all of this speculation and discussion? He purports that the ridiculous ideas that people come up with to account for the occurrence of diseases like Rinderpest, and the fact that some individuals contract it while others don't, only occur as a result of people being unwilling to admit that they do not know where the diseases come from or how they work. Men instead prefer to concoct "idle theories" that blame witches and Russian cattle.

There are several more great chapters in this book, including topics such as the origin of Cholera, "erroneous popular notions about disease," utilitarianism, and metaphysics. As you prepare for your Halloween celebrations, maybe you should consider wearing a nice necklace of onion or camphor to protect yourself against all that rampant Rinderpest! Happy Halloween! (And, for your ghoulish Halloween delight, we thought we'd share this lovely image of a spider ensnaring it's prey. See more spider images in our Flickr account).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What's in a Logo? Our Users Speak

Several months ago, we introduced a new BHL logo, and to publicize the event, we published a blog post that detailed the various images that BHL Staff Members saw within the abstract lines of our new logo. At the end of the post, we asked our users to share their interpretations of the logo with us as well. Many of you did, and, as promised, we're sharing those today. We send a special thanks to all of you who shared your thoughts with us, and if our logo inspires other ideas, don't hesitate to share them by commenting on this blog, sending us a tweet (@BioDivLibrary), or posting on our Facebook wall.

1) Water: Two users, Aloysius Horn and an anonymous user, left comments on our previous blog post indicating the logo looked like water/waves to them.

2) Mountains: Via a comment left on a our blog, John told us that our new logo reminded him of mountains.

3) Butterfly Wings: Sanlin replied, via Twitter, that our logo looked like the flapping wings of a butterfly.

4) Humpback Whale Tail: Peter Desmet commented via our previous blog post that our logo is "obviously the tail of a humpback whale disappearing behind the waves."

5) Flower: An anonymous user on our blog suggested that the logo looks like the petals of a flower.

6) Our final suggestion involved our former logo, which contained a double-helix and a butterfly. Matt Person (a BHL staff member at MBL-WHOI) told us via Twitter that, in the new logo, he envisioned "a great double helix about to emerge from the center of the logo with a butterfly darting about the top of it."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book of the Week: Living Sea Mammoths of Myth and Legend

This week, while browsing our Flickr site (which, by the way, has over 15,900 images!), we stumbled across the book Field Book of Giant Fishes (1949), by J.R. Norman and F.C. Fraser, and were intrigued. What exactly was a giant fish by this book's standards, and what would we find when we delved into the pages of this enigmatic title?

To our delight, we found some surprising species featured within this volume. Species that make you think, "Maybe we aren't too far off from the dinosaurs." Some even include creatures that might be responsible for many of the "sea monster" claims sailors have made over the years. Plus, as is always a bonus for us, the descriptions were accompanied by lovely illustrations (by W.P.C. Tenison) of the mighty fish that call our oceans home today. We thought this title offered a great opportunity to showcase some of these aquatic marvels. So, without further ado...

1) Giant Oar-Fish, also known as the King of Herrings. This critter is the world's longest bony fish, reaching up to at least 11 meters (unconfirmed reports of 17 meters exist!) and weighing upwards of 300 kg! Living 300-1000 meters below the ocean's surface, it is a rarely-seen deep sea wonder. Nevertheless, many scientists believe that this colossal beast may be responsible for many of the strange sea monster sightings reported throughout the years.

Despite the scarcity of sightings, there are several documented encounters with this species:
  • On Dec. 10, 2010, a live specimen measuring 4 meters was caught off the Sinaloan coast of Mexico. One of the fisherman who caught it cautioned that "it might be the devil" and "feared it might swallow them."
  • On April 6, 2011, a 3.5 meter Giant Oar-Fish was found off of the east coast of Taiwan. It is believed that the creature surfaced as a result of the tsunami that hit Japan in March. Thus, it was given the nickname "Earthquake Fish."
  • And finally, in 1996, a 7-meter specimen was caught off of the coast of California. Pictured below is a team of Navy SEALs displaying the beast. (Image from pg. 20, All Hands)

2) Blue Whale. So, everyone's familiar with the Blue Whale - the largest animal on the face of the planet, and, for that matter, the largest animal known to have ever existed. (Take that, Dinosaurs!). At 30 meters long and 180 metrics tons, this creature is truly a behemoth. However, despite its size, the Blue Whale's diet consists completely of small crustaceans called krill.

