Thursday, December 31, 2015

An Artist Steps Out of the Shadows: Using Social Media to Solve a Question of Identity

Over the years, we've discovered that social media is a pretty awesome way to learn more about our collections. Recently, a Twitter conversation helped us unravel the true identity of an incredible natural history artist.

In November, one of our star citizen scientists Siobhan Leachman was working on adding artist machine tags to images in the BHL Flickr (want to learn more about how to do that? See this guide!). She was working on Wonders of the Bird World (1921), which was digitized for BHL by Cornell University Library. The title page stated that it was illustrated by A.T. Elwes. But who exactly was this Elwes?

Wonders of the bird world. By Bowdler Sharpe. Illustrations by A. T. Elwes. (1921)

There was lots of information online about an Alfred Elwes (1819-1888), a prolific 19th century British author who wrote many books related to animals. What was unclear was whether this Alfred Elwes was the same person as A.T. Elwes, which, after some research, was found to be an abbreviation for Alfred Thomas Elwes. Siobhan reached out to BHL and many other libraries on social media to uncover the truth.

Thanks to leads from a variety of people, including @silmaril11 and Mann Library at Cornell University, the mystery was finally solved.

A.T. Elwes was NOT Alfred Elwes. They were distinct individuals that shared nearly identical names and were active during many of the same years. Alfred Thomas Elwes (A.T. Elwes), however, was born in 1841 and died in 1917 (compared to Alfred Elwes' 1819 birth and 1888 death).

Through the leads she discovered via social media, Siobhan was able to learn much more about A.T. Elwes. She consolidated this information into a new Wikipedia article about him.

Alfred Thomas Elwes (A.T. Elwes) was a British natural history illustrator of mammals and birds. Though born in Leghorn, Italy around 1841, he lived and worked for most of his life in England. From 1872 to 1877, he was employed by the Illustrated London News as the chief draftsman of natural history subjects.

The birds of our rambles : with a companion for the country. By Charles Dixon. Illustrations by A. T. Elwes. (1891)

A.T. Elwes was an extremely productive artist, illustrating many natural history books over his lifetime. Many of these titles are in BHL, and, thanks to Siobhan, the Wikipedia article includes a list of a good many of them, as well as links to them in BHL where available. Some of the titles include The birds of our rambles : with a companion for the country (1891), The game birds and wild fowl of the British Islands; being a handbook for the naturalist and sportsman (1893), Birds' Nests (1902), and Wonders of the Bird World (1921).

Birds' nests; an introduction to the science of caliology. By Charles Dixon I.lustrations by A. T. Elwes. (1902).

The game birds and wild fowl of the British Islands; being a handbook for the naturalist and sportsman. By Charles Dixon. Illustrations by A.T. Elwes. (1893).

Social media is a powerful tool. It's not just a way to share what you ate for lunch or even just a tool for chatting with friends. It's also a networking and information goldmine, allowing you to draw on the expertise of disparate individuals and organizations in a variety of disciplines to get answers to questions that might otherwise be nearly impossible to solve on your own. For us at BHL, it's an amazing tool for not only sharing BHL and our collections with the world, but also for learning more about the incredible books we hold and the remarkable individuals that produced them. Thanks, Siobhan, for all of your incredible dedication and passion. We love our collections even more because of you!

Want to share your own expertise about our collections with us or learn more about the books we hold? Engage with us on Twitter and Facebook, follow our blog, and leave comments on books in BHL. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Farewell from Technical Director William Ulate

The dawn of a new year is an exciting time - a time to look forward to new possibilities and embark on new initiatives. Sometimes, however, it can also be tinged with sadness as these new beginnings may require us to say goodbye as well. For us at BHL, 2016 will also mean saying goodbye to William Ulate as our Technical Director. We have been honored to have him as our Technical Director since 2012 and will miss him in this role. 

William also wanted to take an opportunity to share his thoughts and well-wishes for everyone at BHL in this post:

As some of you may know, I will no longer be the BHL Technical Director after 2015, so I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone in our BHL family for your valuable and kind support during these last three years as Technical Director and two years before that as Global Coordinator.

At the Center for Biodiversity Informatics
with Founding BHL Technical Director
Chris Freeland, back in 2012.
Particularly, I would like to thank my colleagues at the BHL Technical Team, our former Technical Director, Chris Freeland, the Executive Committee and the TAG members, past and present, for their guidance and trust since 2012.  I also have to recognize the invaluable support from all the folks from the IT Department at Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG).  My gratitude goes also to our Director, Martin Kalfatovic, the Secretariat at Smithsonian and the BHL Staff for all the time we spent working together in numerous meetings and calls... and outside of them too.

