Thursday, December 22, 2011

Celebrating the Life and Contributions of Charles Davies Sherborn

On October 28, 2011, the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature), in collaboration with the Society for the History of Natural History and others, hosted a symposium at the Natural History Museum, London, "Anchoring Biodiversity Information: From Sherborn to the 21st century and beyond,” honoring the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Davies Sherborn. Sherborn, 1861-1942, played a critical role in the biodiversity world by being the first to successfully index every living or extinct animal discovered and documented between 1758 and 1850. His greatest work, Index Animalium, took over 43 years to complete but is still referred to by taxonomist around the world. The one-day event, held at the Flett Theatre at the Natural History Museum, London, celebrated the incredible achievements of Sherborn and the ramifications for taxonomic research yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Several BHL-affiliated staff members presented at the symposium, including BHL Technical Director Chris Freeland and Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ (SIL) staff member and BHL metadata guru Suzanne Pilsk. SIL staff members Grace Costantino (Digital Collections Librarian for BHL) and Leslie Overstreet (Curator of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library at SIL, from which many BHL rare books have been scanned) also presented a poster at the event.

Chris Freeland’s presentation (pictured above) at the symposium, entitled “Approaches to preserving digitized taxonomic data: prints, manuscripts, specimens,” addressed methodologies for responsible curation of digitized prints, manuscripts, and specimens, and outlined best practices for safeguarding digitized taxonomic data to ensure longevity of resources. Such discussions are timely, as the availability of digitized taxonomic data has increased dramatically over the past twenty years as a result of increased support from national funding agencies and the declining cost of scanning devices. As such, natural history museums and libraries have taken on new responsibilities for managing electronic information as ways of providing enhanced opportunities for educational outreach and scholarly dissemination. Museums and libraries have to consider how best to create and care for electronic resources given a volatile technology landscape with rapidly changing file formats and display devices.

SIL’s Suzanne Pilsk explained the role Smithsonian Libraries has played in bringing the critical work Index Animalium out of the library and off the page with a talk titled “Unlocking the Index Animalium: From paper slips to bytes and bits” (pictured above). Pilsk represented the work done to date by SIL staff, interns and volunteers to create an online version of the work. Smithsonian Libraries’ goal was to provide better access to the Index than was previously available and connect the researcher to the level of information needed. Over the span of years, staff has evolved the project from the initial vision of discovering where the text was located within the library walls, to linking to the scanned text via BHL.

Finally, the poster presented by Grace Costantino and Leslie Overstreet, entitled “Online Synergy: Sherborn’s Index Animalium and the Biodiversity Heritage Library,” delved into the link between SIL’s online version of Index Animalium and the digitized volumes within BHL. SIL’s online version of the Index Animalium allows researchers to search the entire multi-volume work by name, epithet, or other keyword. With the citation thus provided, researchers can then access the cited text itself on BHL, finding not only the species citation but, in many cases, remarkable illustrations as well.

The talks and posters from the symposium can be viewed here, and to find out more about the incredible life of Charles Davies Sherborn, take a look at the feature on him and the symposium in The Telegraph. You can also view photos from the event on Flickr.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BHL and Our Users: Gil Taylor

Ever wondered how BHL decides what to scan? There are a variety of avenues that staff use to select titles for digitization, including scan requests submitted by users, BHL member publications and subject strengths, botany and zoology priority titles, in-copyright titles for which BHL has received permission to scan, and titles identified by BHL staff members as important biodiversity works. To accomplish the latter, the librarians at various BHL institutions play a key role. Their expertise and interaction with library patrons ideally situates them to inform collection development for the BHL project.

This week, we feature one of these individuals, Gil Taylor, librarian at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. He regularly uses day-to-day work within the library and conversations with patrons to suggest important works for BHL to digitize, and his enthusiasm for and promotion of the project ensures that anyone coming into contact with the Smithsonian Libraries is made aware of the wealth of information available within the BHL collection.

