Finding Refuge in the Library: How BHL Inspired the Mycological Book Club

On 23 March 2020, the U.K. went into its first national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and teleworking became the norm, and the walls of our homes became, in many ways, the boundaries of our individual worlds.

Amateur mycologist Clare Blencowe was eager to find a positive distraction from the realities of life during a pandemic. The Biodiversity Heritage Library’s open access collections, which for Blencowe had become a welcome refuge from the continuous onslaught of negative news articles, now became the inspiration for a new, socially distanced way to connect with other fungi lovers—in the form of “The Mycological Book Club”, an online, Twitter-based book club with a particular focus on open access literature.

#MycoBookClub logo fungi growing out of a book

#MycoBookClub logo, designed by illustrator Kelsey Sconberg of Mossy Stone Media.

“We were at the beginning of a national lockdown,” recalls Blencowe. “All social events were cancelled, and I found myself endlessly scrolling through increasingly doom-laden news, feeling increasingly doom-y. #MycoBookClub started as a simple distraction, an opportunity for a shared experience: people reading the same book and discussing it on Twitter at an allotted time.”

Blencowe brought her idea to life by founding the @MycoBookClub Twitter account, establishing the #MycoBookClub hashtag to facilitate discussion, and setting a recurring date and time for book club meetings—the first Tuesday of the month at 7:30pm (GMT) on Twitter. She then scheduled the first #MycoBookClub meeting for 5 May 2020.

That first meeting, which brought together just a handful of followers, was dedicated to Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s Rust, Smut, Mildew & Mould: An Introduction to the Study of Microscopic Fungi (Fifth ed. 1886), which club members accessed through BHL.

With passages celebrating the beauty and wonder of the often unheeded nature in our own backyards and neighborhoods, the title was a fitting—and motivating—choice for an audience confined to their homes and local natural surroundings.

As Cooke writes,

“We might traverse the primeval forests of the new world, and explore the unknown regions of the old, and not encounter so much to excite our admiration, or cause our wonder, as lies about our feet at home; marvels which we tread beneath our feet, or kick from our path, because they appear to be only rotten sticks, withered grass, and decaying leaves.”

“Cooke’s writing provided inspiration for enjoying nature near home,” shares Blencowe. “I felt myself lifted by his soaring rhetoric.”

Photo of a human with long brown hair in a shirt with fungi images on it.

Amateur mycologist Clare Blencowe, founder of the #MycoBookClub. Photo courtesy of Clare Blencowe.

#MycoBookClub has allowed Blencowe to share and grow her interest in mycology—an interest that began in earnest about five years ago when a new job as manager of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, and the much shorter commute that came with it, provided her with newfound time to pursue her interest in fungi. While she considers mycology a hobby, her involvement in the field has grown over the years through membership in the British Mycological Society, where she was recently elected to their Field Mycology and Conservation Committee.

BHL helped nurture this love of mycology well before the birth of #MycoBookClub. Blencowe’s first in-depth interaction with the Library occurred in April 2019, when her discovery of a small brown fungus cup in the woods led her to seek confirmation of its identity—which she believed to be the Anemone Cup Dumontinia tuberosa—by posting to the British Mycological Society Facebook group. UK-based mycologist Lukas Large responded to her post with the link to a color plate for comparison from Émile Boudier’s Icones Mycologicæ (1905-1910) in BHL.

Illustration of fungi.

Illustration of Dumontinia tuberosa, plate 477. Boudier, Émile. Icones Mycologicæ (1905-1910), v.3. Art by Boudier. Contributed in BHL from the University Library, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

“The information contained in this beautiful colour plate far surpassed anything I had access to in my field guides at home,” shares Blencowe. “It helped me to understand the structure and features of this fungus I had in front of me, and spurred me on to take a closer look at it under the microscope. That experience really opened my eyes to what a useful resource the books in BHL can be: to inform observation and help identify species in a present day context. Sure, species concepts and nomenclature may have moved on, but the detail with which mycologists such as Boudier recorded their observations is a lesson in itself.”

