Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book of the Week: The Berry That Changed The World

It's been called the drink of civilization. The beverage that reflects the entire history of the Western world in one gulp. A small berry has sparked revolutions, genocide, imperialism, innovation--and yet is still able to satisfy the standard caffeine craving every morning. Coffee is a powerful concoction, serving as inspiration for most activities before lunch, and, this week, it also serves as inspiration for the
The cover of these week's
Book of the Week
Book of the Week, "Coffee; its history and also its remarkable growth in the world of commerce."

Most people would easily be able to pick a coffee bean out of a line up, but finding the coffee in nature might be more difficult. The plant that provides us with this intoxicating drink can be traced to the genus of Coffea, which varies from tree to shrub and comes in shades of purple, yellow, and green. Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora or robusta are the two most drinkable species that allow for the berries to be dried, roasted, and poured into your mug for consumption.

The origin story of this stimulant is murky. Coffee plants grow wild in the rocky soil of Ethiopia and several legends have cropped up about who first discovered they could roast the seeds of this abundant shrub.
Coffea arabica
One legend says that when the pious dervish Hadji Omar fell under the ban of the people of Mocha, and was driven forth in the year 1285, A.D., to perish in the wilderness, he roasted some of the berries that grew wild in the thickets, and some of them accidentally fell into the water which he had collected for drinking. He failed to notice it for some time, and when he did, lo ! coffee was discovered. He stole back into Mocha, proclaimed his discovery, and the Mochans [...] took him back into favor, and made a saint of him on the spot.
The Mochans knew a good thing when they drank it, but were not the only ones who lay claim to this powerful breakthrough in berry consumption.
Another story gives credit to the friar of a monastery for the first use of coffee. The friar had great difficulty in keeping his monks awake during devotions, and on being told by a goatherd of the exciting effect, produced on his goats by eating coffee berries, he decided to try them on his charge. He did so with admirable results and thus was discovered the great stimulating effects of coffee, which prepared the way for its world-wide popularity.
To allow for this expansion in caffeine indulgence, greater cultivation was needed.
Thompson &
Spice Co.
Harsh conditions on coffee plantations led to unrest, uprisings, and suppression, leading to the proliferation of the expression, "Pistols for two, and coffee for one." Dutch East India Company and British East India Company, some of the first multinational corporations, were founded to monetize coffee and import the berries--which were mistakingly referred to as "beans" due to a certain likeness. 

Part of the appeal to coffee has always been the caffeine. Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant acting as a psychoactive drug similar to cocaine. With such an intoxicating chemistry, it's easy to understand why c
offee parties and coffee-houses quickly became establishments--gathering places for those looking to partake in a cup as well as exchange gossip and ideas. Newspapers were created, businesses chartered, revolutions planned, even music composed by the likes of Bach and Beethoven in the cáfes of Europe. 

An American
enjoying his
In America, coffee was slow to replace traditional alcoholic favorites. However, once the colonists declared some independence from the notoriously tea-loving empire, coffee became the beverage of choice. In one letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote his affection for tea was stronger, but he made the switch to coffee as it was the more patriotic option.

Despite this resistance, it was not long before coffee addiction had taken hold in the states. During the Civil War, the Union knew how to put a hurt on the South and a naval blockade prevented vital materials from making its way to port--coffee was one of these essential restricted items. Union soldiers took to chewing whole beans, while the Confederate troops were forced to find workable substitutes. An unsuccessful endeavor as Rebels on the front lines often called for informal truces so Southern tobacco could be swapped for the precious Northern drink.

Coffee is now engrained in Western culture, from cultivation on large plantations to a Starbucks on every corner. Coffee talk is shorthand for both small talk and a popular Saturday Night Live skit. Coffee is the reason for an extra break at work and the best part of waking up. So pour another cup and enjoy the bittersweet concoction almost a thousand years in the making, with or without cream.