Some very interesting facts about the Blue Whale:
  • It's tongue weighs as much as an elephant (which, incidentally, is the largest living land mammal)
  • When fully expanded, a Blue Whale's mouth is large enough to hold 90 metrics tons of food and water
  • Despite this large mouth, the Whale's throat is so small that it cannot swallow anything larger than a beach ball
  • At birth, Blue Whales weigh 6,000 lbs - the weight of a full-grown hippopotamus - and drink an average of 100 gallons of milk every day
  • Blue Whale calves gain as much as 200 lbs every day
  • A Blue Whale's Heart weighs 1,300 lbs.

3) Narwhal. Although not a mammoth in proportions, this sea critter nevertheless has many links to mythological associations. For obvious reasons, it is known as the "sea unicorn," and Medieval Europeans believed that these "unicorn" horns possessed magical powers, such as the ability to cure poison and melancholia. The Inuit people believe the Narwhal tusk came about when "a women with a harpoon rope tied around her waist was dragged into the ocean after the harpoon had struck a large narwhal. She was transformed into a Narwhal herself, and her hair, which she was wearing in a twisted knot, became the characteristic spiral Narwhal tusk."
  • The Narwhal is most closely related to the Beluga Whale, and together they make up the only two living species of the Monodontidae family
  • Narwhals are a strictly Arctic species, and rarely venture below 65 degrees North latitude
  • The Narwhal's name comes from the Old Norse word "nár," which means "corpse." It was given this name due to its grayish pigmentation, which gave it the appearance of a drowned sailor.
  • A male Narwhal's tusk can grow as long as 3 meters and weigh up to 22 lbs. About 1 in 500 male Narwhals grows a second tusk.
  • In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth was given a carved and bejeweled Narwhal tusk worth £10,000 - the cost of, in those times, an entire castle!
  • The Narwhal is one of two possible explanations for the "giant sea phenomenon" described by Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (The other possibility? A man-made vessel. We like the Narwhal option better!)

We hope you've enjoyed these fun facts about some surprising creatures from the sea. Don't forget that these are only a few of the animals pictured in our book of the week, Field Book of Giant Fishes (1949), by J.R. Norman and F.C. Fraser. The color illustrations from this book can be found on our Flickr site, but there are also dozens of smaller, ink drawings within the actual text, so be sure to check out the book in BHL as well!And remember, it might not be the age of the dinosaurs, but we've still got some mammoths living among us!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

BHL and Our Users: Dr. Francisco Welter-Schultes

This week, we feature one of our colleagues from "across the pond," as we like to say. Meet Dr. Francisco Welter-Schultes, whose many accomplishments include studying mollusks at the University of Goettingen, initiating and running the AnimalBase project, and, last but certainly not least, participating in the BHL-Europe project!

What is your title, institutional affiliation, and area of interest?

I am a biologist interested in terrestrial molluscs of Europe, working in or affiliated to the University of Goettingen, Germany (I have a small office there and sometimes I am also paid...). Like many researchers in the field of taxonomy and species identification, I had to collect a lot of literature to get to know what many others did before I came in. In passing by I became skilled in writing bibliographies and finding literature. In 2003 I initiated the AnimalBase project to scan literature (from Goettingen Library resources) and create a database to link zoological names with their original descriptions.

How long have you been in your field of study?

First systematic fieldwork in 1985; scientifically since 1990.

When did you first discover BHL?

