The Vast Library of Life
15 Years of the BHL Portal
10 Years of Growth and Transformation
While BHL Program Director
New Article PDF Content Available
Our latest quarterly newsletter is now available! From exciting news about our image collection in Flickr to an upcoming online Wikipedia Editing Workshop on women in science, don’t miss the latest news from the BHL community.
Join us on 25 March 2021 (1-3pm ET) for Wikipedia & Women in Science: Smithsonian Groundbreakers Edit-a-thon, an online Wikipedia editing workshop hosted in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and the Smithsonian Institution Archives of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.
Many of us have searched for silver linings during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021. For many in the library and museum profession, one positive outcome of the mandatory transition to remote work has been the resurrection of some long-postponed projects. These are activities put on hold during normal times in deference to ever-proliferating, higher-priority onsite tasks. One such project in the Ernst Mayr Library and Archives (EMLA) of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University, is transcription of the digitized journals and diaries of William Brewster.
Robert Alexander Gilbert (1870-1942) was a Black photographer interested in ornithology and chemistry who worked for ornithologist William Brewster from the mid 1890s until Brewster’s death in 1919 and at various tasks around the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University beyond 1919. He was an Associate of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
Gilbert was not officially recognized for his photographic work with William Brewster, although Brewster did not claim credit for all the images in his collection. It was assumed that Brewster took all the photographic prints bequeathed to the Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the MCZ (EMLA) upon his death. However, while conducting research for a book, author John Hanson Mitchell, former editor of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s (MAS) Sanctuary magazine, discovered over 2000 of Brewster’s glass plate negatives in the attic of a building owned by the MAS. One of the images in particular, a photograph of a young, well-attired Black man standing in front of a rustic cabin in the wilderness, captured his interest. Mitchell was curious as to the identity of this young man. Later, in the mid-1970s, Mitchell had a chance encounter with an Archives Assistant at the MCZ who suggested to him that all of Brewster’s photographs were, in fact, taken by Brewster’s assistant, a young Black man named Robert Gilbert. This piqued Mitchell’s interest and launched his journey to discover more about Gilbert. The quest culminated with the publication in 2005 of Mitchell’s Looking for Mr. Gilbert: the Reimagined Life of an African American. In 2014 an e-book edition was published as well.
Mitchell’s publication helps provide new insight into Robert Gilbert’s life and work. Brewster’s journals and diaries, now digitally available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), are also valuable records attesting to Gilbert’s contributions in a variety of areas. While only a handful of Brewster’s photographs in the MCZ collection can be positively attributed to Gilbert, it is clear that Gilbert was with Brewster for photo sessions during the years they worked together. The photographic relationship between Brewster and Gilbert is intriguing. There is new enthusiasm to examine Brewster’s journals and diaries more closely now that they are digitized and being transcribed, to clarify Gilbert’s role in photographic collaboration with Brewster. As a result of identifying connections between the collections in the Museum of American Bird Art at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the EMLA, a cooperative research project is underway.
The Ernst Mayr Library and Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), Harvard University, holds a unique and extensive collection of photographs, letters, manuscripts and field notes of William Brewster, a prominent ornithologist/naturalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His published work is lauded as providing authoritative and novel additions to ornithology.
Brewster published more than 300 ornithological papers and several books which are widely available in academic and research libraries. He was the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, out of which grew the national organization, the American Ornithologists’ Union. Brewster served as President of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1895 to 1898, and the organization has awarded a medal in Brewster’s name since 1921.
Brewster’s ornithological studies covered the United States, although he worked most extensively in New England. Brewster was a Curator of Ornithology in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1885 to 1902, continuing to work in the MCZ until his death in 1919. He deposited his bird specimen collection in the MCZ and his associated works such as his journals, diaries, correspondence and some photographic works in the Ernst Mayr Library & MCZ Archives. Brewster’s extensive specimen collection, in combination with his large body of published work, secures his place in ornithological history.
Over a quarter of a million nature images are now freely available through the BHL Flickr!
Since 2011, we’ve been making many of the illustrations from BHL’s collection available via Flickr. While it has long been a community favorite amongst our audiences, in 2020 our Flickr’s popularity increased significantly when it received considerable media attention in outlets including Colossal, Laughing Squid, Český rozhlas, ZME Science, Cultura Inquieta, Hyperallergic, Graffica, Smithsonian Magazine, Open Culture, la Repubblica, Genbeta, My Modern Met (en Español), eCulture Greece, Daily Geek Show, Вокруг Света, Atlas Obscura, Shifter, Lifehacker, Indiehoy, Microsiervos, and Vice. As a result of this publicity in February 2020, we saw a 518% increase in daily views on Flickr images (2.5 million daily views compared to an average of 400,000) and an over 100% increase in visits and unique visitors to BHL. This popularity continued throughout the year, culminating in over 343 million views on images in 2020 alone—a 123% increase over 2019, bringing our all-time views to over 902 million!
Last year also offered a unique opportunity to substantially build our Flickr collection. With many of our partners working virtually in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we focused on projects to improve our digital collections remotely. This work included uploading images to Flickr. In 2020, over 40 BHL partner staff and volunteers contributed to the upload of over 90,000 new images to Flickr—a nearly 200% increase in images uploaded compared to 2019.
BHL’s existence depends on the financial support of its patrons. Help us keep this free resource alive!
The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is the world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. Headquartered at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives in Washington, D.C., BHL operates as a worldwide consortium of natural history, botanical, research, and national libraries working together to digitize the natural history literature held in their collections and make it freely available for open access as part of a global “biodiversity community.”
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