But most of all, I would like to wish you all in BHL the best for the upcoming years.  I am positive that the future plans and challenges we have been talking about will make for very interesting technical developments.  I look back proudly to our past achievements from these last 5 years and, as often happens, wish we could've done more. However, I believe changes are opportunities and judging from my experience, I am sure BHL will succeed on its endeavor thanks to the continuous work and involvement of each one of you.

At Missouri, USA
For me, this is not a reason to be sad but rather hopeful, because I know the best for BHL is yet to come and, besides, I'm not going too far next year either.  I will still be around since we have received a no-cost extension from the IMLS for the Digging into Data Challenge to finish the Mining Biodiversity project.  And I will remain employed at the Center for Biodiversity Informatics of the Missouri Botanical Garden with the World Flora Online project, so you may still be hearing from me from time to time...

Finally, I just want to say that it has been an honor and a privilege to work by your side. I've made a lot of friends worldwide and learned a lot from you all.  For that and many reasons more, my sincerest "¡Gracias!"   As a Latin American, I believe BHL is evidently one of the most successful projects for biodiversity information repatriation, so I would love to see its continuous development for many years to come...  Keep the good work!

¡Hasta pronto!

William Ulate.
Somewhere in Costa Rica

Thank you, William, for all of your wonderful years of service, and we look forward to still seeing you on various other biodiversity projects in the future!

Best Wishes, The BHL Family

Monday, December 28, 2015

Ondřej Dostál, Director of the Mendel Museum visit the BHL Secretariat Offices

The BHL Secretariat was honored to be visited by Mgr. Ondřej Dostál, Director of the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

Dr. Dostál shared information about the digitization work being done at the museum, particularly around the works of Mendel.

Special thanks to Tomoko Steen, BHL Member representative from the Library of Congress, who introduced Dr. Dostál to Program Director Martin Kalfatovic and also joined us for our meeting.

There was also an opportunity for Dr. Dostál to visit the Smithsonian Libraries' Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History and the Smithsonian Libraries' digitization facility in the National Museum of Natural History.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

BHL Annual Report Now Available!

We are pleased to announce that the Fiscal Year 2015 BHL Annual Report is now available!

Want to learn how our collections grew this past year, or how our audiences engaged with these collections, or explore the many new and exciting citizen science and outreach initiatives we've embarked on this year? Then check out the report today!

You can also see the latest updates from BHL in our newsletter. See the Fall 2015 edition archived here.

Want to stay up to date with all the great news from BHL? Then be sure to sign up for our quarterly newsletter here

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tired of Poinsettias? Bah, Humbug! Then into the Smithsonian Libraries

This post originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog. View the original post here.

By Julia Blakely
Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

Blooms in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History.

Tired of poinsettias?

Last year, we at BHL asked this question in social media and offered up vibrant, joyful portraits of the amaryllis instead. But one commentator declared “Poinsettias rule!” And indeed poinsettias do reign as an economic powerhouse of the nursery industry, cultivated all over the world. The public areas of the various Smithsonian museums and the neighboring Botanic Gardens on the Mall in Washington now have abundant, seasonal displays of poinsettias, beautiful specimens propagated by the talented horticulturists of the Federal greenhouses. The palette of colors and shapes are wonderful, never a dull sight this time of year.

The Smithsonian Castle (made up entirely of plant materials) nestled in the display of poinsettias in the Garden Court of the United States Botanic Garden.

Potted plants in the Smithsonian Libraries’ collection areas are generally discouraged because of the insects they may harbor, potentially harmful to the books on the shelves. Consequently, there are no seasonal flowers welcoming researchers to the reading rooms. However, anyone can find holiday blossoms in the Libraries by going on a virtual plant hunt. The range of holdings in the Smithsonian Libraries provides both images and a full portrayal of the poinsettias’ history (some of it mythic) and, a renewed appreciation for this remarkable plant. There is still a fuller story yet to be told, to separate oft-repeated lore from actual evidence, waiting to be fully investigated in the Libraries’ resources.

