Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Biodiversity: Myths & Legends

Happy Halloween from BHL!

It's that time of year again, when the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins come out to play, the dead walk, and little children dress up as their favorite monsters and scurry from house to house cramming countless pieces of candy into bulging bags.

BHL has been celebrating Halloween all week with tweets, Facebook posts and quizzes, and a Flickr collection dedicated to the holiday. While doing research for our festivities, we gathered countless myths and legends associated with the biodiversity of Hallow's Eve. Come along with us as we explore Halloween from nature's viewpoint, and, thanks to some inspiration provided by, find out how you can use BHL to transform yourself into the precise likeness of your favorite species!

The Bat

1870s depiction of bats in BHL
Most people associate bats with Halloween because of vampires. Many vampire legends claim that the undead monsters can transform into bats, helping them cover long distances quickly and sneak into the open windows of angelic young girls. 

The bat's original association with Halloween, however, is significantly less ominous. In early times, when the threat of the dead rising from their graves during All Hallow's Eve was more credited, people would build large bonfires to ward off evil spirits. These fires attracted insects, constituting a small feast for the local bat populations, which would swarm around the fires to catch a midnight snack.

As the association of bats and evil spirits became more imprinted in the minds of credulous civilizations, rumors of bat species from the New World that drank blood only served to further intensify the belief. Unquestionable documentation of the curious species, now known as the vampire bat, by early Spanish explorers sealed the affiliation between bats and evil, and eventually helped give rise to the myths involving vampires (the epitome of blood-sucking monsters) and bats.

The Whiskered Bat in BHL

Learn about the Bat in BHL with two of our favorite images from our collection: an 1876 illustration from v. 1 of Brehms thierleben, allgemeine kunde des thierreichs and an 1869 illustration from Faune des vertébrés de la Suisse.


1804 rendering of a pumpkin in BHL
The pumpkin's role in Halloween is tied to the legend of the Jack-o'-Lantern and the Gaelic festival Samhain. Samhain, whose origins date at least to the eighth century, marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was a day when the "door" to the land of the dead opened just enough to let souls and evil spirits escape into ours. While the souls of one's dead kindred might be welcomed to a feast, precautions were taken to protect oneself from evil spirits that also wandered the earth on that day. One of those precautions involved "guising," or dressing in costumes to conceal your identity from the spirits (a tradition we still carry out by dressing up in Halloween costumes). Another involved the Jack-o'-Lantern.

In the nineteenth century, the Irish and Scottish carved turnips or potatoes in the likeness of human faces and lit them with interior candles. These lanterns served several purposes: to light the darkness during Samhain festivities; to represent the spirits present during the night; and to ward off evil beings. When Irish settlers came to America, they found that pumpkins, native to the New World and thus foreign to the British Isles, were more prevalent and easier to carve. The carved pumpkin lantern is first associated with Halloween in an excerpt from Daily News on November 1, 1866:

The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.

Learn more about the pumpkin in BHL and enjoy this fantastic 1804 illustration of this squash in Icones plantarum from 1804.

The Owl

The Owl with Piercing eyes from 1772
Owls have long been sorcery companions. For example, in ancient England, cooking owl eggs until they were ash, and consuming the ashes, was said to improve eyesight. An ancient Greek and Roman superstition asserts that witches could change into owls and after doing so, would swoop down and drink the blood of innocent babes. It has been claimed that owls are the messengers of witches and their hoot relays the approach of a hag.

Though in many ways adorable, when carefully considered, it is not really surprising that owls find themselves so closely tied to mischief. After all, their horn-like head feathers (eerily reminiscent of the Devil himself), their habit of turning their heads as much as 270 degrees in either direction, and their piercing, unblinking eyes may understandably raise the hair on anyone's arms.

Over the centuries, the owl has become associated with a variety of dark superstitions. For instance, if you hear an owl screech during the night, take heed of your child, for the screech may either kill it or condemn it to become a witch! Other legends claim that only owls can live with ghosts, and the presence of an owl near a house indicates that it's haunted. If an owl takes up residence on your roof, death is sure to visit soon!

We think the owl was never more captivatingly pictured than in this 1772 illustration from Verzameling van uitlandsche en zeldzaame vogelen.