-Kirsten Hostetler, Marketing Intern at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

  • Norris, D.A. (2007, October 29). How a coffee played a role in Civil War. CNN. Retrieved from
  • Zuraw, L. (2003, April 24). How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History. NPR. Retrieved from

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

BHL's Latest News!

Latest BHL Quarterly Report
Wondering what BHL has been working on lately? Check out our latest quarterly report which details our production statistics and showcases some of our most recent exciting project accomplishments! For example, during this past quarter alone, we celebrated the birth of another regional node - BHL Africa, fortified our strategic direction with the approval of new vision, mission and goal statements, and participated as a content hub in recently launched Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), resulting in over 115,000 BHL volumes being made available through the DPLA portal.  Production efforts kept apace with nearly 600,000 pages scanned and over 1,000,000 names added to BHL.

Learn all about these developments and see how our project is performing in the latest BHL Quarterly Report.

Quarterly reports will be archived on our public wiki.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Alexander Wilson and the Catbird

 A tiny corner of green in a bustling city landscape, the cemetery of Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei Church is the resting place of Alexander Wilson, who died 200 years ago today at the age of 47, his great American Ornithology almost finished.

Gloria Dei—formerly Old Swedes’ Church, the most ancient house of worship still standing in the state of Pennsylvania—offers the modern tourist a welcome spot of shade, but it would certainly not have been Wilson’s choice of final destination. Even in 1813, this Southwark neighborhood of Philadelphia was a busy one, and Wilson had, as his executor, George Ord (1781-1866), reports:

expressed a wish to be buried in some rural spot, sacred to peace and solitude, whither the charms of nature might invite the steps of the votary of the Muses, and the lover of science, and where the birds might sing over his grave.

Unfortunately, Wilson was unable to repeat that wish in the ten days of agony that preceded his death; “otherwise,” writes Ord, “it should have been piously observed.” Instead, the dust of the Father of American Ornithology still lies in a weathered marble tomb beneath the shadow and the roar of I-95.

But the votaries of the Muses still come, and the lovers of science. And the birds still sing over Alexander Wilson’s grave.


Urban Philadelphia’s bird life has changed, of course, since 1813. The voices that rise most prominently today above the whoosh and rumble of traffic are the homely chirping of House Sparrows, and the whistles of European Starlings, both species that Wilson knew well from his youth in Scotland, but neither of which would appear in Pennsylvania for decades to come.
European Starling in Pennant’s British Zoology

The House Finch, too, whose cheerful buzzes tumble down from the steeple of Gloria Dei, was unknown in Philadelphia two centuries ago—and indeed, still believed to be restricted to Mexico, was not recorded in the western United States until ten years after Wilson’s death.

Native birds persist, though, even in this most urban of Philadelphia neighborhoods, and each summer, just as in Wilson’s day, still yields a modest crop of American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, and Common Grackles. But the real specialty of Gloria Dei is the Gray Catbird. More typical of forest edges and wooded suburbs, these sleekly elegant mimics sing and feed and nest in the cemetery, producing young that are as noisy as they are endearingly scruffy.

Alexander Wilson would have approved.


The Gray Catbird had been known to European science for nearly a century by the time Wilson first encountered the species. Mark Catesby (1683-1749) painted the bird for his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, noting that its English and French names derived from its signature call, “which resembles the Mewing of a Cat.” Catesby was responsible, too, for the long-persistent classification of this species among the European muscicapids: he headed his account “Muscicapa vertice nigro,” the black-crowned flycatcher.

Mathurin Brisson (1723-1806) relied completely, it seems, on Catesby and his painting for his description of the same bird; like his English predecessor, Brisson considered the catbird a flycatcher, a “gobe-mouche,” but the formal Latin (and non-binomial) name he gave it focused not on the bird’s head pattern but on its overall color and geographic origin: “Muscicapa Virginiana fusca” he called it, echoing precisely the French designation “Gobe-mouche brun de Virginie.”