What is your title and institutional affiliation?
I’m assistant department head at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Natural and Physical Sciences department. Recently I have been overseeing the Entomology and Invertebrate Zoology (IZ) libraries at the NMNH, along with Museum Support Center Library, in Suitland, MD. I have been at the SIL since 1990.
How long have you been working in a library environment?
Nearly 30 years. Before coming to SIL, I worked full time in a number of libraries and technical services at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I also received my MLS in 1989. I came aboard in the library world just as the OPAC was superseding the card catalog, and to me it was particularly interesting, especially as you could access the catalog remotely. I felt like I was cutting-edge back in the 1980’s as I was the only one in my library school cataloging class who typed up sample cards using an Apple II and a dot matrix printer instead of using a typewriter.
When did you first discover BHL?
I feel as if I witnessed its birth, as it grew out of SIL’s Biologia Centrali-Americana project.
What is your current level of involvement in BHL?
I serve on SIL’s BHL Task Force and try to identify needs BHL can fill for our researchers. I was very happy to be on board with BHL as the Entomology and IZ Libraries here were among the first SIL libraries to be “harvested” for BHL. But, I primarily I see myself as a BHL evangelist, taking every opportunity to expound on what a great, quality non-profit effort It is. I believe it’s utterly central to the librarian ethos to make every effort to share the knowledge you’re charged with curating.
What is your opinion of BHL and what impact has it had on your duties as a librarian?
From a front-line reference librarian perspective, it has been a real boon. Our staff members sometimes take particular delight in responding to ILL queries for our materials by pointing to their availability in BHL. Not having to painstakingly copy materials, sometimes from old volumes with fragile bindings, is a huge time-saver.
How often do you use BHL?
When doing reference work, almost every day.
What has been the reaction of your patrons to BHL?
I remember the initial skepticism from staff and users that the image quality of scans would not be good enough for serious taxonomic identification work. When users know they have access to original scans in a very lossless format, I have rarely come across a patron who was dissatisfied with what they have downloaded from BHL. For older curators and volunteers, their first time in utilizing BHL can seem almost magical in its instant gratification.
What services/features do you like most about BHL and which do you most like to point out to your patrons? Which services/features are your patrons most excited about/use the most often?
There is no one specific feature that I point out routinely, but I emphasize to patrons that because BHL is nearly a grass-roots effort, all suggestions and feedback for its improvement are taken seriously and can really make a difference. We can clearly see this, for example, as BHL continually tweaks its UI. Compare this to attempting to get the attention of a vast information services conglomerate.
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?
I think some work needs to be done on correcting OCR, as this can be a problem when exporting content to mobile platforms. One researcher here recently inquired about how to access BHL content on an iPad while he is in a deep-sea submersible.
I think I (and others) would like to have the ability to upload a list of citations from a researcher and have BHL automatically link to corresponding content. This seems almost like a science fiction fantasy for a librarian, but I think it is within the reach of developers.
The BLE virtual exhibition of BHL content that BHL-Europe is experimenting with seems like a terrific way to package and serve content in literally spicy, creative ways. This is the customized library subject guide of the future.
As I also answer or direct public e-mail queries at SIL, I see a lot of requests for images. Further indexing of images through pattern recognition, etc. could dramatically widen the BHL’s audience.
Is there a specific item on BHL that is most often requested by your patrons/that you use more than any other to fulfill ILL requests?
For the public, but also from SI researchers, the mostly 19th century, legacy Smithsonian-published materials (annual reports/bulletins of the USNM, Bureau of Ethnology, etc.) are particularly popular.
Thank you, Gil, for all the work you do for BHL and for the critical contributions you make to the development and dissemination of the project. And we send a special thanks to all our librarian colleagues who make BHL run like such a well-oiled machine!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book of the Week: Big Cats Week!

This week is Big Cats Week, and to celebrate we're featuring a book in our collection that has some of the loveliest engravings of these majestic felines that we've ever seen. The book, Engravings of Lions, Tigers, Panthers, Leopards, Dogs, etc. (1853), by Thomas Landseer, contains 39 plates. The first twenty - of lions, tigers, panthers, and leopards - are engravings by Thomas Landseer after original works by Stubbs, Rubens, Spilsbury, Rembrant, Reydinger, and Edwin Landseer.

We hope you enjoy these marvelous works, and for each of the species depicted, we've included some interesting facts and links to the animals in EOL, where you can learn even more about them. Be sure to check out Big Cats Week on the National Geographic website, and you can follow the discussion on twitter (BHL account - @BioDivLibrary) with the hashtag #bigcatsweek. And remember, you can see all of the illustrations from this work on our Flickr account.