It is commonly known that the poinsettia was named to honor physician, politician, diplomat, and amateur botanist, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). He was a special envoy, then first Minister, representing the United States in Mexico from 1822 to 1830. Perhaps not as well-known is that the flower (the showy part is actually leaves or bracts) had an association with Christmas long before it was promoted by American and European nurseries. Further, the relationship between the plant and Poinsett is not as straightforward as often portrayed.

Lithograph and cut paper on paper portrait of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1841, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr.).

The Aztecs of the principal city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) imported the plant from southern Mexico to northern Guatemala, where it thrives in the landscape of lower altitudes and warmer climate. In the ancient Nahuatl language it is called cuetlaxochitl - xochitl meaning ornamental flower. The winter-blooming plant was used for medicinal purposes (from its sap) and as a source of red dye (from the bracts). There is also evidence that cuetlaxochitl was used in religious ceremonies, its brilliant color representing purity. Ancient Aztec herbals, the few surviving from the Pre-Columbian period, may have references and illustrations to both the health properties and ritual uses of the plant. There are facsimile copies of these rare works in both the Smithsonian Libraries’ Anthropology, National Museum of American Indian and Special Collections Libraries.

As with other pagan rituals and symbols – think of winter greenery (pine, holly, mistletoe), of wreaths and trees brought indoors and the yule log – the star-shaped flower was incorporated into Christmas celebrations. In particular, it had a role in the nativity procession of the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. After the Conquest, with Spanish missionaries in Mexico, the plant became known as “Flore de Noche Buena” or “Flower of the Holy Night” (Christmas Eve).

In a 2011 article by the Agricultural School of Purdue University, many of the myths of the poinsettia were investigated and debunked. There is no evidence, only legend, that it was Poinsett who introduced the plant to the United States, first to his native South Carolina. As a learned gentleman, he may have had a role in sending seeds to colleagues in Philadelphia where poinsettias were displayed in 1828. From that city, Scottish nurseryman Robert Buist brought cuttings to James McNab in Edinburgh. A German botanist, Karl Willdenow, provided the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, first published in 1834, by Johann Friedrich Klotzsch. Back in Edinburgh, another botanist, Robert Graham, changed the name in 1836 to Poinsettia pucherrima, although that version never did take officially. Another story is that William Hickling Prescott, the author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) gave the name to honor his friend in that publication. There are many copies of this title in the Smithsonian Libraries. As early as 1836 Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (London, volume 63) published a stunning illustration entitled Poinsettia pulcherrima (Showy Poinsettia).

Hand-colored engraving by Samuel Curtis. Curtis's Botanical magazine. Digitized image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, copy supplied by the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

There is research, appropriately enough published by The Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin in the journal Willdenowia, finding that earlier botanical expeditions to Mexico predating Poinsett had sent the first cuttings back to Europe. The Royal Botanical Expedition to New Spain, led by Martín de Sessé y Lacasta (1751-1808) and José Mariano Mociño (1757–1820) is the first contender. Following that were the explorations of Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858) and, after the independence of Mexico in 1821, the collectors for the Natural History Museum in Berlin, Christian Julius Wilhelm Schiede (1798-1838) and Ferdinand Deppe (1798-1836).

Poinsettias were prized in Europe and America from the mid-19th century, although still a luxury grown in greenhouses. The Ecke family nursery, founded by German immigrants setting in Hollywood, California, was the great popularizer of poinsettias. The Eckes focused their floriculture business exclusively on poinsettias from 1909. Talented in their cultivation of exotics and clever in marketing, the nursery made the plant widely available. Their promotion of the plant can be seen in nursery catalogs digitized in BHL. The Ecke poinsettia nurseries were taken over by the Dutch conglomerate Agribo in 2012, now owned by a private equity group comprising the third-largest horticultural business in the world.

The growth in the commercial trade of the poinsettia can be traced in nursery catalogs. There are a great number in the trade literature collection of the National Museum of American History Library. This title page is courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized from a copy in the National Agricultural Library.

In our search for a fuller history of the plant as preserved in the Smithsonian Libraries, it should be pointed out that Joel Roberts Poinsett is also a figure in the pre-history of the Smithsonian, as a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts. This organization was made up of prominent figures advocating a vision for the use of James Smithson’s unexpected bequest to the United States. There are several works either written by Poinsett or associated with the National Institute in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Special Collections.

Poinsett’s death date, December 12th, is now National Poinsettia Day in the United States. Pause and admire living blooms you pass by and ponder the plant’s rich, if not entirely, settled history. Then consider exploring the wide-range holdings of the Smithsonian Libraries - from the art, natural and American histories, botanical, horticultural, anthropology, rare books, digital resources, and trade literature collections - to find new discoveries of the story of the poinsettia.