Must have been in 2005 or 2006. It was part of my job to check if literature was already online somewhere else so that we would not need to scan it in the
AnimalBase project. I guess I must have been one of the first regular users of BHL.

What is your opinion of BHL and how has it impacted your research?

My mollusc research became much faster and more efficient since I have been able to check sources online. Not only BHL, also Google Books and other providers, and of course sources provided by
BHL-Europe consortium members including our own content (Goettingen), which we hope will some day be accessible in one big portal. Before 2005 I had to go to the library and order book by book, implying delays of several days between research actions. Today this goes much faster. About 70% of the sources I currently need to verify in my mollusc research are BHL sources. I use Google Books only if BHL does not have the title (or if the title does not show up in my BHL search).

How often do you use BHL?

Practically every day of work.

How do you usually use BHL (read the titles online/download whole PDFs/Select Pages to Download for a custom PDF/etc.)?

I usually read the titles online. I usually know exactly what I am looking for. In most cases it's only checking one or two pages in a title (I know exactly which ones) and then closing the site. The BHL website does not work well on my notebook, and the PDF download function does not work.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL?

A very good default search function - very efficient; I really like it. Page level scrollbox in the online viewer, very useful. Makes my work really quick. I provide links to BHL resources from the
AnimalBase website and appreciate that BHL links to items have been stable from the beginning on. I also appreciate very much that BHL is very rarely offline!

If you could change one thing about BHL, what would it be, or what developmental aspect would you like the BHL team to focus on next?
  • Improving bibliography metadata (journal volume numbers and years) and most important: page-level metadata. Missing plate numbers and Roman pages in the page-level metadata are a big problem. The page-level scrollbox is very important for my work.
  • Online book viewer should be faster; black and white text pages should be shown instead of brown on tan.
  • "Scanning more pages" is too easily said, and such a suggestion would not be a good guide for you. "Filling the gaps in serial runs" would be a more useful approach. Actually this is the contrary of "scanning more pages" because identifying gaps in serial runs and scanning single journal volumes is much more expensive than simple and brainless mass digitisation.
If you had to choose one title/item in BHL that has most impacted your research, or one item that you prefer above any other in BHL, what would it be and why?

There are some titles that I consult repeatedly, which are simply the important monographs of European terrestrial Malacology of the late 1880s (Westerlund 1884-1890 and Pfeiffer's Monographia Heliceorum 1848-1877). Boring for the non-insider. From my experience in researching rare titles I have occasionally found really rare titles in BHL, about which I was
very surprised and happy! They were titles I had found to exist only in very few libraries in the world, and I had not suspected BHL had them. These were real BHL highlights.

Thank you, Dr. Welter-Schultes, for giving us a brief glimpse into your life, work, and relationship with BHL! Improving our page-level metadata is certainly a priority for us, and, slowly but surely, we are making our way through the millions of pages in our collection. If there are specific titles for which you'd like to see the pagination improved, please let us know via our
Feedback Form! Similarly, as we work to fill gaps in our collection, if there are any specific volumes from specific titles that you'd like us to add, please don't hesitate to let us know as well.

To learn more about Dr. Welter-Schultes, visit his website. Be sure to check out the BHL-Europe website as well! We look forward to future collaborations and the opportunity to share our resources with our friends on the continent and around the world!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Image Sizes in BHL. SEE ALSO: Piece of String, Length of.

“How long is a piece of string?” isn’t a familiar idiom to those living in the Midwest of the continental United States. Well, it wasn’t to at least one person living in the Midwest. It’s the answer you’ll get in the BHL AU office to questions like “How long does it take to build a website?” or any other question to which there isn’t a definitive answer for the general case, like “How big is a page image in BHL?”

Of course another way of answering would be “It depends”. To take two completely random examples, this page from Prodromus of the zoology of Victoria is 1828 pixels wide by 2879 pixels high. This page from Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations is 3496 pixels wide by 4785 pixels high.

Now, I’m sure you’ve gotten familiar with BHL’s API while you’ve been putting together your entry for the Life and Literature code challenge. I know you’re working hard on your entry, ‘cause it’s what all the other cool kids are doing.