The Count de Buffon (1707-1788) followed Brisson and Catesby by calling it the “moucherolle de Virginie”, but he for the first time acknowledged some taxonomic uncertainty with his observation that the catbird combined the size of the American tyrant flycatchers with the “straight and nearly hookless bill” of their Old World counterparts.

Thanks to the stubborn French resistance to the modern binomial system, it fell to Linnaeus to give Catesby’s catbird an “official” name, a task he completed in 1766, in the 12th edition of the Systema.  

The Archiater retained the generic designation Muscicapa, but for his epithet selected none of the obvious alternatives already suggested by Catesby and by Brisson: the catbird would be not “vertice-nigro,” not “virginiana,” not even “fusca,” but carolinensis, ostensibly because the species “inhabits Carolina” (Catesby’s Virginian type locality notwithstanding), but more likely because the great nomenclator could not resist another opportunity to memorialize, even obliquely, his own given name.

The mistaken notion that the catbird was a flycatcher trickled into the English-language ornithology of the eighteenth century. John Latham (1740-1837) called it the “Cat Flycatcher” in his General Synopsis of Birds, and Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) (who was able to extend the species’ known range as far north as New York) retained the name when he listed the species in his Arctic Zoology.


Exalted as all those authorities are, none of them added substantially to the little life history information Catesby had given his readers in 1729:

In the mid-1770s, though, the Philadelphia naturalist and writer William Bartram (1739-1823) undertook his own journey through the American south, retracing in part Catesby’s route—and gently correcting his predecessor’s errors and misapprehensions in the book that Bartram would publish in 1790, the Travels.

Bartram was particularly surprised by Catesby’s “detraction of the fame due” the catbird as a singer. Where the earlier explorer had claimed that it produced only a single note—that well-known eponymous meowing—Bartram found that "the cat bird” was

in reality … one of our most eminent songsters, little inferior to the philomela or mock-bird; and in some remarkable instances, perhaps, exceeds them both, in particular as a buffoon or mimick; he endeavours to imitate every bird and animal, and in many attempts does not ill succeed, even in rehearsing the songs, which he attentively listens to, from the shepherdess and rural swain, and will endeavor and succeed to admiration, in repeating the melodious and variable airs from instrumental music, and this in his wild state of nature.


Alexander Wilson met William Bartram in Philadelphia in 1802, and the unlikely pair quickly became friends. The intellectual stimulation and emotional support that Wilson—a perennially impoverished schoolteacher—found in Bartram and his family inspired him to devote himself entirely to the project that would become the American Ornithology.

Wilson also, it seems, came to share his friend and mentor’s admiration for the Gray Catbird, and his account of the species is one of the finest and most complete in the American Ornithology, showing Wilson at his brilliant best as writer and observer.

Here as elsewhere, Wilson, with the immigrant’s zeal, sets the knowledge gained from experience—he was after all a child of the Scottish Enlightenment—against the bookish speculations of the cabinet naturalists of Old Europe. Note how he invokes not mere static structure but the behavior of the living bird in rejection of the venerable Anglo-French tradition of assigning this bird to the muscicapids:

 This bird has been very improperly classed among the Fly-Catchers. As he never seizes his prey on wing, has none of their manners, feeds principally on fruit, and seems to differ so little from the Thrushes, I think he more properly belongs to the latter tribe than to any other genus we have. His bill, legs and feet, place and mode of building, the colour of his eggs, his imitative notes, food and general manners, all justify me in removing him to this genus.

Wilson pointedly ignores the Linnaean epithet carolinensis to call his bird Turdus lividus, the “bluish thrush,” honoring his Philadelphia colleague Bartram, who had coined that specific name in his Travels.

Where Catesby and his followers could say only that the catbird leaves Virginia in the winter, Wilson, reckoning backward from the species’ February arrival in Georgia, deduced that the wintering grounds lay “not far distant, probably in Florida.” Returning in April to Pennsylvania, the birds have built their nests by early May, in “a thicket of briars or brambles, a thorn bush, thick vine, or the fork of a small sapling.”

