Flora, Fauna, and Photography: Five Years of Digitising Content for BHL in Aotearoa
Auckland Museum joined the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) in 2018 and currently remains the only organisation in Aotearoa New Zealand contributing to the consortium. During my four years working as a technician and coordinator on the project, and with the help of a volunteer, Brianna Vincent, we have added over 25,000 pages, increasing our library of contributions from three to over 100 biodiversity literature items. These items span from 1790 to 2004, covering over 200 years of biological knowledge, and range from field notebooks and sketches to identification guides, records and proceedings, educational textbooks, plant material, cyanotypes (blueprints), and hand-painted illustrations.
Digitising contributing literature is an intensive undertaking; each page is individually photographed, exported, cropped, reordered, and then sequenced — resulting in a digital replica that accurately represents the physical copy in our collection. Literature items are selected through a criterion of subject matter, copyright, and relevance to the existing BHL collection. This selection process requires collaboration with our photography team, rights management team, museum collection managers, curators, our natural sciences department, cataloguing staff, librarians, and increasingly, external copyright holders. By the time our content appears on the webpages of BHL, a rigorous, inter-department effort has taken place – one with many moving parts and diverse areas of expertise.
Auckland Museum adheres to strict copyright compliance guidelines in determining whether an item qualifies for addition to BHL: either the item must be out of copyright (published prior to 1928, following U.S. copyright requirements) or the item’s copyright is held (or has been licensed) by Auckland Museum. The result of this selection process is a collection of unique, high-resolution, openly licensed, and public-domain material able to be freely distributed, adapted, and utilised for a myriad of creative, scientific, and other research-oriented purposes by the public. In our contributions to BHL, Auckland Museum has significantly increased the amount of copyrighted material through the collaboration and permission of New Zealand external rights holders by openly licensing copyrighted content under a Creative Commons license.
As part of the rights permissions process, items are reviewed for cultural permissions to preserve the dignity of Māori and Pasifika cultural representation within our archival holdings. This aspect of our reviewing process is an important way to respect the mana, the spiritual life force and power, in our objects and in the cultural groups depicted in them.
On a wider level, BHL acknowledges that the literature on BHL may contain harmful content in the form of historic colonial material. For Tāmaki Paenga Hira, this reflection is vital in our conceptualism as a GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) institution. Museums have been inextricably rooted in a history of colonisation, and it is our responsibility to take care not to further perpetuate racial stereotypes, distribute destructive accounts of culture, or allow any opportunities for the misappropriation of meaningful objects and imagery.
Our own Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum contains multidisciplinary research including botany, zoology, entomology, and ethnology from both current and former curatorial staff. These records include images of taonga, something treasured, that may not be suitable to be published online for public-domain reuse. These images are redacted following our own internal guidelines and the BHL page redaction policy. More information about BHL’s acknowledgment of harmful content notice can be found here.
Auckland Museum’s collection within BHL has a reciprocal relationship of enrichment with other digital partnerships and platforms. Recently Auckland Museum launched a BHL New Zealand Flickr account featuring a curated collection of images from natural history books digitised over the course of the BHL project. Publishing these images on such a popular online photo management and sharing application opened doors for Wikipedia editors to enrich existing articles with cover photos, for the Wikimedia repository to be supplied with a rich collection of imagery for future use, and even for text to be available for reading on Wikisource – an innovative platform allowing the crowd-sourcing of language translation and audio narration recording of literature to ultimately improve accessibility globally and to users with disabilities.
The biodiversity data available within the digitised works on BHL is of interest to many parties; it can be exported to large aggregators such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Bionomia, complementing ongoing scientific research and aiding scientists to find gaps in collective biological knowledge. Articles and images from BHL such as the Records of Auckland Institute and Museum are shared on Wikipedia and Wikidata, and Cite Q citations for articles allow for scholarly Wikipedia usership in the access of this data via the Wikipedia platform.
The catalogue records for titles added to BHL are updated in our own system after an item has been added, enabling us to embed and share the digital copy on our website. If another BHL partner has digitised a book that we hold a copy of, we can also add this BHL link to our collection record, giving the Museum’s users instant access to this material digitally.
What was once confined to our archives to only be viewed on request, in person with supervision, can suddenly be proliferated across the world wide web. With data rapidly moving from one place to another – exports, imports, open-access downloads, and the real-time ingest across linked open data platforms – BHL acts both as a global access point and a launching pad of sorts, allowing these rare and unique objects to be viewed everywhere and all at once. The opportunities for GLAM institutions to collaborate and support one another in the boom of the information era are diverse and far-reaching, and BHL is an essential piece of this puzzle for Auckland Museum.
Auckland Museum would like to thank Lottery Grants Board NZ, The C & L Gregory Trust, and The Tennyson Charitable trust for enabling this work.