The inspiration for Candy Corn - Zea Mays!
Yesterday was National Candy Corn Day! Candy companies sell more than 20 million pounds of candy corn each year! The colors of a candy corn are meant to reflect the orange and yellow of corn kernels. The sugary treat was first crafted by George Renninger in the 1880s at the Wunderlee Candy Company. The confection, made largely of sugar, corn syrup, wax, and artificial coloring, has remained unchanged in over 100 years.

Think candy corn is limited to the pyramid-shaped treats? Think again! Plenty of companies have jumped on the Candy Corn bandwagon, producing their own versions of this Halloween favorite. Try Jones Soda Company's candy corn flavored soda! Hershey features candy corn Kisses! Not a huge fan of the classic candy corn flavor? Try Brach's Caramel, Caramel Apple, and Chocolate Caramel candy corn varieties.

We love this image of Zea mays from v. 3 of Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem (1896-98) that we feature it as one of four designs on our BHL business cards!

The Witch

You may not have been expecting BHL to have any comment on one of Halloween's most iconic figures - the witch - but with over 39 million pages, we found a way to make a witch scope-appropriate.

Meet Mother Carey.

BHL's resident witch - Mother Carey

A supernatural figure apparently well-known to nineteenth century sailors, Mother Carey "personif[ied] the cruel and threatening sea," orchestrating, along with Davy Jones (whom some purport as her husband) shipwrecks and claiming the lives of countless helpless victims. As the petrel species Thalassidroma bullockii and Thalassidroma pelagica are often seen before storms, sailors began branding them as Mother Carey's minions, bestowing on them the somewhat confusing epithet Mother Carey's Chickens.

Learn more about BHL's witch in a past book of the week post

Anatomically-Correct Biodiverse Costumes

Need a last-minute Halloween costume idea? Try BHL!

Megan Gambino of posted a great blog piece about drawing ingenuous costume inspiration from BHL. With the anatomically-detailed scientific illustrations found throughout BHL, and easily browse-able thanks to the over 46,000 images in our Flickr account, it's child's play to pick a species, say a bat or something more unexpected, like a lobster, and design a guise around the creature.

Be an anatomically-correct American Lobster for Halloween! Suggestion courtesy Megan Gambino,

So, be bold this year. It's never been easier to have a biodiverse Halloween!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

- Grace Costantino, BHL Program Manager 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NEH-funded Art of Life project held first face to face meeting in St Louis

L to R front row:  William Ulate, MOBOT; Charlie Moad, IMA; Ed Bachta, IMA; Trish Rose-Sandler, MOBOT. L to R back row:  Doug Holland, MOBOT; Gaurav Vaidya, CU-Boulder; Rob Guralnick, CU-Boulder. Not pictured Mike Lichtenberg, MOBOT; Chris Freeland, WUSTL.

On October 4th & 5th 2012, team members from the Art of Life project held a meeting at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.  While team members had been collaborating virtually since the beginning of the project in May of 2012, this was the first time all team members had met in-person.  Institutions represented were from Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder); and Washington University, St Louis (WUSTL).

The goals of the meeting were to review:

1) overall workflows
2) feedback on the schema draft that was publicly posted August 2012
3) development of the algorithm used to find illustrations on BHL pages
4) next steps for the project

The team tackled thorny issues such as copyright of images, crowdsourcing image metadata, synchronicity of data, dealing with multiple illustrations on a page, and large bulk uploads to Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

The project’s documentation and meeting notes are all available on the team’s wiki page   

Questions about the project’s goals, progress, and technology can be directed to Trish Rose-Sandler  The Art of Life project runs from May 1, 2012 through April 30, 2014 and is generously funded by the:

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

- Trish Rose-Sandler, BHL Data Analyst

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Tribute to America's Conservation President

There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm." ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History
In 2012, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), one of BHL’s founding members, celebrated the grand reopening of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. For three years, the Memorial was closed to the public as part of a 37.5 million dollar renovation plan to re-imagine this permanent exhibit. Theodore Roosevelt, America's Conservation President, was intimately tied to the museum since its founding in 1869.  This week’s book of the week selection, A Book-lover's Holidays in the Open (1916) was written by Teddy and affords readers an intimate glimpse inside the mind of one of America’s most fascinating presidents.
The murals depict milestones in TR's life. (Credits: Amal Chen/The Epoch Times)
The renovation includes a new life-size bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt and several exhibits charting Roosevelt's journey from budding naturalist to becoming America's conservation president. Perhaps, the most exciting for those from the art world is the 2.5 million dollar allocation that went towards the restoration of William Andrew Mackay's murals of Roosevelt. The murals, recording key moments in the life of Roosevelt greet you at the main entrance and cover a space of over 5,200 feet.