Celebrated by his compatriot Sir William Jardine as

the first who truly studied the birds of North America in their natural abodes, and from real observation,

Wilson found the Gray Catbird an especially obliging subject for experimentation. Curious about the extent to which a breeding pair could recognize its own eggs and young, the naturalist 

 took two eggs from one [catbird] which was sitting, and in their place put two of the Brown Thrush, or Thrasher…. In a minute or two the male made his approaches, stooped down and looked earnestly at the strange eggs … [and] with the greatest gentleness took out both the Thrasher’s eggs, first one and then the other, carried them single about thirty yards, and dropt them among the bushes…. Soon after the female resumed her place on the nest as before.

Placing two half-fledged chicks in another catbird’s nest had a similar result: “She soon turned them both out”; happily, catbirds bounce, and soon enough the father bird was feeding them on the ground “with great assiduity and tenderness.” On another occasion, Wilson moved a nest and its four well-advanced eggs from one side of a thicket to the other; in less than half an hour, the female was once again incubating her displaced clutch.


Wilson also took advantage of his close acquaintance with the catbird to weigh in on the venerable controversy of the “fascination” of birds by snakes—a matter still unresolved for some a century later. Never one to mince words, he blames “credulity and ignorance” for the “absurd” belief that a

snake, with [its] eyes, breath, or any other known quality he possesses, should be capable of drawing a bird, reluctantly from the tree tops to its mouth;

in all of the encounters between snakes and catbirds “personally witnessed” by Wilson, the bird, he says, was the actual “assailant,” attacking the reptile in an effort to drive it away from its nest and young.


Wilson joined his careful observation of the catbird with a genuine affection for the species. That fondness was, as he reports, not shared by all of his contemporaries; blinded by “illiberal and persecuting prejudice,” the farmer of Wilson’s day protected his strawberries, his early cherries, and his “finest ripe mellow pears”

by shooting [the catbird] down with his gun, as he finds old hats, wind-mills and scarecrows are no impediments in his way to these forbidden fruits…. The boys are now set to watch the cherry trees with the gun; and thus commences a train of prejudices and antipathies that commonly continue through life.

For Wilson, though, as for all “the generous and the good, the lovers of nature and of rural charms,”

the confidence which this familiar bird places in man by building in his garden, under his eye, the music of his song, and the interesting playfulness of his manners, will always be more than a recompence [sic] for all the little stolen morsels he snatches.

I’d like to think that the catbirds of Gloria Dei are even today repaying the compliment.

Rick Wright

Thursday, August 22, 2013

BHL’s Venture into New Territory

We really love trying new things and using new tools to help provide more access to the literature contained in BHL. From Flickr to iTunes U, we are constantly working at meeting our vision of “Inspiring discovery through free access to biodiversity knowledge.” We have now dipped our toe into a new venture…e-books!
 Our first e-book, available at the iTunes iBookstore and readable on your iPad, is entitled “Every Week is Shark Week” and is a compilation of articles, tweets, images, quizzes, and facts about sharks compiled from the BHL social media campaigns during previous Shark Weeks. We thought this would be a fun way of packaging content about a specific topic from our suite of social media outlets into one place with a different look.

Example of photo gallery on new e-book.

Example of Shark Week quiz on new e-book.

 We hope you enjoy our first foray into the world of e-books and we do plan on producing more in the future so stayed tuned!

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 | Library Technician, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Life as a BHL Staffer

Have you ever spotted an error in the BHL? Have you ever experienced technical difficulties with downloading digital files from our website? Have you ever looked for an article, journal, or title in our collections and been disappointed to find that it wasn’t in BHL’s collections? Have you ever wanted to thank BHL staff for a particular article, feature, or service? Have you ever had an idea for how the BHL could improve?  

If you have, I hope you have taken advantage of our Feedback system and sent your corrections, suggestions, and questions on to us!  And if you have done so recently, you may have heard from me.

