Nicole Kearney from BHL Australia visits BHL at Smithsonian Libraries

As the Coordinator of BHL Australia, I’m based at Museum Victoria in Melbourne. This is a very long way from BHL headquarters in Washington DC – in both space and time. The time difference between Melbourne and DC is 14 hours and, while I’ve had countless conversations with BHL staff via email, our opposing work hours make phone calls or virtual meetings almost impossible.

Last month I was able to visit my BHL colleagues in person. I had been invited to speak at the Society of American Archivists conference about my work digitizing and transcribing the handwritten field diaries of Australia’s early naturalists. I joined six other speakers, including BHL’s Julia Blase, in a session about the importance of natural history archives. The meeting was in Cleveland, only a stone’s throw (from my perspective) from Washington, D.C. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

I spent four days at the Smithsonian Libraries and had face-to-face meetings with every member of the BHL Secretariat, as well as with staff from the Transcription Center, the Digitization Lab and the Cullman Rare Book Library. Many of our discussions were about how to make BHL work even better for our users, such as how to display transcripts of handwritten items and ensuring we have the most accurate article-level metadata for historic journals.

A highlight of my visit was seeing the rare books in the Cullman Library of Natural History. I had of course perused the digital versions of these treasures online (on BHL), but it was awe-inspiring to see them in the flesh and to listen to their Curator Leslie Overstreet speak so passionately about their history. I also particularly enjoyed seeing the Once There Were Billions exhibit, having read so much about it on the BHL blog. I took home origami versions of Martha (the last passenger pigeon) for my children and work colleagues so we too could #FoldtheFlock.

My visit coincided with that of Professor Ian Owens, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, London. In his presentation to Smithsonian staff, he emphasized the contribution BHL has made to our understanding of global biodiversity. To make his point, he showed the illustration from the first published description of the Platypus from The Naturalist’s Miscellany, Vol. 10, George Shaw, 1799, a publication contributed to BHL by Museum Victoria. I was also proud to hear him mention the digitization and transcription initiatives of our funding partner, the Atlas of Living Australia.

I had been to Washington, D.C. only once before, when I was fifteen. A highlight of that visit was the Bone Hall in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I was fascinated by the variety of skeletons and the way they had been arranged to demonstrate form and function. I went on to become a zoologist, specializing in science communication. I still think this display is one of the best I’ve seen, and I was thrilled to find it relatively unchanged on my return visit – twenty-three years later!

It was wonderful to meet the dedicated people who keep BHL running so smoothly, and I am most grateful for the time they spent with me, answering questions, walking me though procedures and making me feel so welcome. Now that I’m home, we’ve resumed our communication via email, but I can now picture the friendly faces that sent them. I hope our paths will cross again soon.

From our end here in Australia, the BHL team at Museum Victoria have recently been focusing on the digitization of rare books relating to Antarctic exploration, including a number donated by local philanthropist Sir Thomas Ramsay. We have also continued to digitize works on Australian fauna. A particularly significant recent addition to BHL was A synopsis of the birds of Australia, and the adjacent Islands by John Gould. This work was issued to scope interest in what eventuated in one of his most celebrated works, The Birds of Australia.

Explore the books in the BHL Australia Collection today.

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Nicole Kearney is the Manager of Biodiversity Heritage Library Australia and chairs BHL's Persistent Identifier Working Group. She is obsessed with open access, persistent identifiers, and Striped Possums.