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?

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.

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).

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.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.