Studies of Poinsettias, Sophia L. Crownfield, drawing, early 20th century (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection; gift of Starling W. Childs and Ward Cheney).

Thursday, December 17, 2015

BHL Isn’t Just For Biologists

Charles Darwin is famous for the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The theory hinges on the mutability of species, whereby the propagation of certain favorable traits within members of a species may gradually result in the evolution of that species. The question of when Darwin first came to believe in the mutability of species - when he became a "convinced transmutationist" - has long been a point of contention among historians of science.

There are two prevailing theories on the topic. The early conversion hypothesis states that Darwin developed a belief in the transmutation of species while on the Beagle voyage based on observed similarities between the fossils he was collecting and extant species in the area. The second theory, the late conversion hypothesis, holds that Darwin did not start believing that species were mutable until after the Beagle voyage, once experts in England had studied the specimens he collected. Today, most historians of science support the latter theory.

Dr. Paul D. Brinkman, Head of the History of Science Research Lab and Curator of Special Collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, finds the late conversion theory flawed.

Paul D. Brinkman consorting with known pirates in Charleston, SC.

Brinkman has been studying the history of science for nearly twenty years. He specializes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century geology and vertebrate paleontology, especially in the American West, and is also interested in the spread of science from Europe to the New World and the trans-Atlantic exchanges of specimens and ideas. The question of when Darwin adopted a transmutationist viewpoint is of particular interest to Dr. Brinkman.

In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of the History of Biology entitled "Charles Darwin's Beagle Voyage, Fossil Vertebrate Succession, and the 'Gradual Birth & Death of Species,'" Brinkman argues that Darwin's own journals from the Beagle voyage (which include discussions of the similarities between some of the fossils he was collecting and extant species - notably Glyptodontidae fossils and living armadillos - and reflections regarding fossil vertebrate succession - which Darwin himself later identified as a key element in his contemplation on the origin of species) suggest that Darwin's adoption of transmutationism happened gradually but certainly during, and not after, the Beagle voyage.

Darwin's journals and publications, as well as the books that Darwin was known to have in his Beagle library, provide key information that Brinkman used to support his arguments. As such, access to these materials is crucial to Brinkman's research. Thanks to BHL, it's easier than ever for him to obtain these resources.

Dr. Brinkman was introduced to BHL many years ago by Christine Giannoni, Museum Librarian at The Field Museum. Christine is a star promoter of BHL, having been involved with the program for many years; she currently serves as the Museum's Member Representative to BHL. Thanks to her introduction, Brinkman is now a regular user of BHL.

"BHL is a wonderful resource," lauds Brinkman. "I use a lot of old and obscure resources in my line of work, and BHL makes getting access to these sources a lot easier."

The cover of the American Naturalist of September, 1895, which Brinkman downloaded from BHL for a recent project entitled “Edward Drinker Cope’s final feud.”

When conducting research, Brinkman often refers to BHL 8-10 times a day, reading articles online or downloading relevant pages as PDFs. He also downloads title pages and significant figures for use in lecture slides. And while he may refer to specialized material when conducting specific research, the most-common type of material that he consults on BHL may surprise you.

"I probably use old museum annual reports more than any other single resource on BHL," explains Brinkman. "This is especially useful, as a lot of these old reports have been relegated to offsite storage at many university libraries, which can sometimes mean long delays. BHL, however, provides them at the click of a button!"

So, whether it's helping a scientist confirm the identity of a specimen collected in the field or providing primary source evidence to support the work of historians of science, it's clear that BHL greatly increases the efficiency of research for those working in a variety of disciplines. We think Darwin would approve. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In Search of the White Whale: A Legend, a Fossil, a Living Mammal

In this reconstruction, a pod of Albicetus travel together through the Miocene Pacific Ocean, surfacing occasionally to breathe. Modern sperm whales are also known for forming these tight-knit groups, composed mainly of females and their calves. Art by A. Boersma for the Smithsonian.

1820. Far west of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. A whaleship pursues a pod of sperm whales. Suddenly, an eighty-five foot long giant charges the ship, ramming it with its head not once, but twice, caving in the bows and sending the ship to a watery grave.

