Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Digital Specimen, Field Book, and Publication Trifecta

The Field Book Project (FBP) and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) are pleased to bring you a joint blog series showcasing some of the best examples of digital connections between museum specimens, field book catalog records, and the resulting publications for three notable expeditions. This four part series will continue over the coming months. Ever wonder what it takes to understand the full story of historical expedition science? Read on!
Burying Members of the Franklin Expedition at Starvation Cove, c. 1924. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Science Service Records, RU 007091, Box 409, Folder 2.  2005-8639.

It’s safe to say, everyone has an idea of what an expedition is; I hope all will agree when I say they are fascinating. Expeditions can be a thrilling story of exploration, national pride, thrill-seeking, and personal drama. They have been organized for a myriad of political or personal reasons; whatever these may have been, expeditions frequently yield natural history observations and specimens. Expeditions are also a wonderful source of information about biodiversity. Since expedition participants usually come from multiple institutions and disciplines, more collecting is often possible. This can result in a specimen collection of greater breadth and variety than a typical collecting event. With these characteristics, an expedition can prove a fascinating story and an important source of scientific documentation.

So I’ve been thinking it would be interesting to look at the Field Book Project’s expedition content. FBP was inspired by the challenges a researcher experienced tracking down specimens and field books from an expedition. Those experiences helped shape the cataloging structure FBP developed. We create catalog records for field books, their collections, and their creators (persons, organizations, and expeditions). Since we started, we have cataloged field books from 103 expeditions, some involving well-known individuals or documenting the first time an area was thoroughly studied.

Theodore Roosevelt on African Expedition, 1909. Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 00095, Box 56, Folder 10. SIA2009-1371.
On December 19th, FBP catalog records were made available through the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center. This has created what I like to think of as the trifecta. What constitutes the trifecta? There are three major parts to natural history documentation that have proven important to researchers with whom we’ve worked: (1) the specimens, (2) the field books created when specimens were collected, and (3) the publications that resulted from their study. The Smithsonian Institution maintains online databases for many of their specimens. As BHL blog readers know, Smithsonian Libraries has also contributed to the Biodiversity Heritage Library to provide digitized versions of the publications for free access online. The FBP now offers online descriptions of the individual primary documents. The trifecta is growing for a number of Smithsonian sponsored expeditions and collecting events. A researcher now has a better chance of locating a specimen, its related field book, and a publication that cites it.

As a Field Book Project cataloger, I am thrilled to see the last element of the trifecta, our records, now available. While cataloging, we often verify information like location names by searching for digitized publications the creator may have written based on the field books. I find it fascinating to see how a publication can be informed by a primary document and vice versa. A researcher may be able to determine what a creator saw as significant about the collecting through the publication, and see the day-to-day work that the creator used to come to that conclusion in the field book.

Researching an Expedition
“At the South Pole: Oscar wisting and his team arrive at the goal”
"At the South Pole: Oscar wisting and his team arrive at the goal” from The South Pole by Roald Amundsen, pg 121.  Biodiversity Heritage Library. 
What is so challenging about researching specimens and documentation from a historical expedition? When an expedition ends, it can eventually fall from the public consciousness. The specimens and documentation might then be divided. At the very least, specimens go to each institution whose staff collected it. Specimens and documentation may be separated again by type and sent to different departments within an institution (e.g. mammal specimens go to mammalogy, bird specimens to ornithology). The fact that they were collected during the same expedition may not be recorded with each handoff. Each separation makes it harder to guarantee that the expedition connection is still evident.

Publications resulting from expeditions also run a high risk of losing an explicit expedition connection. Book catalog records do not always indicate that a publication documents a certain expedition. A researcher looking for resulting publications might have to search for participants as authors, looking for a period of time after the expedition was completed, then read the publication itself to verify the content is relevant. Some of these issues, like discovery of expedition related publications, may seem pretty straightforward, but this type of search assumes that the researcher knows who took part in the expedition.

How expeditions are documented

Expedition documentation varies widely. In recent years, some universities and museums have used the general appeal of expeditions to highlight some of their own collections online. These can be wonderfully informative websites, but usually only cover a few expeditions of significance to the home institution.

The Smithsonian Institution, as part of its initiative to be a provider of public history, has a detailed list of Smithsonian related expeditions available as an online guide that covers 1878 – 1917, compiled from Smithsonian Annual Reports. The Institution’s annual reports have a long tradition of discussing any major fieldwork. Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) also maintains more than 150 individual expedition records. These records are at varied levels of completeness, since Annual Reports sometimes only mention the name of a collecting effort if it was small.

