Libraries and Botany: Digital Resources

3 Soulsby

Second edition of Basil Soulsby’s catalog of the works of Linnaeus, Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of the attractive features of the meeting of botanical and horticultural librarians that I attended in New York recently (see the last two posts 1,2) is that it included both Europeans and Americans.  Since Europe is home to so many historical collections of specimens, manuscripts, and botanical art, it was great to learn more about these treasures.  It was even better to discover how many of these resources are now available digitally.  One of the high points of the meeting for me was the presentation by Félix Alonso, head librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.  I already knew that this library has a magnificent collection because many of its treasures are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and I was glad to hear that the institution is developing a new interface to make it more user-friendly.  Accessibility was Alonso’s major theme, as he outlined plans to move the library from a collection-centered to a service-centered focus, including opening it to children for the first time in its 250-year history.

Yet another group meeting at NYBG along with the European and American librarians, was the Linnaeus Link Project, an international collaboration among libraries with significant holdings dealing with Carl Linnaeus.  It is funded, maintained, and coordinated by the Linnean Society of London, which holds the bulk of Linnaeus’s specimens, manuscripts, and books, bought from his widow by the British botanist James Edward Smith in 1784.  However, a number of institutions also have substantial holdings, and the project aims to make all the Linnaeus material available through a union catalog.  Lynda Brooks and Isabelle Charmantier of the Linnean Society Library presented on Linnaeus Link and that’s how I was introduced to “Soulsby numbers” used to identify each record.  Basil Soulsby produced the second edition of his Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus in 1933, recording all Linnaean writings and works about Linnaeus published up to 1931; the last entry was number 3874.  Linnaeus Link uses these numbers to identify items in the Union Catalogue and is also assigning post-Soulsby numbers to items not mentioned by Soulsby; there are over 400 of these.  This project gives a glimpse into the world of librarianship and the meticulous processes involved in coordinating materials spread out over several countries.

Isabelle Charmantier also presented on the work being done to digitize the Linnean Society collections, which go well beyond those of Linnaeus and include the herbarium of the society’s founder James Edward Smith, as well as his seed collection that is now being conserved.  The seeds are still enclosed in their original wrappers that include letters, sermons, newspapers—obviously of value in themselves.  There are also the archives of Linnean Society Fellows such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and art including the watercolors of Nepalese plants that were done by an Indian artist under the direction of Francis Buchanan Hamilton.  He traveled to Nepal in 1802-1803 and recorded over a thousand species there.  Charmantier noted that at the moment, the Society has data on three platforms with variable metadata and would like to undertake the major task of uniting them, thus making the information available to users through a single search engine.

Another great botanical library is at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and the head of the library, Fiona Ainsworth, described its massive holdings: 300,000 books and pamphlets, 200,000 works of art, and 7,000,000 archive sheets.  At the moment, there is no digital catalog for the art collection, and it would be ideal to have it along with the herbarium and economic botany collections cataloged in one system with the library.  That is part of Kew’s plans for the future.  For the present, it is working on a five-year project to digitize and transcribe over 2000 Joseph Dalton Hooker letters, that are available on the Kew Library website.  This is a tremendous resource, especially when seen in relation to the letters of two great American botanists Asa Gray, whose correspondence has been digitized at Harvard University, and John Torrey, whose letters are now being digitized and transcribed at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

Stephen Sinon, NYBG’s archivist and curator of Special Collections, described the ongoing Torrey Transcription Project.  The noted 19th-century botanist John Torrey spent his life in New York and taught at both Columbia and Princeton.  He gave his letters and herbarium to Columbia College (now Columbia University), but these were transferred to NYBG when it was founded in 1898.  Most of the Torrey letters are incoming correspondence.  Almost ten thousand pages have been digitized and over 2,500 transcribed by volunteers through a crowdsourcing website.  This massive undertaking is being funded by NEH and the Carnegie Foundation of New York.  The resulting digital images are available not only through the NYBG’s Mertz Library website, but on BHL, Archive.org, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  Mentioning this project moves me away from my focus on Europe in this post, but it’s a reminder that botany knows no borders and has always been a global enterprise.  Torrey, Gray, and Hooker knew each other, wrote extensively among themselves, and visited each other’s countries.  The Americans and the British were also rivals in describing American plants, with Hooker and his colleague George Bentham avidly courting collectors, particularly in Canada, but they did not spurn US collections as well.  Torrey and Gray were well aware of this; the letters between them have many mentions of needing to name American plants quickly to prevent the British from doing it first.

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