This is the story of the sinking of the Essex, the subject of Ron Howard's movie adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's novel In the Heart of the Sea, opening this Friday. The sperm whale that sank the Essex also served as one source of inspiration for another literary icon - the infamous white whale Moby Dick.

In addition to the big screen, another "white whale" hits the spotlight on a different stage this week - the scientific stage. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution have just published new research on an extinct sperm whale that roamed the seas millions of years ago, which they've named Albicetus ("white whale").

Today's modern sperm whale was first scientifically described by Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae, a pivotal work that laid the foundation for our modern system of zoological nomenclature. Within this work, Linnaeus initially described the sperm whale as four separate species: Physeter catodon, Physeter macrocephalus, Physeter microps, and Physeter tursio. Today, we recognize that Linnaeus was actually describing only one species, which is now known by the binomial Physeter macrocephalus.

In the years following Linnaeus' naming of the species, mystery and confusion surrounded the sperm whale, and over a dozen species names and multiple genera were published for the whale by the mid-1800s. Most of what information could be gleaned about the animal came from specimens that washed ashore, such as that depicted in Johann Jonstonus' 17th century work Historiae naturalis de quadrupetibus libri, and from whaling expeditions.

Sperm Whale stranding. Jonstonus, Joannes. Historiae naturalis de quadrupetibus libri. pt. 2-6. 1650.

In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, whaling was an important industry, and the sperm whale, with its spermaceti organ full of valuable sperm oil, was a primary target for whalers.  Despite the threats posed by the industry to whale populations, whalers were perhaps in the best position to learn more about the species they hunted. These expeditions also offered naturalists excellent opportunities to study these cetaceans.

One such individual was Thomas Beale (1807-1849), a British surgeon who, in 1830, joined the London whaling ship Kent as the physician on an expedition to the South Seas. Through his keen observations during the expedition, Beale gathered much information about the sperm whale, and, upon his return to England, published a fifty-eight page booklet for subscribers in 1835 entitled A Few Observations on the Natural History of the Sperm Whale, with an account of the Rise and Progress of the Fishery, and of the Modes of Pursuing, Killing, and "Cutting In" that Animal, with a List of its Favourite Places of Resort. The booklet was so well received that Beale revised, expanded, and republished it in 1839 as The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. This work served as the primary source of what was known about sperm whales at the time, and the Penny Cyclopedia hailed "Mr. his excellent work on the 'Natural History of the Sperm Whale,' has done more to elucidate its habits and form than any other writer."

Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. 1839.

Beale's work was an important reference for Herman Melville, who acknowledged the book as a primary source of information for the cetological section of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Whaling provided additional inspiration for this work; the climax of Melville's novel is based on the same events recounted within In the Heart of the Sea - the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. The crew that escaped the sinking of this ship spent three months at sea, covered 4,500 miles, and resorted to tragic lengths to stay alive. Of the 20 men who left the Essex, only 5 survived. Owen Chase, chief mate of the Essex, kept a journal of the events, which was later published as Narrative of the Most Extraordinary Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex, of Nantucket; which was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-whale, in the Pacific Ocean. Melville read Chase's account of the event, and acknowledged its impact on his writing. The events were circulated within many natural history books, such as in this account within Johnson's Household Book of Nature (1880).

While today there are only three extant species in the sperm whale family (the sperm whale and its relatives, the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales), their evolutionary history has seen many additional members. One of these, Albicetus oxymycterus, lived around 15 million years ago in the North Pacific Ocean, and now, thanks to research conducted by Dr. Nick Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and Smithsonian research student Alex Boersma, we have a better understanding of this animal's place in its family's evolutionary history.

Archival specimen notes for type specimen for Albicetus oxymycterus.

Mr. Charles A. Roe collected the type specimen for Albicetus oxymycterus from the sea cliffs near the original Santa Barbara Lighthouse (known as the Santa Barbara Light) sometime around 1909. Archival typewritten notes at USNM indicate that Mr. Roe had “first observed the specimen when he was a boy, some 30 years before.” After Mr. Roe’s death, his wife presented the National Museum of Natural History (then the United States National Museum) with the specimen in 1924.

Albicetus oxymycterus specimen. Kellogg, Remington. Proceedings of the United States National Museum. v. 66 (1926).