  • Second largest living cat
  • The tallest of all living cats
  • Until about 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread mammal after humans, with ranges including Africa, Europe, Asia and even the Americas
  • Usually, eight subspecies of lions are recognized
  • Lions can be bred with tigers, leopards, and panthers, producing, respectively, ligers, leopons, and jaglions
  • The only member of the cat family to display obvious sexual dimorphism (with the manes on males)


  • The largest of all cat species
  • The longest canine teeth among living felids
  • Six living recognized subspecies
  • The subspecies of tigers are the most varied in size of any cat species. The Siberian, Bengal and Caspian are the largest living felids and some of the largest to ever live. While males of these varieties can weigh between 600-670 pounds, the smallest tiger subspecies, the Sumatran, weighs only 170-310 pounds.
  • The South China Tiger subspecies is listed as one of the 10 most critically endangered animals in the world, and indeed may already be extinct in the wild.

Panther (Jaguar or Cougar)

  • The panther may refer to the leopard in Africa and Asia, the cougar in North America, or the jaguar in Central and South America.
  • The jaguar resembles the leopard physically but is larger
  • The jaguar has an exceptionally powerful bite, crushing the skulls of prey to deliver a "death-bite" to the brain
  • The mountain lion, cougar, or puma, native to the Americas, has the largest range of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere
  • The cougar is closer genetically to the domestic cat than true lions


  • The smallest of the four big cats (lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard)
  • It is chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa, though small populations can be found in Asia
  • Both leopards and jaguars that are completely black are known as black panthers
  • There are nine recognized subspecies of leopards
  • The Amur Leopard, one of the nine subspecies, is considered one of the rarest felids in the world, with only approximately 30-35 individuals in the wild
  • The Arabian Leopard is the smallest leopard subspecies
  • The Persian Leopard is the largest leopard subspecies

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Support BHL this Holiday Season

It's December, and the holiday season is upon us! Neighborhoods are basking in a many-colored glow cast by light strands hung by the mile, stores have stocked their shelves with every gift and festive item imaginable, and a general atmosphere of good cheer hangs in the air. As you think about buying gifts for your loved ones this season, consider giving a gift to BHL as well.

To date, we've scanned over 36 million pages for BHL, but that scanning doesn't happen by magic. It takes dozens of dedicated staff members and generous financial resources provided by grants, endowments, and donations contributed by the public. We believe in the work we do, and the success of our donations button and the continuous praise we receive for BHL shows us that you do too!

We have a dream to digitize all available taxonomic literature and make it freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. During an era in world history where three-quarters of climate change is manmade, it is vital that the critical knowledge held within the legacy literature be made available to scientists, researchers, conservationists, and the public at large so that we can make intelligent decisions to save global biodiversity for generations to come. Without the generous support of grants and donations, this dream will be very difficult to realize.

So, as you brave the malls, overcrowded parking lots, and perhaps over-zealous shoppers, keep BHL in your thoughts. Making a donation to BHL is much simpler than tackling the challenges of department store shopping. All you have to do is click on the "Donate" button located at the top of the BHL website. All donations are tax-deductible, and the easy donation interface allows your to contribute any amount you desire. No gift is too small, and all will contribute to the strengthening and expanding of BHL. Learn more about the BHL donate button in our previous blog post.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Book of the Week: Welcome to the Orchid Family, Bulbophyllum nocturnum!

While there are many species of plants that flower at night, and among those are many orchids, scientists researching in New Britain just discovered the only orchid species that flowers exclusively at night. Meet Bulbophyllum nocturnum, discovered by Ed de Vogel during a field trip to the lowland rainforest of the island, which is located near Papua New Guinea.

Dr. de Vogel, after taking a specimen of the plant home to the Netherlands with him, discovered that it only flowers a few hours after dusk and closes a few hours after sunrise. While this is a remarkable discovery, the purpose for the flower's nocturnal preference remains a mystery. According to Andre Schuiteman, a co-author of the paper detailing the find, which was published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, "related species are pollinated by tiny flies that think they are visiting fungi," with the smell and physical appearance of the flower appearing like fungus in the eyes of the insect. The insects visit the flower searching for a place to lay their eggs and unwittingly pollinate it. There is a strong possibility that a night-foraging fly species may thus be the pollinator of B. nocturnum and the reason for its unique behavior.