Book Frontispiece
To continue AMNH's celebration of Roosevelt, we wanted to highlight a book that they digitized for the BHL which was  released as part of our Theodore Roosevelt iTunesU collection. As the title of this week's book suggests, Theodore Roosevelt liked to read books. Correction. This man LOVED to read books. Many in his personal circle have vouched that “Teedie” read at least one book per day, most often finishing said tome before breakfast. This seemingly ambitious reading schedule made Roosevelt the most well-read president alongside, Thomas Jefferson. As a young boy, Roosevelt was an asthmatic bookworm often confined to his Manhattan family flat. One can almost see him wistfully longing for the outdoors as he escaped city life in  the imaginative world of books. However, it was this deprivation from the natural world that caused him to love the great outdoors all the more. He looked forward to family vacations in upstate New York where he could observe nature’s creatures in all their glory. As early as age 7, Teddy began to collect specimens and wrote about them in minute detail. He even learned amateur taxidermy around age 12 and began adding specimens to a personal collection that he and his cousins dubbed “Roosevelt’s Natural History Museum.” His father fully supported young Roosevelt’s budding interest, being a nature lover himself. In fact in 1869, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. signed the American Museum of Natural History's founding charter with other trustees in the parlor of the Roosevelt family home on East 20th Street in New York City. Moreover, the Roosevelt family is deeply connected to AMNH, having served on the Museum's board for its entire history. 
A young naturalist's journal. Photo Credits: AMNH
With A Book-lover's Holidays in the Open (1916), you get an eclectic mix of stories, personal anecdotes and Roosevelt's views about conservation in America. Our favorite excerpt from this book, which defies a cursory summary and warrants a fully digested read,  illustrates Teddy's internal transformation from a hunter that appreciated nature to a President who became, arguably history's most influential conservation policy maker. Admittedly, this chunk of text is quite long but,  Teddy's words are eloquent and if you are hurried at least have a look at the passages in conservation green:

Teddy in hunting costume
"The westernmost island, we visited was outside the national reservation, and that very morning it had been visited and plundered by a party of eggers. The eggs had been completely cleared from most of the island, gulls and terns had been shot, and the survivors were in a frantic state of excitement. It was a good object-lesson in the need of having reserves, and laws protecting wildlife, and a sufficient number of efficient officers to enforce the laws and protect the reserves. Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying that "the game belongs to the people." So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ''greatest good of the greatest number" applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wildlife, and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources, are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method."

Teddy’s Conservation Legacy
Amen Teddy. What an incredible life you led, wearing more hats than one cares to list. Today,  we are remembering Teddy as a Book-Lover, Naturalist, "Wilderness Warrior," Founder of the U.S National Park System and the Conservation President. He was the guy with the big stick going around speaking softly, almost lovingly into the ears of all Americans, willing them to do great things in the spirit of the common good. In his life he inspired people to embrace conservation by his actions: protecting some 230 million acres, establishing 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 4 National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 5 National Parks, and proclaiming 18 National Monuments.

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

~ Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian

Monday, October 22, 2012

Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre visit BHL

Åslaug Viken and Askild Olsen
A team from the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (NBIC), Åslaug Viken and Askild Olsen, visted with BHL Program Director Martin Kalfatovic on October 18, 2012.

NBIC recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Encyclopedia of Life to create a Norwegian EOL.

Viken and Olsen were very interested in the processes and workflows of BHL. They noted that there are many treasures in Norwegian libraries that once made available online will enrich the knowledge of global biodiversity.

- Martin Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and Pest Control

Book of the Week: Dell'historia Naturale and the History of Pest Control 

Early depiction of "pests," from Dell'Historia
Pest Control management has a long, somewhat sordid history. Dating back thousands of years, management methods include the use of predatory populations, environmental adaptations, mechanical inventions, chemical pesticides, and sometimes significantly more mystical techniques. For instance, curious sixteenth-century instructions for pest management occurs in our book of the week, Dell'Historia Naturale. Regardless of the approach employed, it was not until the 1950s that humans began to seriously investigate the effects of some of these control methods on a large-scale basis. Come with us as we explore the good and bad history of Pest Control.