Since that eye-opening experience, Blencowe continues to turn to BHL as a resource to support her interests in mycology, reading titles online and downloading select pages and images as needed. Some of her favorite aspects of the Library include a good search functionality, user-friendly online reading and content downloading, high quality scans, clear copyright information, easily-shareable direct page links, and the image collections in Flickr. Since founding #MycoBookClub, she uses BHL almost every week.

“I love the little bookish details that are preserved in BHL: the gilt decoration on a publication’s cover, ornate book plates, library stamps, barely-decipherable pencil marks and blank pages uniquely speckled with foxing,” shares Blencowe. “The scanned pages hold so much more than simply the words and the illustrations. They do your soul good.”

In the months following the club’s first meeting in May 2020, #MycoBookClub continued to grow, amassing more followers and receiving attention in outlets like The British Mycological Society Newsletter and IMA Fungus. Blencowe established a “virtual bookshelf” to maintain a list of all the books that #MycoBookClub had discussed—many of which were accessed through BHL.

Screenshot of a virtual bookshelf with thumbnails of book covers.

#MycoBookClub “virtual bookshelf.” Source: https://mycobookclub.blogspot.com

“The more time I spend in the Library, the more amazed I am by the vast amount of literature it contains—and the neat way it is organised and presented,” lauds Blencowe. “BHL also provides the opportunity to take a deep dive into the source material for a fascinating glimpse into the machinery of global science in the 19th century.”

While she’s enjoyed many titles in BHL, a recent favorite is Anna Maria Hussey’s Illustrations of British Mycology (1847-55), which was the subject of the July 2020 #MycoBookClub meeting. Published under the name Mrs. T.J. Hussey, the two-volume work illustrates and describes species collected by Hussey and her sister, Frances Reed.

“Hussey writes from the perspective of an enthusiastic amateur which I found both highly relatable and genuinely inspiring,” affirms Blencowe. “She writes in a chatty, conversational style which is peppered with fascinating contemporary details (such as her observation that Boletus subtomentosus has ‘the texture of a Limerick glove’) and timeless wisdom (‘life passes in gaining experience for ourselves…till at last we have acquired the wisdom to guide us safely…’).”

Illustration of fungi.

Illustration of Suillellus luridus, plate 35. Hussey, Anna Maria. Illustrations of British Mycology, ser.2 (1855). Art by Hussey. Contributed in BHL from The New York Botanical Garden, LuEsther T. Mertz Library. Explore all illustrations from Illustrations of British Mycology in the BHL Flickr.

Blencowe has gathered and shared via @MycoBookClub some of her favorite elements from Hussey’s work, including her approach to mycology, her discussion of fungus names, her commentary on fungi in nature, her descriptions of fungal habitats, and miscellaneous myco-chatter. Illustrations of British Mycologyis also noteworthy as a rare female-authored work in the bibliography of historic mycological literature.

“Browsing the historic biodiversity literature, it is very noticeable that certain perspectives predominate,” notes Blencowe. “The books are mostly written by men—white men. So it was a particular joy to come across Hussey’s book. I’m keen to explore ways that @MycoBookClub can provide a platform for different perspectives and respectfully champion Indigenous knowledge of fungi.”

While ours may still be a socially-distanced world, initiatives like #MycoBookClub remind us that there are still opportunities to connect with others, share our passions, and nurture a community. And while the news may still be filled with dire headlines, naturalists like Mordecai Cubitt Cooke and Anna Maria Hussey remind us that we can still find solace in nature close to home and in unexpected places, if we are just willing to look.

To quote Hussey: “The world is full of beauty that we pass by unheeded.”

Illustration of fungi.

Illustration of Crinipellis scabella, plate 68. Hussey, Anna Maria. Illustrations of British Mycology, ser.1 (1847). Art by Frances Reed. Contributed in BHL from The New York Botanical Garden, LuEsther T. Mertz Library. This plate accompanies Hussey’s quote: “The world is full of beauty that we pass by unheeded.”

Everyone is welcome to join the #MycoBookClub. Follow @MycoBookClub for updates and meeting information, and join the discussion the first Tuesday of each month at 7:30pm (GMT) using the #MycoBookClub hashtag on Twitter.

Avatar for Grace Costantino
Written by

Grace Costantino is the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. In this capacity, she developed and manages BHL's communication strategy, oversees social media initiatives, and engages with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL.