Botany, History, and Art in BHL

4 Fuch Digitalis

Image of Digitalis from Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium, available in the  Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) appeal to gardeners, a group not singled out by the library as significant users in one of its marketing images [see below], however, groups so cited include scientists, historians, and artists. I see myself as at least somewhat involved with the first two groups, and though I don’t have sufficient hubris or talent to call myself an artist, I do dabble and to a greater extent appreciate art. Botanical art is where all my interests come together, and there is no place like BHL to nurture them. I use the visual bookmarking tool Pearltrees to organize my finds, and I’m happy to share them with you. I found many of these through the Twitter account @histsciart created by Michelle Marshall that points to interesting images in the BHL collection.

My favorites include early printed herbals that the plant morphologist Agnes Arber wrote about so well more than a 100 years ago. When I first read her book in the 1980s I had to content myself with the images she had selected, now I can go to the sources and feast my eyes on entire volumes. Admittedly, it’s not the same as seeing the original text of the Otto Brunfels or Leonhart Fuchs herbals, as I have been able to do at Mertz Library at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). However, a library isn’t always accessible, and it’s a tremendous luxury to decide at 10 pm that a Fuchs fix is in order and be able to succumb to the temptation (see figure above). Such books are more important historically than scientifically because they are pre-Linnaean, and botanical science, at least for higher plants, was completely reset with the publication of Species Plantarum in 1753. In fact, another Linnaean classic, Systema Naturae, comes in first as the most viewed book on BHL, with Species Plantarum in sixth place. As far as botany is concerned, BHL is particularly rich in taxonomic sources and it’s wonderful to be able to trace the history of the use of a particular binomial. There are links to BHL sources from both the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and Global Plants on JSTOR, which makes them even easier to access. That’s one of the major benefits of BHL: it has been designed to be in a variety of ways, and in fact, EOL and BHL are related projects that were created from the start to interact seamlessly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, BHL pages include taxonomic tags, making all the difference for its use in systematics.

My research progress is so slow that I have watched BHL change before my eyes. At various points, I’ve wanted to access the papers of George Engelmann, the botanist who helped to found the Missouri Botanical Garden, and there they appeared in BHL thanks to a digitization project at the garden, an original BHL member and still one of its key contributors. More recently, this has happened with John Torrey’s papers at NYBG, another BHL founder. These manuscripts are being digitized and transcribed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Already, letters from William Darlington, one of my “people,” are online. I often use the word “luxury” to describe such instant access, what other word really applies? The combination of manuscript and published information is wonderful, as is the ease of downloading sources as PDFs. Also, since everything in BHL is open access, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can use a quote or an image, as long as I properly cite it. Of course, not everything is in BHL, especially more recent literature, but think about it: as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we have come a LONG way from the days when searching for sources meant pulling Biological Abstracts tomes from the shelves.

Many BHL blog posts are about how researchers use BHL—and how they are helping to improve it. Dean Janiak is an ecosystem ecologist who relies on BHL historical literature in identifying the species he encounters in his work at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida. Rod Page, an entomologist at the University of Glasgow, has created tools to both draw information from BHL and also enhance the accessibility of what’s in the library. He has developed BioStor to ease searching through journals at the article level, something that BHL did not originally address. Page has also argued for the use of DOIs (digital object identifiers) not only in BHL but in repositories of all kinds as a way to ensure access to individual items. It’s BHL’s willingness to take such constructive criticism that will make it even more valuable and useable in the future.

I am particularly drawn to BHL because I am interested in the intersection of different fields, and BHL, despite its name, is about a lot more than biodiversity. A case in point is the work of the philosopher Ryan Feigenbaum who created an online exhibit called Poetic Botany as a 2016 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the NYBG Humanities Center. It explores the work of 18th century poets and botanists, among them Erasmus Darwin, the author of several book-length poems about botany. There are links to many BHL treasures, including Darwin’s writings, many of which are held by the Mertz Library at NYBG. This is a visual and intellectual joy to explore and a perfect example of how BHL can be mined in fascinating ways. Go to it!

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