Welcome to the World of Pest Control

Pest control methods have been in place for thousands of years. The use of chemical pesticides dates back to 4,500 years ago, when the Sumerians used sulfur compounds as insecticides. As early as 1200 B.C., the Chinese used predatory ants to control caterpillar and wood boring beetle populations in citrus groves. Homer's Iliad describes the use of fire to propel locust swarms to the sea. The Greek philosopher Pythagorus instructed a Sicilian town to drain its marshes in the sixth century B.C. in order to eradicate a malaria outbreak. In the 1700s, German physician Ernst Bruckmann designed the first mechanical fly and flea traps, which involved the use of bait to lure insects into wooden boxes or perforated cylinders, which were spring loaded to snap shut under the weight of several unlucky specimens in search of an easy meal. The flea traps became so popular that they were worn around the necks of the aristocracy in the eighteenth century.

Imperato's Cabinet of Curiosities
Very early directions regarding pest management were given by Ferrante Imperato in our book of the week, published in 1599. Imperato was a Naples apothecary and one of the first to correctly outline the process by which fossils are formed. His masterpiece, Dell'Historia Naturale, presented the first pictorial representation of a Renaissance humanist's "Cabinet of Curiosities," or natural history research collection. The collection was Ferrante's own, and it displayed herbarium, shells, birds, sea creatures, fossils, marbles, and gems.  Described as a catalogue, Dell'Historia Naturale contains information on not only Ferrante's Cabinet, but also instruction on alchemy, mining, animals, and plants. Particularly relevant to our post today, the pages contain some of the first published instructions, however dubious, on pest management: how to eliminate flies from a home. He dictates,

"...draw the image of a fly...on a copper plate during the second half of the constellation of Pisces...then bury it in the center of your house (during) the first half of the constellation of Taurus."

While the efficacy of Ferrante's method, and many similar methods rooted in superstition or mysticism, are clearly questionable today, various other ancient methods, such as the use of arsenic by the Chinese, rotenone in South America and Asia, or lime and copper mixtures in France, clearly have foundations in scientific reasoning. Since the time of Imperato, our pest control methods have become somewhat more sophisticated and can be grouped into two broad categories: natural and artificial. Natural methods, such as geographic barriers or introducing predator populations, involve environmental factors that keep pest populations in check. In contrast, artificial methods, like traps or insecticides, manage populations through human-created products or processes that affect the pest's distribution, behavior, or physiology.

The use of chemical pesticides became especially widespread in the early to mid-1900s. This was facilitated not only by the increased development of chemical mixtures, like DDT, hydrogen cyanide, or lead arsenate, but also profuse mechanical methods by which to deploy them, including pressure sprayers, aerial dispersal, and steam, mechanical, and horse-powered equipment. Most were so excited about the apparent effectiveness of these methods that few questions were raised regarding the potential side-effects.

Pest Control Gets Complicated: The Fire Ant, The Cranberry, & DDT

In the 1950s, the detrimental effects of pesticides began to receive significantly more publicity. In 1957, the USDA initiated a fire ant eradication program which involved the aerial spraying of DDT and other chemical pesticides. First synthesized in a lab by an Austrian chemist in 1874, DDT (dichlorodiphenltrichloroethane) is an organochlorine insecticide which opens sodium ion channels in neurons in insects, leading to spasms and eventual death. DDT was extremely effective in controlling pest populations for a time, although species in many locations eventually developed resistance to the compound. Furthermore, observations showed that chemical solutions were poisoning more than the intended victims - noticeably birds - and infecting crop populations, such as cranberries, which, during the Great Cranberry Scandal of 1957-59, were shown to contain high levels of herbicide aminotriazole, which caused cancer in lab rats. Many began to question the safety of such widespread use of chemical pesticides, and some began filing suits to have large-scale spraying stopped.

A Better Way to do Pest Control?

Rachel Carson
By 1958, prominent natural history author Rachel Carson was alarmed by the reports she'd heard regarding the dangers of chemical pesticides, particularly as regarded the fire ant eradication program. Her interest already piqued by these developments, Carson then received a letter from her friend Olga Owens Huckins detailing the death of numerous bird species near her home after an aerial spraying of DDT. Emboldened, Carson decided to focus on environmental issues in her writing, particularly the detrimental use of pesticides on the environment.