Over the last two years, FBP has documented 103 expeditions relating to field notes. Several were not in the extensive list already kept by SIA, but deeply buried in personal or departmental papers. These can be rich resources, but a researcher would usually not know the information was there without reading the materials, despite the detailed finding aids SIA generates every year.

Researching an expedition is like untangling a very large knot. FBP, BHL, and museum divisions work to increase online documentation so researchers can find the right string to pull. This is by no means a finished process; many of us know what a gnarly tangle the search through materials can become. The digitization of the specimen, field book and publication trifecta can only serve to ease the burden of this twisted ravel of biology, personal history and published record, helping us and our researchers to find the connections.

-Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project Cataloger 
--with contributions from Bianca Crowley, BHL Collections Coordinator

Friday, February 22, 2013

New BHL Steering Committee Members!

Trochilidae from Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur.
The Library of Congress announced its membership to the Biodiversity Heritage Library today. The fifteenth partner of the BHL, the Library of Congress will contribute to the digitization of historical science literature in the collection. All material will be online, free and available to the public.

“The Biodiversity Heritage Library is the preeminent global repository for historic science literature,” said Martin Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Libraries Associate Director for Digital Services and BHL Program Director. “We are excited that the Library of Congress has joined us in this effort, which is a vast information center providing resources to researchers, students and the general public interested in biodiversity.”

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds more than 151 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its collections, programs, publications and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at

BHL is also pleased to note that Cornell University Library, a BHL member since January 2012, has expanded it’s role in the BHL by becoming a Steering Committee member in January 2013. “We feel being part of BHL this past year has been very positive for Cornell and look forward to participating at the Steering Committee level” said Mary Ochs, Director of the Albert R. Mann Library at Cornell University.

BHL Steering Committee members contribute $10,000 in annual dues to the BHL project to support digitization, program administration, and technical development. Representatives from Steering Committee members vote on program budgets and strategic direction and have access to central funds for digitization.

We're excited to welcome the Library of Congress to the BHL family, and look forward to Cornell's expanded role in our consortium!

Browse titles contributed by Cornell University Libraries in BHL.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Say What?!

Sometimes I come across items in the BHL collection that elicit an immediate response. In this case it was, "Look at all those ears!"

Ears indeed. In 1912 Johan Erik Vesti Boas published his Ohrknorpel und √§usseres ohr der S√§ugetiere; eine vergleichend-anatomische Untersuchung (Ear cartilage and outer ear of mammals, a comparative anatomical study). Beautifully illustrated, Boas' book takes us through a host of mammal ears from rodents, to whales, kangaroos, pigs, bats, primates, and yes, even humans. There are some very nice cartilage spreads as well which we have included in our in our Flickr photostream but for now I will show some of my favorite pinnae (outer ear) pin-ups!

Find the ear of the tiny tenrec here!
Ooh, there's a pika ear in here!
Can you spot the capybara ear?
I cannot help but throw in a picture of a full color mammal pinna from my very own Canis lupus familiaris. If you look closely you can see the aperture, or the entrance of the ear canal, under all that hair.

The study of the mammalian ear is important to evolutionary biology in that is an exemplar of the concept of exaptation which describes how traits from one organismal group are co-opted to function differently in another group. In this case, the jawbones of reptiles were co-opted to form the ear bones of mammals commonly known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup. [1]

Next time you are enjoying the company of fellow mammals, human or otherwise, take a closer look at their ears and think of yourself as Dr. Boas (with a cabinet full of ear specimens!) carefully examining and comparing one of the more functional pairs of our anatomies: the ears.

--Bianca Crowley, BHL Collections Coordinator


Monday, February 11, 2013

Internship Opportunity: Paid BHL Virtual Reference Internship

Masdevallia veitchiana
Here at BHL, we have partners all over the world, and we try to coordinate our scanning efforts with our partner libraries to ensure that critical content is scanned with maximum efficiency and minimal duplication. This coordination includes collaborating to scan the nearly 2,000 scanning requests we've received since 2010. We have a variety of tools and established workflows to help us do this.

Are you a student pursuing your Library Science or Information Management Masters degree or a recent graduate? Do you have a passion for reference work and digital libraries? Do you want to learn how the largest digital library for biodiversity science manages digitization efforts on a global scale? Do you want to help us grow our collection of over 40 million digitized pages of open access biodiversity literature? Do you want to gain real-world library experience that can help prepare you for a lifetime of library work? 