At the time, well-known naturalist and paleontologist Remington Kellogg had an avid interest in this material (Kellogg would later become curator of vertebrate paleontology at USNM and make extensive contributions to the study of fossil marine mammals). Kellogg took it upon himself to describe the Santa Barbara specimen, and published his findings in 1925. He assigned the specimen to the genus Ontocetus, which was first named by Joseph Leidy on the basis on a large tooth found in the 19th century, which he thought belonged to a large marine mammal, and likely a sperm whale. Kellogg also thought this tooth, Ontocetus emmonsi, resembled the large dentition of his sperm whale specimen, which led him to place the Santa Barbara fossil as a new species in the genus Ontocetus. However, recent authors, weighing in favor of dissenting opinions about Ontocetus since the 19th century, have argued that the original tooth of Ontocetus emmonsi belongs not to a sperm whale, but to an ancient walrus.

3D model of Ontocetus emmonsi from Smithsonian X 3D.

In light of our improved understanding of the Ontocetus genus, Pyenson and Boersma re-evaluated the specimen and erected a new genus for it, Albicetus, or “white whale,” in homage to Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Since our specimen is most definitely an ancient sperm whale, we needed to give it a new and more appropriate genus name," explained Pyenson. "While we don’t know what its skin color in life actually looked like, the color of the fossil is an ashen white. It only seemed appropriate to evoke Melville’s white sperm whale Moby Dick.”

Alex Boersma with the NMNH Albicetus oxymycterus specimen. Photo Credit: James Di Loreto, NMNH Imaging.

Boersma and Pyenson published the name and their accompanying research about the fossil, which includes an estimation of the size of the whale and its place in the sperm whale evolutionary tree, today in the PLOS ONE article "Albicetus oxymycterus, a new generic name and redescription of a basal physeteroid (Mammalia, Cetacea) from the Miocene of California, and the evolution of body size in sperm whales." The paper helps to resolve questions about how sperm whales have evolved into the singular creatures they are today, with insights on the increase in body size and changes in feeding strategies.

To accompany the redescription, Boersma and Pyenson created a 3-dimensional model of the specimen, available on the Smithsonian X 3D website ( “In addition to making the specimen available for public viewing, the model was also necessary just for us to describe the specimen fully,” confesses Pyenson. “It weighs well over 300 pounds, taking four people just to slowly roll it over. Having the model was crucial for easy examination of the specimen from all angles for description and comparison.”

3D model of Albicetus oxymycterus from Smithsonian X 3D.

Thanks to Herman Melville, the White Whale is arguably one of the most recognizable figures in literary history. It is a figure with many identities. It is a harbinger of death; the personification of evil. It is a symbol of unattainable glory. But today, it is also something more. Today, the white whale is also Albicetus, a majestic, ancient, and complex creature that swam in the heart of the sea millions of years ago.

Post By:

Nick Pyenson
Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Alex Boersma
Smithsonian Research Student
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Friday, December 4, 2015

Tree change for the Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia

This post originally published on the Museum Victoria blog. See the original post

Nicole Kearney
Coordinator | Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia 
Museum Victoria

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is the world's largest online repository of library and archival materials related to biodiversity. Its aim is to make the world's biodiversity literature openly available online.

In Australia, BHL is managed by Museum Victoria and we have been contributing to this global resource since 2011. We have a team of wonderful volunteers who digitise our rare books and historic journals and prepare the digital versions for publication online. Over the past 4 years, BHL Australia has digitised 593 items comprising almost 150,000 pages of our biological heritage that used to be locked up in our library archives.

Bob Griffith, BHL Volunteer, digitising a rare book from the State Botanical Collection. Image: Nicole Kearney. Source: Museum Victoria.

Earlier this year we learned that our digitisation operation would have to be shut down for several months while Museum Victoria undergoes a major reorganisation of its collection stores. The stores will be much more efficiently arranged after the move, but while the relocation is occurring the collections will be inaccessible – and this includes our library collection.

An idea began to germinate...

The National Herbarium Library at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria have long been interested in the BHL, and researchers at the Herbarium certainly use and appreciate the BHL resource. They were very keen to digitise their own library collection, but didn't have the resources to do so. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate and undertake a project that would be of benefit to both institutions.

National Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Image: Nicole Kearney. Source: Museum Victoria.

Last week Museum Victoria moved its entire digitisation operation to the other side of Melbourne. The equipment, volunteers and our BHL staff will be spending the summer at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Just yesterday we digitised the first book from their State Botanical Collection and it will soon be available online.

Illustrationes florae novae hollandiae, sive icones generum quae in prodromo florae novae hollandiae et insulae van diemen descripsit robertus brown by Ferdinand .L. Bauer, from the State Botanical Collection. Image: Cerise Howard. Source: Museum Victoria.

As the lead organisation for BHL in Australia, a major part of our role is to encourage and support other organisations to digitise their own collections. The Royal Botanic Gardens joins our other partners – the Australian Museum, the South Australian Museum and the Queensland Museum – in making their own biodiversity heritage openly available online. ​

Thursday, December 3, 2015

BHL Data Dash - Dec 7th - 9th 2015

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is hosting a 48-hour data correction event on December 7-9 2015. We’re enlisting the help of you, the BHL community, to help us complete 10,000 pages from BHL’s OCR output that we can then use as a training set to apply to the remaining BHL corpus.
Here’s how it will work
On Monday December 7th we will begin the start of the sprint at 9am eastern standard time.  You can help us meet our Data Dash goal of 10,000 pages by playing Beanstalk at and typing as many words as you can within the 48 hour timeframe.

Beanstalk, designed by the award winning design lab Tiltfactor based at Dartmouth, is a quick and easy browser game that asks players to type the word they are shown on the screen. These corrected words are then re-ingested into BHL resulting in new and improved OCR. The more words that players type correctly, the faster the beanstalk grows, and the more contributions are made to BHL.

We will update players on how well they are helping us reach the goal by giving updates throughout the event via BHL social media. To make it more fun we encourage players to register before playing the game so that their scores can be tallied against other players during the event. (please note:  we will be resetting the leaderboards for the duration of this event but afterwards will restore the scores. i.e. current players will not lose their cumulative scores)  Get to the top of the “Weekly” leaderboard by correctly transcribing the most words, and declare yourself the victor of vines!
Besides seeing your name on the weekly leaderboard, the top 3 players that remain at the end of the dash on Wed Dec 9th 9am EST will receive their choice of BHL swag – which include a selection of notecards featuring beautiful illustrations from BHL books; bookmarks about both of BHL’s games (Beanstalk and Smorball), and Smorball trucker hats featuring the beloved home team the Eugene Mellonballers.

 smorball hat.jpg
While BHL swag is oh so sweet, we know the primary motivating factor for the BHL community will be improving biodiversity research and with every word you type you will be doing just that!

Why now?
The IMLS-funded project, Purposeful gaming and BHL, is coming to a close at the end of this year.  While the games will continue to be available online beyond 2015, the project’s objectives – to demonstrate whether or not digital games are a successful tool for analyzing and improving digital outputs from OCR – need to be met which includes collection of a substantial number of text corrections via gaming.

So please won’t you help us to dash to the finish line to meet the number of data corrections needed to help improve the discoverability of historic biodiversity literature?

Play a Game. Grow a Beanstalk. Save a Book.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New Feature on BHL: Add Comments to a Book!


A new and enhanced commenting system is being planned for BHL. The commenting system described below has been disabled as of July 5, 2016. Learn more.


We are pleased to announce that we have added the ability to add comments to books in the BHL website!

This new feature will allow you to easily share your discoveries while reading BHL books, highlight interesting content, post your expertise for others to see, engage in conversations about BHL books from directly within BHL, and easily discover all of the great posts from your fellow biodiversity-enthusiasts. We hope that this tool will provide another way for users to engage with our collections and network with others in the BHL community.

The new commenting feature is powered by Disqus, a social commenting tool that allows people to discuss content on websites. Disqus is the commenting tool currently in use on the BHL blog. Disqus works like other social platforms, allowing you to follow people or communities, recommend discussions (which is essentially “liking” or “favoriting” the discussion), and, on your personal Disqus homepage, see the comments and discussions from people and communities you follow, replies to your comments, or discussions recommended by those you follow. You can also share discussions via Twitter and Facebook. Thus, your comments won't be lost in a vacuum but can be easily discovered and contributed to by other users.

This feature was developed in collaboration with the Ryerson University Social Media Lab in Canada  as part of the international project on Mining Biodiversity.

How to Comment on Books in BHL

When you are viewing a book in BHL, you will notice that a new tab has been added to the book viewer that reads "Add Comments." Click on the tab to expand the comment window. Within the expanded window, you can add a comment to the page you are viewing and view the existing comments on that page. Comments are added at the page-level, meaning that as you scroll through the book, the "Add Comments" tab will display only those comments added to the page you are viewing. If you add a new comment, it will be associated with the page you are viewing when you add the comment.