Carson spent four years gathering research on the ecological damages caused by pesticides, as well as human illnesses resulting from their use. In 1962, beginning with a serialization in The New Yorker, Carson's resulting work Silent Spring released on the printed page. A full book, complete with illustrations by Lois and Louis Darling, was published in September 1962. The title evoked contemplation of a bleak future when no bird songs fill the air, as pesticides have killed them all, and springs are silent.

As a result of Silent Spring, President John F. Kennedy launched an investigation in his Science Advisory Committee to investigate the book's claims. The Committee found Carson's arguments valid, and an immediate strengthening of chemical pesticide regulations ensued, including a ban of DDT in 1972. According to Charles Dewberry of Gutenberg College, Silent Spring "may be the most important book in the formation of the environmental movement of the 1960s." Indeed, Silent Spring was recently named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by Discover Magazine.

The Current State of Pest Control

Today, chemicals are still the most prominent pest control method. Carson's work inspired ardent criticism by many, who claim that she selectively presented only that evidence which supported her case and that tens of millions have died needlessly as a result of the ensuing restrictions on DDT. Clearly, all pest control methods must be investigated according to the positive and negative consequences of their use, and this must include examination of long-term effects. Furthermore, as Carson herself outlines in Silent Spring, even should chemical pesticides remain in use, their application must be selective, as indiscriminate, widespread use will only result in resistance in the pest populations - an effect seen in DDT use.

The Cane Toad, an introduced predator in Australia causing unintended consequences.

Nevertheless, natural and biological pest control movements have seen renewed support with the advent of Silent Spring and other awareness programs. Even these solutions, however, must be employed selectively, as the introduction of predator populations to control pests may also backfire, as seen in the problematic cane toad populations now plaguing Australia.

Pest control is clearly a multifaceted, complex issue. Perhaps the most effective approach may involve the educated, selective combination of many methods. Regardless, such research only goes to further demonstrate how fragile our planet is, and how, as one connected ecosystem, even the smallest alterations may have long-lasting, and potentially devastating, consequences. Our responsibility is to be good stewards of our uniquely amazing gift: Planet Earth.

* Explore Pest Control in BHL.
* Browse titles on pesticides and insecticides in BHL.
* Investigate more works on biological pest control in BHL.

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

- Grace Costantino, Program Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library
- Special thanks to Don Wheeler, Librarian, New York Botanical Garden, for his consultation on this post.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

BHL and Our Users: Dr. Dieter Oschadleus

Dr. Oschadleus with a male Cape Weaver
In June, 2012, six BHL-US/UK staff members, representing three BHL member institutions, traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to attend an organizational meeting for BHL-Africa. In addition to the U.S. participants, the meeting also brought together twenty African colleagues from six countries, all dedicated to participating in our newest global initiative. Many of these colleagues are librarians themselves, and share BHL daily with patrons at their own home libraries.

One such individual, whom we interviewed several months ago, is Margaret Koopman, a librarian at the ornithological department at the University of Cape Town. She suggested that we also interview one of her patrons, a frequent user of BHL: Dr. Dieter Oschadleus. Dr. Oschadleus was gracious enough to agree to the interview, which we are proud to present below.

What is your title, institutional affiliation (or alternative place of employment), and area of interest?

I am a Doctor in the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. I am interested in all aspects of the weaver family Ploceidae.

How long have you been in your field of study?

About 2 decades.

When did you first discover BHL?

Several years ago.

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

Brilliant! It has helped me to obtain many references quickly and easily and for free, particularly those with historical / early references to weavers.

How often do you use BHL?

A lot, but on an irregular basis – sometimes days or weeks may go by without using it, but sometimes I may spend hours searching or downloading references.

How do you usually use BHL (read the titles online/download whole PDFs/Selecting Pages to Download for a custom PDF/Downloading High Resolution Images/Generating Taxonomic Bibliographies/etc.)

Mostly download whole PDFs.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL?

I like the fixed web address for journals, eg for Ibis; The map function is great (recently discovered)!

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?

Filling gaps where they sometimes exist in journal series (I realize that few copies may exist in some cases, but all the more reason to get them digitized!)

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 many. To give one example: Die Vögel Afrikas, von Ant. Reichenow

As we continue to dedicate efforts to bringing BHL and its resources to all reaches of the globe, we're excited to hear from our global users about the impact BHL has on their work. We send a sincere thanks to Dr. Oschadleus for his participation in this series. Thanks for tuning in to BHL and Our Users, as we strive to bring you more insight from our international users in the months to come!