Then the paid BHL Virtual Reference Internship, hosted through the Smithsonian Libraries, is just for you! View the full internship description and learn how you can apply today by scrolling to the bottom of this webpage:

Due Date for Applications: March 11, 2013

Internship Description:

Biodiversity Heritage Library Virtual Reference Intern

  • Location of internship: National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC); virtual work options also available.
  • Desired knowledge/skill sets (include education level): Students pursuing a Masters in Library & Information Science or recent graduates of an accredited MLIS program. Knowledge of LC Subject Headings and Name Authorities, XML exports and metadata cross-walking, MARC21 Fields and standard cataloging practices are highly desirable, but not required. Students with an eagerness to learn more about digital librarianship, virtual reference work and/or cataloging are strongly encouraged to apply.
  • Brief description of project: The Biodiversity Heritage Library is the world’s largest open access digital library of natural history literature ( BHL Virtual Reference Interns will work closely with the BHL collections team to process scanning requests received from users and issue digitization assignments to the appropriate library within the BHL’s 14-member international library consortium. Interns will utilize an issue tracking system to manage the scanning request workflow. Routine activities will include the need to research literature citations provided by users, investigate BHL member consortium library holdings to determine the best scanning candidate, monitor requests as they are processed by BHL staff, and correspond with users. Interns will also work in the collection’s back-end database to correct bibliographic metadata for BHL titles and volumes as needed.
Questions or comments? Send us feedback or write to

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Our Little Town

By Rick Wright, BHL Guest Blogger

Alexander Wilson
It’s almost a year now since we moved to Bloomfield, and I’m still not over my disappointment at our new New Jersey home’s failure to honor its most distinguished citizen. Not a statue, not a plaque to be found anywhere; and that short boulevard leading to the cemetery turns out, alas, to be named for Woodrow.

Alexander Wilson, the Father of American Ornithology, served as schoolmaster in our little town for a few months in 1801. Wilson’s teaching in Bloomfield was “spirit-sinking, laborious work,” and he doesn’t seem to have found much intellectual stimulus outside the classroom either, complaining in a poem dated August 7 that:

Here bull-headed Ignorance gapes and is courted,
And pale Superstition with visage distorted.
Sweet Science and Truth, while these monsters they cherish,
Like the Babes of the Wood are abandoned to perish.

Wilson got out as soon as he could, and by February 1802 he was back among the sophisticates of Philadelphia.


If only he’d managed to stick around.

By 1877—sixty-four years after Wilson’s untimely death 200 years ago this August—Bloomfield was a veritable hotbed of ornithological activity. Of the 21 New Jersey amateurs listed in Willard’s Directory of the Ornithologists of the United States, no fewer than four give Bloomfield as their mailing address.

William Brewster
All four, admittedly, were small-time collectors.

Up in Cambridge, William Brewster’s personal holdings that year comprised 6500 specimens, valued at the enormous sum of $5000. Here in Bloomfield, our colleagues had much smaller collections, each of them containing just a few dozen eggs and none of them worth more than $20.

The largest collection in our little town, that belonging to J.L. Adams, held 75 eggs; that makes the average specimen worth a little more than a quarter, the going price a few years later for the shell of a Black Skimmer or a Loggerhead Shrike. The smaller cabinets of Henry D. Davenport, Wm. F. Day, and E.C. Farrand were just as modest, with the average value per egg between twenty and twenty-five cents.

Egg plate by John Ridgway from Bendire’s Life Histories


None of these Bloomfield Four seems to have left more than a trace in the written record of American birding and ornithology. Their reticence was more than made up for by Bloomfield’s leading ornithologist a generation later, Louis Slidell Kohler.

Kohler’s family was living in Bloomfield by the early 1890s; he seems to have divided his final years—starting around 1919—between Hawthorne and a farm near Paterson, where he died sometime after 1926.

Kohler began his bird studies in Bloomfield, exploring a twenty-acre farm near his house that he called “The Haunt.” He applied for membership in the Cooper Ornithological Club in 1909, and was elected an associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1910. His notes, lists, and essays appeared over the years in the Auk, the Wilson Bulletin, and the Oologist. Unlike the earlier Bloomfieldians, and refreshing for his generation, Kohler does not seem to have been much of a collector; his published articles report on the birds observed—not shot and stuffed—on his “jaunts” and “tramps” through what was still the countryside of northern New Jersey. 

Kohler's observations in The Wilson Bulletin

Kohler’s publications include documentation of range expansions, winter irruptions, and notable migration events. Like most of us, he made the occasional error, as when he reported the nest of a Wilson’s Warbler in New Jersey—dismissed, almost certainly correctly, by the editor of the Auk as “a case of mistaken identity.”  


In the spring of 1903, Louis Kohler put Bloomfield firmly on the ornithological map with his sighting of a flock of fifteen European Starlings “in the neighborhood of a refuse pile on a farm”—probably “The Haunt.” The birds lingered until July, conspicuous for “their odd gyrations while in the air and methods of alighting on the ground.” When the flock returned the following March, it had grown to 200 birds, which soon “broke up into pairs and began seeing nesting places…. in cupolas, on station poles of the telephone companies and in deserted woodpecker nest holes.” Soon enough, starlings were ejecting Northern Flickers, Eastern Bluebirds, and other birds from their nests, and Kohler was "almost convinced that the time is not far off when they will become as obnoxious as the omnipresent [House Sparrow] is to us now."

He was right.

In August 1911, Robert Barbour—himself a member of the Cooper Club and of the AOU—described in the pages of the New York Times a flock of 60,000 starlings, House Sparrows, Common Grackles, and American Robins roosting on Bloomfield Avenue just across the Montclair line.

What with the excrement of the birds, the feathers that they shed, and the leaves that they dislodged, sidewalks and piazza steps would be like a poultry yard or worse. The odor, I am told, at times made it unpleasant to use the piazzas in the evening, and those going out in the evening found it desirable to walk in the middle of the street in the interest of personal cleanliness.

Violence was inevitable. On August 30, Peter Stevens, “was arraigned before Justice of the Peace Cadmus of Bloomfield, [for] shooting five starlings” two weeks earlier. The charges had been brought by State Game Warden Frederick J. Hall of Bloomfield, and the City of Montclair wasted no time in issuing a formal denial that it had in any way authorized the shootings. Stevens, “a colored man in the employ of the Montclair Street Department,” was fined the exorbitant sum of $100—$20 a bird. Stevens could not pay, and was jailed for two days.      

To its great credit, Montclair stepped up at the end of those two days and filed an appeal on Stevens’s behalf, arguing that the confession he signed had been obtained in an “irregular” fashion. How the case was concluded, and how the dynamics of race, social standing, and urban rivalry were finally played out, I do not know. Montclair swore to take its defense of Stevens to the Supreme Court if necessary, though public opinion was clearly against him, as shown by the

scores of letters from all parts of New Jersey asking that the persons responsible for the killing of the birds be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Pearson on Peter Stevens's Starlings

Gilbert Pearson, reviewing the matter in Bird Lore, took satisfaction in the affair as

evidence of the rapidly increasing refinement of sentiment that comes with advancing civilization. It is a most positive fact that, the more cultured the community, the greater the esteem in which the wild bird is held.

Even starlings.


It’s easy to feel like a pioneer in a new place, as if everything new to us is, simply, new. How much richer the experience of novelty, though, when we realize that there is a past behind us, a past inhabited by the rightly famous, the nearly unknown, and the unjustly notorious. That is just the sort of knowledge that can help make any little town into our little town.

Rick Wright, BHL Guest Blogger
Follow Rick on Twitter: @birdernewjersey

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

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Internship Opportunity!

New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus
Be a Marketing Intern for BHL! Are you a library student or recent graduate? Do you love biodiversity, writing, and old books? Love to blog, tweet, and post on Facebook? Then our new internship opportunity, hosted through the Smithsonian Libraries, is perfect for you! Learn more and apply today! Virtual work options are available.





Project Title: Biodiversity Heritage Library Marketing Intern 


Dates preferred: Spring or Summer 2013

Full time or Part time:
Part time

Location of internship: National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC); virtual work options also available.                 

Desired knowledge/skill sets (include education level): Students pursing a Library and Information Science Masters or recent graduates. Strong writing and research skills a must. Students with a demonstrated interest in a biological sciences subject specialty, reference librarianship, digital librarianship, and/or library marketing are strongly encouraged to apply.

