“BHL is a Game Changer for Scholars”: BHL Empowers Research on Landscape Gardening History
The large-leaved kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera) is native to the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, where it is widespread and common. While it grows naturally only in Aotearoa, it has been cultivated extensively outside of this range, including as one of a number of New Zealand plants historically introduced into English gardens.
Natural history literature provides a record of such introductions, with many authors remarking on the suitability of Sophora tetraptera—often referring to it under the synonym Edwardsia grandiflora—to the English climate. For example George Loddiges, within his The Botanical Cabinet (1826), remarked that it was “sufficiently hardy to bear our climate, planted against a wall; in very severe frost, a mat should be hung over it.” Two decades later, British writer and botanical authority Jane Wells Webb Loudon included the plant in her The Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants (1848), where she noted that the original plant could still be found growing in Chelsea Garden in 1848.
Loddiges’ and Loudon’s references are just two of many sources related to the history of Sophora tetraptera that Mark Laird (Professor, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, University of Toronto) identified thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) whilst conducting research for a prospective book. One of the book’s chapters explores a variety of New Zealand plants introduced into English gardens from the 1770s to 1840s, in the context of both Kew’s colonial collecting and Māori heritage. BHL was an invaluable resource for this research—especially during the COVID-19 related lockdowns of 2020.
“I am a huge fan of BHL, and my admiration increases every year,” lauds Laird. “Last year, under Covid, I discovered I could research a large topic through online access to the BHL. The search engine allowed me to find all the collected references to many plant species, including illustrations of those species.”
Laird’s expertise in historic landscape architecture is rooted in four decades of research. Over his career, he’s held fellowships at Chelsea Physic Garden, London, and Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, and, prior to his appointment at the University of Toronto, was a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University for fifteen years. Laird has also authored many publications on historic landscape gardening.
It was whilst working on his most recent publication, A Natural History of English Gardening (2015), that Laird first discovered BHL. Within the work, which was awarded the 2019 Elisabeth Blair MacDougall Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians, Laird draws on historic documents to help chronicle and illustrate the history of early modern gardening and its cultural and scientific intersections. Jacqueline Dearborn (née Ford), then a Digital Projects Librarian at Harvard Botany Libraries, introduced Laird to BHL, who made enthusiastic use of the Library as a resource for many of the illustrations included in his Natural History.
“When sourcing images for my publications twenty-five years ago, many institutions were charging exorbitant reproduction fees,” recalls Laird. “It was a game changer to find that a good number of those institutions have now made their collections accessible online with a simple cost-free download of a High Resolution Image. BHL, as part of that shift in ‘intellectual commons,’ has changed the game for me.”
BHL is now Laird’s go-to resource for natural history literature, particularly when it comes to accessing high quality illustrations. While he appreciates the access BHL provides, he does hope to see the Library implement a more streamlined high resolution image download process in the future, as the current method involves multiple steps.
Laird isn’t alone in his love of BHL’s illustration collections, as evidenced by the popularity of the BHL Flickr, which provides access to over a quarter of a million images from the Library. As BHL further develops its tools and services, staff will continue to explore ways to improve access to and features around scientific artworks.
As for Laird, BHL has opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to online research, and he intends to make the most of these opportunities. “This summer, I expect to continue ‘remote’ research thanks to BHL, which is a game-changer in how a scholar can work from home and at any hour of the day,” affirms Laird.
As researchers continue to adapt to and evolve within increasingly dispersed, asynchronous working environments, BHL will be there to support them wherever and whenever their work takes them.