An illustration of weaver birds (Ploceidae), Dr. Oschadleus' speciality.

If you're interested in being interviewed on our blog, leave a comment on this post, send us feedback, or email us as

* Photo of Dr. Oschadleus by Lynne Roscoe

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hispanic Heritage Month: What is a Cordillera?

cordillera (cor·dil·le·ra); a noun.

Definition of cordillera : a system or group of parallel mountain ranges together with the intervening plateaus and other features, especially in the Andes or the Rockies.

Origin: early 18th century: from Spanish, from cordilla, diminutive of cuerda 'cord', from Latin chorda (see cord). (Oxford English Dictionary)

We saved something special for you for our final Hispanic Heritage Month blog installment. Today, we would like to bring your attention specifically to two Cordilleras found in Ecuador: the Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Oriental which were extensively investigated by Alexander von Humboldt on his six-year expedition through Meso and South America. In this week's Book of the Week, Humboldt provides us with the very first eye-witness account of some of the highest peaks found in the Andes and minutely describes their geology in: "Researches concerning the institutions & monuments of the ancient inhabitants of America : with descriptions & views of some of the most striking scenes in the Cordilleras!" Despite the long title, this two volume tome is actually just an excerpt from Humboldt's much more voluminous 30 volume work, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent that he produced after his expedition. 

Routing Humboldt and Bonpland's S. America Expedition

A young Humboldt
Having the fortune of receiving a substantial inheritance following the sad event of his mother's death, Humboldt quickly opted for a career change. Seemingly overnight, he leapt from Government Mines Inspector to Greatest Explorer the World had ever seen! Leaving the Old World behind for the very first time, he was accompanied Aimé Bonpland, a botanist who over the course of the next six years, from 1799-1805, would collect over 60,000 plants on their expedition to a largely unobserved continent and the species that they brought back were mostly unknown to Europe at the time. While Aimé focused on his field of expertise, Alexander preferred to dabble. Remembered as one of the last great scientific generalists, he believed "that no organism or phenomenon could be fully understood in isolation. Living things, the objects of biological study, had to be considered in conjunction with data from other fields of research such as meteorology and geology."  Therefore, Humboldt bounces along through his text touching on a myriad of topics, admitting no attempt at organization in his book. And remarkably the lack of organization and vacillations between linguistics, mythology, botany, oceanography, archeology, climatology and comparative religion all somehow come together. However, it should be noted that as much as Humboldt meanders about in this week's book of the week he always comes back to his most beloved subject-- geology. At the time, geology was an emerging field of science and he should be remembered as a primary contributor to its development into a modern field of study.

Throughout what might be best called a travel narrative or informal conversation with the reader, written largely in first person, Humboldt conducts a comparative analysis on his eclectic mix of chosen topics. He seems to be in constant search for the connecting thread that will illuminate an underlying unity in nature. While some critics find this propensity for long-winded unification theories unscientific, one must remember that during the backdrop of the time providing analogues to known phenomena would certainly help the reader to better understand the natural phenomena in this new and largely undiscovered world. Such is the case with these hieroglyphic paintings which Humboldt provides the reader a lengthy analysis, a treatise almost, on comparative mythology and linguistics:
Fig. 1: Days in the Mexican Almanac
Fig 2: The Epochs of Nature According to Aztec Mythology
Humboldt compares these paintings with the writing systems of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and many other ancient languages. Of the content in fig 2., he compares the epochs of natural destructive cycles in Aztec mythology with the notions of a Kalpa and Yuga found in Hinduism which are described at length here. A seriously fascinating read! The Aztec culture was clearly one very imbued with the sanctity of nature. These were a people who were impatiently awaiting the return of their god Quetzalcoatl because he brought with him a time in which  "all animals, and even men, lived in peace; the earth brought forth, without culture, the most fruitful harvests ; and the air was filled with a multitude of birds, which were admired for their song, and the beauty of their plumage." One might see why Montezuma would easily mistake Cortez for Quetzalcoatl. It was simply a case of wishful thinking.

Moving on to the crux of this book, interested in reading some of the very first observances of the best known peaks in the Andes? Humboldt delivers:

The Two Mightiest Peaks of Humboldt's Cordilleras! Okay Three?

Volcano of Cotopaxi:  This volcano towers at 19,347 feet. Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times. It is the second most active volcano in the world. Humboldt, the first European to climb Cotopaxi is lucky to have observed it and lived to tell the tale and he seemed to be clearly aware of this fact for, at the time of this sketching of Cotopaxi, Humboldt wrote this: "The colossal volcano of Cotopaxi, the pyramidal peaks of Ilinissa, and the Nevado de Quelendanna, open here at once on the spectator, and in dreadful proximity. This is one of the most majestic and most awful views I ever beheld in either hemisphere."

Pyramid of Cholula: Not necessarily a natural "peak" per se, the pyramid that sits at the site of the holy city of Cholula is home to the greatest, most ancient monuments of the Aztec people. The pyramid is referred to by locals as the mountain made by the hand of man (monte hecho a manos). From a distance it looks like a natural hill covered with vegetation. One can see why Humboldt would be intrigued. 

Mount Chimborazo

At 20,564 ft, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador, the highest peak in close proximity to the equator and it is the furthest point from the Earth's center. (This is due to the oblate spheroid shape of the Earth.) Bonpland and Humboldt attempted to reach the peak of Chimborazo but, did not reach the summit. Atop Chimborazo sits a layer of permafrost which adds to its majestic beauty. Spotting the behemoth in the distance, Humboldt writes "we see Chimborazo appear like a cloud at the horizon; it detaches itself from the neighbouring summits, and towers over the whole chain of the Andes, like that majestic dome, produced by the genius of Michael Angelo, over the antique monuments, which surround the Capitol."

The wealth of knowledge, historical importance, and richness of travel description in this book should not be overlooked. Everyone with any curiosity about our natural world should read Humboldt. Geologists especially, should not miss today's book of the week. It's a true gem.

All these magnificent plates from Humboldt's expedition are available on Flickr, plus more. Also,make sure to check the Twitter, Facebook and Flickr for more content celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 2012 BHL Staff & Technical Meeting

BHL Staff at the 2012 BHL Staff & Technical Meeting, Cambridge, MA, 27-28 September
On September 27-28, 2012, thirty-one staff members representing all 14 BHL member institutions convened at the Ernst Mayr Library at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University for the 2012 BHL Staff and Technical Meeting. As a combined meeting, it brought together not only those that manage the digitization workflow at each member institution, but also those that work to keep BHL's technical infrastructure running smoothly and constantly improving.

To maximize the 16 hours available for discussions, the meeting was divided into separate Staff and Technical tracks, with only those sessions relevant to all staff combined. Combined sessions included Program and Technical updates, as well as a discussion of BHL Projects and Initiatives, which was a chance for staff to identify high-impact projects to incorporate into a 2-year workplan for BHL. Staff sessions included a Program Management Update; brainstorming requirements for a BHL-Awareness Program; a Collections Analysis, Scope, and Prioritization discussion; a Blog brainstorming session; and discussions about BHL's mission statement and goals. The Technical sessions discussed providing article-level access in BHL; replicating and synchronizing BHL content globally; the NEH Art of Life project status; BHL's boutique digitization workflow management tool Macaw; Full-text searching; and OCR improvements.

This was also the first opportunity for BHL's newest members, Cornell and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), to participate in one of our staff meetings. As a BHL-staff meeting virgin, we asked Jenna Nolt, librarian at the USGS, to share with us her thoughts about the meeting.

Jenna Nolt with a specimen of an edible polypore, genus Laetiporus, commonly known as chicken of the woods.
As a new librarian and new member of BHL, I was privileged to represent the U.S. Geological Survey Libraries at the staff meeting in September.  Our libraries have been contributing to BHL since March, and this was an exciting opportunity to meet, learn from, and collaborate with the other members.
From the moment I walked through the door I was impressed by the positive energy and enthusiasm of the whole group. After a general session we broke out into the staff track and the technical track; I stayed on the technical track.  As the sole librarian at my library dedicated to digitization, this was a valuable opportunity for me to discuss in detail some of the complexities of the digital world.  One thing I realized very quickly during these discussions is that all of us, in our individual libraries as well as in BHL, are addressing the same challenges of how to best organize, preserve, and expose complex objects in a constantly shifting digital landscape.

I was particularly interested in the discussion about OCR (optical character recognition) and excited by the plan for BHL to implement full-text searching, something that would be a huge benefit to our scientists and researchers. To accomplish this BHL will be using Solr which not only allows full-text searching, but also allows for faceted navigation, hit highlighting, and corrective spelling ("did you mean...") features that any researcher knows the value of.