You don’t need me to tell you that when you use the API to get an item’s metadata with the page flag set to true, you get a url for a thumbnail image and an url for the full size of each page. Which is fantastic, if you want an image that will fit into a 200px by 300px box, or an IOUS (image of unusual size). What if you want an images that will fit into a 600px by 800px box? Do you get the thumbnail and scale it up? Yes, but only if you’re doing it in a bad police procedural that creates image information from nowhere. In the real world, you need to get the full size image and downsize it. Until now.

Now you can get your Astacoides serratus at a range of sizes to suit your budget. Simply add the width and height of your bounding box at the end of the thumbnail image url, and Bob's your uncle. So, if you want an image to fit into a 600px by 800px box, instead of using the thumbnail url as is (, use,600,800 and you’ll get back an image that’s exactly 914px by 1440px.

Okay, I know that a 914px by 1440px image doesn’t fit into a 600px by 800px box. You’re still going to have to scale the image down to 508px by 800px to fit, but at least you only have to download a third of the information compared to the full size image (148kB vs 436kB). So why aren't we providing an image of A. serratus at 508px by 800px?

Rather than have the server scale the full size image for each request, images are available at fixed fractions of the original dimensions. The fractions available are a half, a quarter, an eighth and a 16th. Those are fractions of the width and height, so each step down has only a quarter as many pixels as the one before.

The server will give you the smallest image available that won’t need to be scaled up to fit within your bounds. So, using our old mate A. serratus as the example, if you specified a bounding box of 915px x 1441px, you'd get the full size image at 1828px x 2879px. If you don’t provide a width and height, the assumed size of the bounding box is 200px by 300px.

I’ve got to be honest, while all the links point to the Australian node, the heavy lifting for this was done by the good folks at You can replace with and get exactly the same results.

Have fun playing with the images, and I look forward to seeing how you put it to good use.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book of the Week: Bridging the Gap Between Science & Art

By this point, if you've been following our "Books of the Week" regularly, you know that 18th, 19th, and 20th century taxonomic works weren't just about the nomenclature they presented, but also the stunning illustrations accompanying these species descriptions. Those books with the most colorful, the most visually dynamic, images are those that we tend to gravitate towards for our posts. So, when we came across a book that has been described as "bridging the gap between science and art," we simply had to feature it. That book, perhaps one of the most visually-compelling that we've yet featured, is Kunstformen der Natur (1904), by Ernst Haeckel.

Over the course of his career, Haeckel, a German biologist, described and named thousands of new species, popularized the work of Charles Darwin in Germany, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and produced dozens of glorious illustrations. In his lifetime alone, over 1000 prints were made of Haeckel's sketches, 100 of which are found within Kunstformen der Natur. These 100 prints were translated from sketch to lithograph by artist Adolf Giltsch.

Cnidaria, which include sea anemones, jellyfish, and coral, as well as Radiolarians, which are protozoan zooplankton, are some of the most abundant species illustrated within this work. The book was originally published as ten sets from 1899-1904, and was then re-published as a complete work in 1904. Haeckel scholar Olaf Breidbach eloquently wrote that this title is "not just a book of illustrations but also the summation of [Haeckel's] view of the world."

What was to us perhaps the most impressive aspect of the images in Kunstformen der Natur was not simply the radiant colors and depth of realism within the creatures depicted, but the way in which each plate was composed, symmetrically balancing each inch of space and arranging each organism artistically beside or around the others so as to not only catch the viewer's eye, but dynamically draw him in and keep him constantly engaged. Never before or since has plankton been portrayed with such charm and beauty.

While we cannot feature all 100 of the illustrations within this work in this post, we can at least highlight some of our favorites. And, thanks to the BHL Flickr account, which now has over 13,000 images, you can see all of the remaining illustrations displayed for you on one convenient canvas. We hope that you'll find this title as richly rewarding as we did.