My name is Jacqueline Chapman, and I have had the pleasure of responding to hundreds of messages from BHL users over the past few months as I’ve taken on the role of BHL’s virtual reference librarian. I work on the BHL as part of my duties as a Digital Collections Librarian at the Smithsonian Institution, where I participate in digital initiatives and coordinate with various staff members to digitize the collections of Smithsonian Libraries

To submit feedback to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, simply scroll down to the bottom of our home page and click on Feedback.

You will have the option to provide general feedback or to place a scanning request.  All submissions enter the same queue, in our back-end user feedback management system.  That’s where my work begins!

Questions and Comments
This section is a catch-all for user feedback that does not contain a scan request.  These may include image reuse requests, suggestions, error reporting, or technical questions.  Part of my job is to sort these submissions and determine what action is needed. 

Through such user queries, I help with technical questions, investigate and fix quality issues, and answer more traditional reference questions.  I get to indulge in my enjoyment of detail-oriented intellectual tasks by merging rogue scans into their main entries, correcting metadata errors, re-sequencing volumes, merging duplicate author names, and delving into complex bibliographic mysteries. I especially enjoy sharing praise with the rest of the BHL staff! 

Scan Requests
Members of the BHL user community are constantly helping our staff improve the quality of the BHL by requesting titles for inclusion and pointing out gaps in serials. A large portion of my duties consists of investigating these user submitted scan requests.

I begin by confirming that the requested item isn’t in BHL already.  Sometimes scan requests lead to the discovery of a mislabeled scan or to duplicate entries containing different volumes of the same title.  It’s great when I can satisfy a user request immediately by locating a difficult-to-find item in the BHL, and then make some changes so that it is more easily discovered by the next person.

If an item isn’t in the BHL, I check our queue to see if the item is already in progress.  We have over 1,000 issues open at any given moment, so it is not unusual for me to find that we are already hard at work on a particular scan request.

If the item is not already in progress, I will check to see if any of BHL’s member libraries holds the requested material and assign the scan accordingly.  An issue may be reassigned a number of times as institutions discover that their items are unable to be scanned, or that they lack specific volumes.  It is wonderful to see BHL collaboration in action as many partner libraries bring their collections together, digitally, in order to complete a series.

Submit Feedback!
I encourage you to take advantage of our feedback system. Our users make it possible for the Biodiversity Heritage Library to continually improve its offerings.  Our partners’ scanning priorities, our website’s design, the data export options that we offer, the goals we set for our project, and the social media platforms we embrace are all influenced though input from our users. We love to hear about how the BHL has aided the research of people around the world, and enjoy sharing some of the stories we hear in our BHL and Our Users feature. 
Be part of the conversation!

Monday, August 19, 2013

BHL at Summer Teacher Institutes

This summer, the Library of Congress hosted five-day Summer Teacher Institutes in Washington, DC.  As part of the most recent Institute, BHL shared an exhibit table on Science and Technology with the Library of Congress on Tuesday, August 6, 2013.  Carolyn Sheffield, of the Smithsonian Institution, shared information on BHL and distributed stickers, pins, and BHL business cards—complete with gorgeous illustrations from BHL.  Dr. Tomoko Steen, Research Specialist and Camron Lee, Junior Fellow, both of the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress, shared the table, helping to spread the word about BHL as well as sharing amazing education resources compiled by their Division. 

Attendees included 25 teachers from primary, secondary, undergraduate and graduate programs from across the country.   The majority of attendees had not heard of BHL before and were delighted to learn of the free resources that BHL makes available.  Many attendees expressed enthusiasm for the content, especially the images on Flickr, and many said that they were to share the information about BHL's free resources with their colleagues at their schools. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Happy Birthday to John Torrey!

It’s hard to imagine how the wild, western terrain of the United States looked just 200 years ago—try to replace the suburban communities, bright lights, interconnected highways, and towering buildings with the uninhibited growth of native plants in considerable number and variety occupying undeveloped and spacious lands. The pioneers that ventured beyond the Mississippi into this vast unknown were exalted as executors of manifest destiny, responsible for territorial expansion of the fledgling county. But for John Torrey, he saw this point in history not as an opportunity to advance American boundaries, but as the precise moment to advance scientific progress.