I was most actively involved with the section on Macaw, a piece of software created by Joel Richard at the Smithsonian used to upload digital objects packaged with metadata to Internet Archive. Our library has been testing and using Macaw for the past few months, and it has given us the ability to create a completely in-house digitization process for public domain materials. It was a great chance to speak with Joel directly and discuss with the group the possibility of setting up a cloud-based instance with multi-institutional access, which would be a huge advantage for many BHL members.

One theme emerged strongly for me over the course of the meeting.  I've become increasingly aware working in the information field that there are no simple answers in the digital world, no clear standards, and sometimes no answers at all. As anyone who has tried to do serious research online knows, this can be extremely frustrating.  But what I realized is that the BHL is at the cutting edge of constructing standards and creating answers where there are none to find.  When those skills are combined with the enthusiasm, passion for knowledge, and a love of science I saw at the meeting - well, that's where the really cool stuff happens.

Thank you all and...I can't believe I am saying this, but...can't wait for the next meeting!
We are thrilled to welcome Jenna and our other new staff members to the BHL project. Nothing solidifies the initiation process more than participation in a two-day intensive staff and technical meeting!

The meeting may be over, but now the real work begins! We are busy developing plans to address our meeting action items and continue discussions about revising BHL's mission and goals in order to further inform a 2 year workplan for the project. The 2012 Staff and Technical Meeting was a hands-down success and a fabulous opportunity for BHL's dedicated staff to further our vision to repatriate biodiversity knowledge to the world.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Rafael Montes de Oca

Book of the Week: Ensayo Ornitologico de los Troquilideos ó Colibries de Mexico

Continuing our series for Hispanic Heritage Month, we are taking a look at a beautiful little treasure of a book by Mexican author, illustrator, teacher, and naturalist Rafael Montes de Oca. 

Montes de Oca worked as a naturalist on the Mexican-Guatemalan Boundary Commission and collected many plant specimens which are now in the herbarium of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (MEXU). He collected throughout Mexico, including Soconusco (Chiapas), Oaxaca, Puebla and Xalapa (Veracruz). However, it is his work with Mexican hummingbirds that gained him popularity among the scientific and artistic communities.

As early as 1860, Montes de Oca was published and recognized for his work on Mexican hummingbirds in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London and the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Montes de Oca had several influential papers published in La Naturaleza, a scientific journal dedicated to the study of the natural history of Mexico and he had even included three plates from what would eventually become our Book of the Week.  In 1875, the first edition of Ensayo Ornitologico de los Troquilideos ó Colibries de Mexico was published with the descriptions of forty-eight Mexican hummingbird species, forty-six of which had beautiful accompanying illustrations. The illustrations are very reminiscent of John Gould’s masterpiece, A Monograph of the Trochilidae or Family of Humming-Birds (which you can read more about from a previous BHL Blog). 

What makes this particular copy, supplied by the Smithsonian Libraries to BHL, extra special is the dedication on the portrait page. It reads, “To the Smithsonian Institute of Washington, Mexico November the 30th 1875.”

There is another surprising tidbit about Montes de Oca’s phenomenal work.Montes de Oca had also created a series of watercolors of Mexican hummingbirds and orchids titled Monografía de los colibríes y apuntes sobre las principales orquídeas de México, which despite the positive response to Ensayo Ornitologico, he could not get published. This work would eventually be published posthumously in 1963 by Carolina Amor de Fournier, under the titleHummingbirds and Orchids of Mexico, about 90 years after its creation!

From Hummingbirds and Orchids of Mexico (Courtesy of StudioBotanika).

When he believed that it was never to be published, Montes de Oca had eventually given his watercolors and manuscript to Amor de Fournier’s grandmother, his former student.  She kept it in the family until Amor de Fournier was able to get it publishing in limited editions.  Most of the illustrations can be seen at StudioBotanika. Both the scientific and artistic communities should be breathing sighs of relief that these beautiful images were not lost.

Be sure to check out all of the images from Ensayo ornitologico de los troquilideos ó colibries de Mexico on Flickr and check out more select images from this and other previous Books of the Week at BHL Pinterest!

Finally, check back on our Blog, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr for more posts celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

-Gilbert Borrego, Biodiversity Heritage Library