The image above gives a decent synopsis of users of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), the portal I’ve discussed in the last two posts (1,2). I would add a couple: students as well as educators use it, though I guess that’s implied. Also there are gardeners for whom BHL is a goldmine, particularly for those interested in heirloom varieties. Last year BHL had a special week-long focus on gardening that showed off its collection beautifully. In what I’ve discussed so far about BHL and about its outreach efforts on social media, the one aspect I’ve neglected is its blog. That was purposeful; I wanted to save what I consider the best for later in my exposition, and specifically now when I am getting to the content. BHL has had a blog since its inception, but the posts have gotten more frequent and richer as time passed. Many entries deal with what’s new with the project, or what tools are available, or what staff have been up to. Much of the content of the two earlier posts I first learned about on the blog, but my favorite posts are those that take up some theme and explore the relevant content or discuss how specific users employ the library.
In the case of gardening, BHL staged “Garden Stories” in March 2015 as a “week-long social media event for garden lovers.” It was advertised through gardening groups and botanical gardens, and included a Twitterchat where people could ask gardening questions of staff at several BHL member institutions; there was even a Garden Stories T-shirt available for sale. However, at the heart of the event was the BHL blog. It must have been difficult for Grace Constantino, the BHL Outreach and Communication Manager, and the other contributors to select what to include. This is indicated by the length of the introduction she wrote on Monday, March 23. It cited references to everything from Emanuel Sweerts’ 1614 Florilegium and Bernard M’Mahon’s 1804 seed catalogue, the first in America in booklet form, to several catalogues from the first half of the 20th century. The latter were just a few of the more than 14,000 seed and nursery catalogs in BHL including the rich collections of New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University, and the Smithsonian. With this intro as a teaser, the second post of the day was about joining in the effort to transcribe the text of catalogues, a citizen science project that allows the BHL audience to contribute to its work.
Tuesday’s post focused on genetic modification of agricultural and garden plants, and on Wednesday, there were two posts on “Leading Ladies in the World of Seeds,” beginning with the inaugural 1900 catalogue of Miss Ella V. Baines “The Woman Florist” of Springfield, Ohio, whose establishment was still going strong in 1930. Such plants-women obviously saw their gender as a plus with the covers of their catalogues referring to “Miss” or “Mrs.” and sometimes including a photo of the owner, as well as the de rigueur image of some offerings. Part two focused on a woman whose gardening interests were more scientific. Ethel Zoe Bailey was the daughter of the horticulturalist and botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, whom I discussed in an earlier post. There I mentioned her cataloging of where and when particular plant varieties appeared for sale, but this was just one of many tasks she performed for her father, one she continued well after his death. She also traveled widely with him and helped in plant collecting, doing most of the processing and cataloguing at his home herbarium. This was later donated to Cornell University where he spent his career. The BHL post has links to items in what is now called the Ethel Z. Bailey Horticultural Catalogue Collection that she tended for 70 years. It was interesting to learn about Ethel Bailey and about how one of the collections in BHL came to be, just one of many fascinating stories of collection development sequestered within its holdings. The next topic for “Gardening Stories” week was the use of art to sell plants, a massive topic in itself and one that was again well illustrated with BHL resources. This was a two-parter on Thursday, with the first on botanical illustrators and the second on the introduction of photography into horticultural marketing.
While it’s clear that stories on gardening could go on for much longer than a week, the series ended on Friday, March 27 with two posts, the first a discussion of the Shakers as a religious group that marketed seeds and also medicinal herbs, an aspect of the sect I hadn’t known about. I also didn’t know much about the topic of the last post of the week on how a number of BHL partners are continuing the work of digitizing horticultural collections and devising ways to increase accessibility for a variety of users. One of the behind-the-scenes difficulties is that one library may input a company’s catalogues as separate records, as books would be. Another sees the catalogue as a series, such as a journal would be. Before both can be uploaded into BHL a joint spreadsheet must be created and the differences reconciled. This is the kind of work I have no desire to do, but it’s interesting to know about because it makes users appreciate how non-trivial the building of a digital library is.
In the last post in this series, I’ll discuss some of the ways people like me take advantage of BHL. But before I end, I want to mention another useful tool BHL provides: it has organized relevant materials into collections by subject, including seed and nursery catalogues. There are now 56 of these, ranging from Charles Darwin and Antarctic exploration, to the history of cats and whales. The collection list is another great entrée into BHL.