A portrait of the birthday boy, John Torrey.
From the New York Botanical Garden's
John Torrey Papers collection.  
Torrey was a different kind of pioneer, not an explorer, preferring instead the excitement of discoveries made under the microscope, to which he dedicated his life and his passions. So, this week we take a break from the regular Book of the Week posts to recognize Torrey on his 217th birthday for the significant contributions he made to botany, chemistry, and our understanding of North American flora.

Torrey was born August 15, 1796, in New York City to an established New England family, Captain William Torrey and Margaret Nichols. As a young man, Torrey showed great curiosity and interest in many subjects, but especially mechanics, thinking he might become a machinist. But when his father was appointed as Fiscal Agent of the State Prison in Greenwich, Torrey had a chance encounter with prisoner, and botanist in his own right, Amos Eaton. Eaton provided rudimentary instruction to Torrey, but, most significantly, awakened a zeal for the subject that remained with him throughout his life.

At first Torrey sought to cultivate this passion primarily as a leisure activity and pursued a medical degree, graduating and starting a moderately successful practice. But during his studies, Torrey made time to cofound the Lyceum of Natural History, now the New York Academy of Science; began documenting the plants in his vicinity; and published his first tome, “A Catalogue of Plants Growing Spontaneously Within Thirty Miles of the City of New York.”

His numerous correspondences with prominent scientists of the day can be viewed in the BHL and reflect the reach he had in contemporary academia, including contributions to the Smithsonian Institution, the American Philosophical Society, the New York Botanical Gardens, and the National Academy of Sciences at Washington, D.C.

Torrey was drawn to botany, but definitely not to fieldwork. He enjoyed the comforts of home and "considered it a great hardship to be sent after dark in the country." So Torrey stayed in New York during Stephen Long's exploration of the Rocky Mountains. And he also didn't join John Frémont's expedition to the same range. But that didn't stop him from using the data and samples collected during Long and Frémont's travels to name and describe thousands of new species and varieties of plants. 

Torrey preferred his bed to landscapes like this one at the Hill of Columnar Basalt
illustrated during the 1842 Frémont expedition. 

Some of the most notable works he authored include “Flora of the Northern and Middle Sections of the United States,” his extensive two-volume “Flora of the State of New York,” and the joint piece he wrote with Asa Gray “Flora of North America,” which was considered one of the most authoritative works on North American plants up to that time.

Torrey was known as a professor, botanist, chemist, and mineralogist and remembered for identifying, describing, and classifying much of what inhabited the rugged frontier. He was a pioneer for the American scientific community with the fundamental contributions he made to botanical knowledge and institutions. The last line in Torrey’s obituary by friend, co-author, and protégée Asa Gray perfectly encapsulates this lasting legacy:

“Thirty or forty years ago, a new and remarkable evergreen tree was discovered in our own Southern States, which it was at once determined should bear Dr. Torrey’s name. More recently a congener was found in the noble forests of California. Another species had already been recognized in Japan, and lately a fourth in the mountains of Northern China. All four of them have been introduced and are greatly prized as ornamental trees in Europe. So that, all round the world, Torreya taxifolia, Torreya Californica, Torreya nucifera, and Torreya grandis—as well as his own important contributions to botany, of which they are a memorial—should keep our associate’s memory as green as their own perpetual verdure.”

Couldn’t say it better than that. Happy birthday, John Torrey!

Torreya Californica, one of the legacy trees named in honor of Torrey, 

-Kirsten Hostetler, Marketing Intern at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

  •  John Torrey. (2013). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
  • Polunin, Nicholas. (1944). John Torrey: American Botanist. Nature, 154(3905), p. 294-295.
  • Gray, Asa. (1873, April). Memoir or John Torrey 1797-1873. Speech read before the National Academy.