Brief description of project: The Biodiversity Heritage Library, an open access digital library of natural history literature (, seeks an intern to help tell the story of life on earth within the context of the historical biological literature to benefit the BHL blog ( Interns will conduct research on the publication history of a given species or natural history event, such as a scientific expedition or breakthrough discovery, and communicate these findings in writing to demonstrate the relevance of the BHL collection to modern audiences. Interns will work closely with BHL Outreach and Collections staff to perform an environmental scan of competitive biodiversity related blogs as well as generate ideas to reinvent or create new blog series. Where appropriate, interns will repurpose their research on associated BHL outreach platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

Interns will have the opportunity to:
  • Begin to develop a subject specialty in the biological sciences, gaining a deep knowledge of some of the monumental publications that have shaped biodiversity knowledge. 
  • Improve their written communication and research skills.
  • Conduct an environmental scan and summarize results for BHL project leadership.
  • Increase their understanding of digital library oriented marketing strategies, exploring how blog posts serve as a cornerstone to BHL's efforts with various social media platforms.
  • Perform analysis of blog audience demographics and readership metrics.
  • Learn about the BHL's book digitization workflows, collection development activities, digital library web services, and the importance of open access and open data within the bioinformatics context. 
  • Develop teamwork and interpersonal skills in a fast-paced, multitasking, professional library environment.

Please note: This is an unpaid internship.

To apply, please visit the Smithsonian Online Academic Appointment Sytem ( Select "Smithsonian Institution Libraries" as unit and "Smithsonian Institution Libraries Internship Program" as program. Project will remain open until filled.

You can send questions regarding the internship to 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Fulfilling our Outreach Strategy: BHL and Field Books at ALA Midwinter 2013

Left to Right: Grace Costantino, Carolyn Sheffield, Bianca Crowley
On Friday, January 25-Monday, January 28, 2013, BHL hosted a booth in conjunction with the Smithsonian Archive’s Field Book Project at the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting in Seattle, Washington. The booth was a chance to connect with the thousands of librarians and information professionals that attend ALA, introducing them to our open access initiatives and fantastic free resources.

BHL Collections Coordinator Bianca Crowley, BHL Program Manager Grace Costantino, and Field Book Project Manager Carolyn Sheffield, with support from BHL Program Director Martin Kalfatovic, Field Museum's Technical Services Librarian Diana Duncan, and Smithsonian Libraries’ Metadata Librarian Suzanne Pilsk (both of whom regularly contribute to the BHL project), spoke with over a hundred people during the four exhibit days. Providing valuable project information (to many who had never before heard of BHL or the Field Book Project), booth staffers also gave out cool swag, including pens, brochures, stickers, buttons, book marks, and business cards, and conducted two raffles for prizes including books and greeting cards and matted prints gleaned from BHL’s fantastic Flickr site.

BHL and Field Book Project Swag at ALA booth.
In a sea of vendors attempting to sell an array of library-related products and services, BHL and the Field Book Project’s free resources were a breath of fresh air that attracted many curious and enthusiastic visitors. One particularly memorable encounter involved two librarians who, just a week before the conference, had an inquiry from a patron who wanted a digital version of Audubon’s Birds of America. At the time, they were unable to satisfy the request, but, upon learning of BHL, excitedly remarked that they could now fulfill their patron’s need. Another visitor, a blog writer, was especially attracted to BHL’s free images and expressed a desire to feature the project in a future blog post. A German librarian - who remarked after being introduced to BHL, “How do I not know about this?!” – asked what he could do to help tell others about the project. And, perhaps most rewarding for those at the booth, a visitor Saturday evening asserted that our project was “One of the more interesting things going on in this building.”

Carolyn Sheffield (left) and Bianca Crowley (center) with visitors at the ALA booth.

The conference in Seattle also provided BHL staff with another unique opportunity – to be interviewed for an upcoming BHL video produced by Lockheed Martin (a follow-up to the 2011 emmy-winning video about the Smithsonian Libraries). Interviewees included Martin Kalfatovic, Bianca Crowley, Grace Costantino, Carolyn Sheffield, and Nancy Gwinn (Smithsonian Libraries Director and BHL Executive Chair). The film crew also set up shop at the exhibit hall’s opening reception Friday night, shooting footage of booth visitors and conducting an impromptu interview with Rebecca Wilke (a BHL volunteer at the Field Museum working to improve BHL’s metadata) who serendipitously stopped by the booth. Check back on our blog, Twitter and Facebook for more information about the video’s future release.

The BHL button at the Public Market in Seattle.

Events like ALA provide an incredible opportunity for us to showcase the BHL project. It is not enough to make natural history literature freely available through BHL. We must also ensure that people are aware of the work we do. Presenting at conferences is an important piece of our outreach strategy. If you have any suggestions for conferences or venues we should be present at, please send us feedback or email us as Each digitized book and each user connection moves us closer to the day when the entire published record of biodiversity knowledge is available to everyone, everywhere.