BHL and Our Users: Megan Raby and the History of Biology

View Full Size ImageTaking a break from our miniseries of the past few months, featuring EOL Rubenstein fellows, this week we feature Megan Raby, who uses BHL to support her research involving the history of biology.

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

I am a dissertator in the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My dissertation focuses on the history of American involvement in tropical biology in the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. I’m interested in the intersection of the history of biology and environmental history, and the role of science in the changing relationships between the US and the rest of the world.

How long have you been in your field of study?

I began to get interested in graduate work in the history of science while finishing my BS in Earth Sciences at Montana State University. That would make it about 7 years.

When did you first discover BHL?

I’m not quite sure when I first stumbled upon the site, but certainly over the past 4 years I have begun to use it more consciously.

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

It has been incredibly helpful. While we have a wonderful library system here at UW, there are times when I just need a quick look at a relatively obscure volume. Checking it online rather than running over to a library or having to ILL saves me a lot of time. Actually though, I have found it most useful to be able to search within texts, in conjunction with the physical book. For example, I went through many decades of the Annual Reports of the Smithsonian Institution while holed up in the Wisconsin Historical Society stacks, but I searched with BHL alongside. It’s easier and faster to read the physical copy, and flip between text and contents when you are sure the information you are looking for is in there. But searching the text electronically can help you find references that are not expected from the contents or index. I’ll also mention that I found a couple scanning errors while going through the Smithsonian annual reports, and BHL fixed them immediately. It was amazing. One point I want to make is that BHL doesn’t replace the original books­­––but it does make them easier to find and use. I really see physical libraries and BHL as complementary tools.

How often do you use BHL?

Depending on what phase of research I am in, it could be from a few times a month to a few times a day.

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

I usually download whole PDFs, because it is easier to search within the whole text, and take notes, this way. If I am looking for a particular piece of information, or just skimming to see if a text might be useful, then I read online. I have sometimes made custom PDFs for articles within larger volumes.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL?

I am just glad that so many of the kinds of texts I need are accessible there, from expedition reports and regional floras, to the bulletins of various botanical gardens and museums. I am happy that they can be downloaded as PDFs which makes reading, searching, and note-taking very easy. I also like the links to BHL from

If you could change one thing about BHL, what would it be, or what developmental aspect would you like the BHL team to focus on next?

First, it would be amazing to be able to search in-text across multiple volumes. As it is, I either come to BHL looking for a particular text or else happen upon one through a Google search. Subject terms and titles are useful, but sometimes I am looking for very brief references within the text that would not show up in a subject term. Being able to search across the texts in BHL would help me find surprising and unexpected references. Second, it is currently a bit difficult to find articles within larger volumes unless you already know where they are. You can go through each volume of the Bulletin of the New York Botanical Garden individually and search, but you can’t see or search the titles or authors of articles within volumes using advanced search. Finally, tools similar to Google Ngrams or JSTOR Data For Research would allow you to take advantage of the texts in aggregate. I would love to be able to graph references to tropical organisms, or to terms related to ideas about tropical “biodiversity,” over time using the BHL sources.

If you had to choose one title/item in BHL that has most impacted your research, or one item that you prefer above any other in BHL, what would it be and why?

That’s a tough one. Probably the Smithsonian annual reports have been the most useful, as they helped me get a solid chronology for one part of my dissertation when I was just starting. But I will mention another “neat” source I used in the chapter I just wrote: Living Plants and Their Properties: A Collection of Essays, edited by Joseph Charles Arthur and Daniel T. MacDougal, 1898. In it, I was able to find a reprint of a talk, “Mimosa: A Typical Sensitive Plant,” that MacDougal, an American botanist, gave to a Jamaican natural history society while in the colony looking for a potential site to establish an American tropical research station. I had not known at the time that a copy of that talk was available in print, and it gave me evidence about why MacDougal thought more research needed to be done on living tropical plants in their own environments, as well as how he interacted with scientists in Jamaica. Also, the book includes some articles in which J. C. Arthur muses about whether plants can feel pain­­––but that will have to wait for another research project!

Thanks, Megan, for giving us a glimpse into your work and the role BHL plays in your research! You may be interested in some of the work Roderic Page has been doing graphing the occurrence of names in literature over time using BHL or Ryan Schenk’s work visualizing taxonomic synonyms over time, as you mentioned that you would love to “graph references to tropical organisms, or to terms related to ideas about tropical “biodiversity,” over time using the BHL sources.” Additionally, the Code Challenge for the Life and Literature Conference that BHL is hosting (Nov. 14-15, Chicago, IL), which encourages individuals to submit applications that provide new or interesting ways to use or display BHL data, might yield further innovative, graphical interactions with our information. Until then, we hope that BHL continues to meet your research needs as we also continue to develop and improve our services!

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