The authors of the paper stipulate that it will take much more research before some of the questions surrounding this species are answered. These are questions best answered in the field. However, as the BBC article (from which this information comes) articulates, examining the flower in the wild may be difficult in the future. The orchid was discovered in a previously-inaccessible portion of the island, which, thanks to recent roads constructed for the purposes of logging, has only lately been opened up for scientific discovery. While the logging thus made the find itself possible, it also threatens the long-term survival of the species. Schuiteman affirmed that it is necessary for the local government to protect the habitat of the species from the potential damages caused by logging.

To celebrate the discovery of our new orchid friend, for this week's book of the week we're featuring a book full of stunning orchid illustrations. Abbildungen der in Deutschland und den Angrenzenden Gebieten Vorkommenden Grundformen der Orchideenarten (1904), by Friedrich Kränzlin, features 60 gorgeous plates by Walter Müller. While of course Bulbophyllum nocturnum is too new to science to be included in this work, we're happy to know that future publications will highlight this species just as beautifully as this book does for the species included within its pages.

For our post, we're featuring some of our favorite illustrations from the work. You can enjoy all of the images from this title on our Flickr site, which now has over 21,000 natural history images. Hopefully one day we'll be able to pull in an illustration of Bulbophyllum nocturnum as well!

Left: Anacamptis laxiflora (Loose-Flowered Orchid; Green-winged Meadow Orchid)
Middle: Cypripedium calceolus (Lady's Slipper Orchid)
Right: Epipactis atrorubens (Dark Red Helleborine; Royal Helleborine)

Middle: Epipogium aphyllum (Ghost Orchid)
Right: Limodorum abortivum (Violet Limodore)

Abbildungen der in Deutschland und den Angrenzenden Gebieten Vorkommenden Grundformen der Orchideenarten (1904), by Friedrich Kränzlin and Walter Müller, was contributed by the New York Botanical Garden, LuEsther T. Mertz Library.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BHL Staff Meeting Success

Just after the Life and Literature conference, on Wednesday November 16, members of the BHL Staff got together to talk about day-to-day BHL issues. It was a rare and wonderful opportunity for this highly distributed staff to meet in person. Staff members were present from most of the BHL Consortium Member Institutions, now 14 members strong!

If you missed the announcement from the Life and Literature Conference, BHL has welcomed two new members to its consortium, Cornell University Library and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Libraries. More information about BHL's newest members will be posted soon.

BHL Staff met to discuss the new ideas resulting from the Life and Literature conference as well as issues related to governance, social media, scanning workflow and technical development. Of note on the agenda was a discussion on how to solve the issue of integrating more "boutique" scanning projects into the current workflow. To date, the BHL has scanned and incorporated content into its collection mainly through two standard workflows, with scanning partners the Internet Archive and the Missouri Botanical Garden's Botanicus Digital Library project. Staff shared with each other about new processes under development to help tackle the not-so-insignificant issue of incorporating content into the collection scanned through alternate workflows.

The BHL Staff welcomed colleagues from BHL-Europe and BHL-Australia at the meeting, as well as colleagues from partner projects, the Field Book Project and the Connecting Content Grant.

With new BHL members, new workflows and new ideas resulting from the Life and Literature conference, BHL Staff activities are entering some very exciting and dynamic times ahead. Stay tuned for more updates as 2012 unfolds. Onward and upward we go!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

BHL and Our Users: Dr. Thomas Carefoot

After a short break during which we featured various posts related to the Life and Literature conference, we again resume our BHL and Our User series, kicking things off again with Dr. Thomas Carefoot, a marine biologist and the author of the delightful educational website on west-coast marine invertebrates, A Snail's Odyssey.