The "Add Comments" tab in the book viewer. Click to expand the window, add a comment to the page, and view existing comments on the page.

If there are no existing comments on the page you are viewing, the window will display the message "No Comments Yet. Click Here to Discuss this Page." Click the message to add a comment to the page.

A page with no comments on it. Click the "Click Here to Discuss this Page" message to add a comment.
You must have a Disqus account to comment on a page in BHL. You can login to your Disqus account through the "Login" link in the "Add Comments" tab or by choosing one of the sign-in methods displayed beneath the comment text box.

Ways to login to your Disqus account to post a comment.

If you do not have a Disqus account, you can create one from within BHL, or you can sign-up on the Disqus website.

Click on the "Name" box to sign-up for a Disqus account from within BHL.

Once you are logged into Disqus, you can type your comment into the comment text box and then click the "Post As [Username]" button to submit your comment. You will then see your comment posted to the page.

Add your comment to the text box and click "Post as [Username]" to submit your comment.

If there are pre-existing comments on the page, expanding the "Add Comments" tab will display the previous comments added to that page as well as provide you with the text box to add your own comment. Posting a comment will add your comment to the list of previously-posted comments.

A page with existing comments.

Beneath each comment, you can click on "Edit" to edit your own comments, "Reply" to reply to an existing comment, or "Share" to share the work on Twitter or Facebook.

Edit, Reply to, or Share comments from BHL.

As comments are added to pages, a count bubble will display on top of the "Add Comments" tab. This bubble will show the number of comments that have been added to the page you are viewing. The count will increase when you add a new comment to a page. This count bubble will not display if there are no comments on the page.

Count of existing comments on the page.

Talk bubble icons will also appear in the "Pages" box next to those pages that have comments on them. Scrolling through the "Pages" window is a quick way to see which pages in the book have comments. When a comment is added to a page for the first time, a new talk bubble icon will display next to that page in the "Pages" window.

Talk bubble icons displayed next to those pages that have a comment on them.

Once you expand the "Add Comments" tab, it will remain open as you scroll through the book, updating as you scroll to display the comments on the current page you are viewing. To close the window, simply click on the tab again, which will read as "Hide Comments" once the window is expanded. This will close the comment window until you expand it again by clicking on the "Add Comments" tab.

Click "Hide Comments" to close the comments window.

View and Follow Comments Added to Books in BHL

You can click on the "View BHL's Community" link in the comment window to see a list of all of the comments added to any book in BHL. The list is available on the BHL profile page in Disqus.

Click on "View BHL's Community" to see all of the comments added to any book in BHL.

To see all of the comments added to just the book you are currently viewing, click the "Community" link in the comments window.

Click on "Community" to see a list of all of the comments added to just the book you viewing.

You can follow BHL on Disqus to receive notification of any new comments added to any book in BHL. Simply click on "Follow" on the BHL Disqus profile page. You will then receive notifications of all new comments added to BHL books via the "Recommended" feed on your Disqus homepage.

Click the "Follow" button on the BHL Disqus profile page to receive notification of any new comments added to any books in BHL.
Once you follow BHL on Disqus, you will receive notification of any new comments added to any book in BHL via the "Recommended" feed on your Disqus homepage.
If you want to receive notification of new comments added to a particular book in BHL, simply "Follow" that book's forum on Disqus. To do this, click on the "Community" link in the comment window for the book you want to receive notifications about. This will take you to that book's forum on Disqus. Click on the "Follow" button in the forum's header. You will then receive notification of new comments added to that book in the "Latest Discussions" feed on your Disqus homepage.

Click on the "Community" link for the book you want to receive notifications about.

Clicking "Community" will take you to the book's Forum in Disqus. Click on "Follow" to follow the book and receive notification of new comments added to that book.
Once you follow a book's forum, you will receive notification of new comments added to that book in the "Latest Discussions" tab on your Disqus homepage.

Tell us what you Think!

We want to know what you think about our new commenting feature. Send us any feedback you have about the tool via our feedback form or by leaving a comment to this blog post. We'll use your feedback to help us improve the service.

*Please note: BHL reserves the right to monitor comments added to our library and remove any that do not comply with the terms of use as stated in the "Interactive Features and User-Generated Content" section on this page:

This feature has been added as part of BHL's Mining Biodiversity project. Mining Biodiversity is funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant number LG-00-14-0032-14).