BHL Receives 2015 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives award for Field Notes Project

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has selected the “Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project” for a 2015 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives award. The award of $491,713 will help support increased accessibility to original scientific documentation found in archival field notes in participating institution collections.

Field notes provide valuable, primary research data about species and ecosystems that is often unpublished or unavailable through other sources. They can also be extremely valuable for museum research, providing key specimen data related to study sites, collecting details, and ecology.

A recent article in The Linnean (VOL 31(2) OCT 2015) by Hellen Pethers (Reader Services Librarian, Library and Archives, Natural History Museum, London, UK) and Dr. Blanca Huertas (Senior Curator of Lepidoptera, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London, UK) illustrated the importance of field notes to museum research. The paper focuses on the collections of Hereward Chune Dollman, an entomologist who worked extensively on the natural history and identification of insects in Zambia. Dollman’s natural history collections, which were donated to the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum, London) upon his death, include 3,500 butterfly specimens comprising 300 species, 157 watercolor drawings of caterpillars, and a notebook containing data related to his breeding and collecting. Dollman’s caterpillar illustrations link directly to his scientific notes through unique identification codes, thus allowing researchers to explore details of the caterpillars’ lives, their transformation to adult forms, and the study sites from which Dollman collected. The watercolors are the only record of the immature counterparts of the adult specimens that Dollman studied.

Dollman’s collections were never consolidated with the main museum’s collection, and thus have been little studied even though they contain important specimens from remote locations in Africa that are not widely represented in other collections. Recent initiatives at the Natural History Museum are working to amalgamate and arrange collections by taxonomy, providing greater accessibility to researchers. Dollman’s notebook, held in the museum’s Library and Archives, provides researchers will invaluable information necessary to effectively and efficiently study these collections and articulates the importance of field notes to scientific research and the necessity of collaboration between library and specimen collections.

While this case study at NHM provides an example of one attempt to bring together disparate specimen and related field note collections, the disassociation of these two types of collections is common within institutions. What’s more, field notes from related persons and expeditions are often scattered across institutions, inaccessible to any but the determined researcher. The “Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project” aims to enhance research methodology by improving access to these field notes, thus allowing researchers to more easily connect them to related specimens and other scientific work.

Over a two year period, the BHL Field Notes Project will coordinate work to digitize field notes, assign metadata, and publish the field notes online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Internet Archive, with an emphasis on quality, quantity, and closely related content. The Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Institution Archives will serve as the lead institutions on the project. Additional project participants include Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library; American Museum of Natural History; Yale Peabody Museum; Harvard University Herbaria, Botany Libraries; Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayr Library; University of California, Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; The New York Botanical Garden, The LuEsther T. Mertz Library; The Field Museum; and Internet Archive.

The Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, funds projects in which locally executed protocols contribute to a national good, using methods that are cost efficient and subject to wider adoption. It supports the creation of digital representations of unique content of high scholarly significance that will be discoverable and usable as elements of a coherent national collection. Eighteen projects were selected from among one hundred sixty-seven proposals submitted in 2015. This is the first group of projects supported by the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives awards program.

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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.