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

I am retired from a 35-year teaching and research position in marine biology at the University of British Columbia, Canada. My research specialties include the study of a group of marine snails known as sea hares, and I have sought them out in many tropical areas of the world. I am well versed on invertebrate marine life, most notably on the Pacific west coast, but also throughout the Caribbean, Indo- Pacific, and other tropical areas. I enjoy talking and lecturing about marine invertebrates, and a few years before retirement was awarded the University’s prestigious Master Teacher Award. I have written 2 books on marine ecology, authored some 90 research papers, and have recently produced a large educational website on west-coast marine invertebrates called A Snail's Odyssey. I am currently working on an equally large educational website called the Biology of Caribbean Coral Reefs.

How long have you been in your field of study?

For over 50 years, from commencement of an Honours BSc programme at the University of British Columbia (UBC), leading to an MSc degree at the same institution, and followed by a doctorate at the University of Wales, all in the field of marine biology. My first job was at the Marine Sciences Centre, McGill University, followed by an appointment to the Zoology Department at UBC in 1969. As part of the McGill experience was one year’s appointment as Director of the Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados. In total, I have spent about 3 years in the Caribbean, have visited all but a handful of the major islands, and have SCUBA-dived on most Caribbean reef systems.

When did you first discover BHL?

Several years ago when I first started researching scientific articles on west-coast marine invertebrates for my website A Snails' Odyssey.

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

BHL provides an excellent service for studies of marine and other biodiversity. However, as my research interests are not in biodiversity per se, I use the service only for accessing pertinent literature on west-coast and coral-reef marine invertebrates for inclusion in my educational websites.

How often do you use BHL?

About once a week.

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

For downloading articles from journals.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL?

The only one that I have regularly used is the PDF downloading privilege.

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?

I would streamline the system for downloading PDFs. It is currently time-consuming and “out of synch” with similar accessing systems for other scientific journals. For example, the journal I most access at BHL is the Journal of Shellfish Research (JSR), which is presently most easily “downloadable” as entire volumes. It would be a relatively easy job to split each volume into its component research papers, format these as PDFs, and have an accessing system along the lines of other journal publishers. I realize that JSR is just one of the many journals in the BHL, but it would be a start.

Thank you, Dr. Carefoot, for sharing your experience and resources with us! Be sure to check out A Snails' Odyssey, which chronicles the whimsical story of an upper intertidal snail who, finding himself mistakenly cast into the deep waters of the ocean, slowly but steadily makes his way back home to shallower waters. Along the way he encounters many different marine species, which offer a plethora of opportunities for discovery for both the snail and the reader. For each species, there is a short cartoon animation meant to give a light-hearted introduction to the animal, and a scientific Learnabout, which offers more in-depth information, including summaries of a multitude of scientific papers written about the invertebrates. It's a fun, educational site for all ages.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Life and Literature Conference Attendee Interviews: Part 5

Today we feature the last 4 of 17 conference attendee interviews from the Life and Literature conference. We hope you've enjoyed this opportunity to see what those present at the conference had to say about it and BHL. You can see these and all other interviews on the Life and Literature website.

Don't forget to share your thoughts about Life and Literature via our Titan Pad discussion pages, and also take a look at conference notes and speaker presentations on the website.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Jennifer Rubin, Matthew Regan, and Bianca Crowley for conducting these interviews, and to all those who participated and shared their valuable thoughts with us.

Karen Baker:

Matthew Person:

Vladimir Blagoderov:

Mary Ochs:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Life and Literature Conference Attendee Interviews: Part 4

Continuing with our theme, here are the next 4 of 17 conference attendee interviews from the Life and Literature conference. The first three feature recipients of the JRS African digitization scholarship, which funded the expenses of nine visitors from Africa to both attend the conference and an additional meeting on Wednesday (Nov. 16th) with the express purpose of discussing biodiversity literature digitization in Africa (expect more information on this meeting in a future post). The fourth interview is that of Dr. Jinzhong Cui, the director of BHL-China. All interviews are available on the Life and Literature website.

Don't forget to share your thoughts about Life and Literature via our Titan Pad discussion pages, and also take a look at conference notes and speaker presentations on the website.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Jennifer Rubin, Matthew Regan, and Bianca Crowley for conducting these interviews, and to all those who participated and shared their valuable thoughts with us.

Dorothy Wanja Nyingi:

Ashah Owano:

Willem Coetzer:

Dr. Jinzhong Cui: