Free Books

Martin Schongauer, Studies of Peonies, 1472

I am a relatively thrifty person and I get a certain thrill from finding a bargain.  Since the ultimate bargain is something that costs nothing, I love it when I find a free book on the web.  Since I’ve been spending more time on the internet in the past few months, I’ve come across a number of these gems and have decided to base this series of posts on plant-related discoveries, some I’ve found so recently that I haven’t had a chance to fully explore them.  I’ll also throw in a few I tripped upon in the past.  In the following posts, I’ll delve into articles, images, and other web resources that make the internet a bargain-hunters paradise.  But always there is the caveat that I am just skimming the surface of a massive ocean filled with treasures waiting to be discovered.

One item I came across recently is Singing the Praises of Natural Latin by Linden Hawthorne.  It’s an exploration of plants and plant names, beautifully illustrated with photos and reproductions of botanical art; she also treats a few insects as well.  This is a lovely walk through nature, botanical history, and nomenclature.  Also offered as a free book is Of Microscopes and Monsters by Martyn Kelly who has a wonderful blog, too.  Kelly is a British freshwater ecologist who does water quality studies focusing on diatoms and other fascinating microalgae.  What makes his work particularly interesting is that he is also an artist who creates beautiful underwater landscapes featuring his study material.  These communicate both the structure of organisms and the environment where he encounters them.

My next two finds are doctoral dissertations, which are now sometimes available online through the institutions granting the degrees.  I’ve learned a great deal from Rachel Pedder-Smith’s thesis, The Glow of Significance: Narrating Stories Using Natural History Specimens.  She received her degree from the Royal College of Art in London, which has a website devoted to the work of its students and faculty.  As part of her project, Pedder-Smith created a 18-meter long watercolor painting of herbarium specimens representing all the flowering plant families.  Her written dissertation not only explains her process in creating this art, but discusses the material culture of natural history collections and describes the work of several artists who, as she did, used collections as inspiration.  Her text is a fitting accompaniment to her impressive art work, which is now in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where she did her research and painted Kew herbarium specimens.

More recently, I found the dissertation of Anna Svensson, a graduate of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.  A Utopian Quest for Universal Knowledge: Diachronic Histories of Botanical Collections between the Sixteenth Century and the Present consists of four chapters dealing with such topics as botanical collecting in 17th-century Oxford, pressed plants tucked into books that are often related to botany, and Svensson’s experiences in digitizing Joseph Hooker’s correspondence at the Royal Botanical Garden, Kew.  She ties it all together by using the metaphor of the four squares that made up the original walled physic garden at Oxford.  She also explains how she created an embroidered cover for her thesis, using plant dyes for the fabric and thread, and creating a knotted garden pattern to signify how the dissertation topics were linked together.

Another mine of book-length resources is the Linnean Society of London, where special issues of The Linnean are available for download including two on Carl Linnaeus (1,2) that were published during the tercentenary of his birth in 2007 and another on Darwin produced for his bicentenary.  Regular issues of The Linnean are also available for download.  Continuing with the anniversary theme is a book on Carolus Clusius published by Leiden University for the 400th anniversary of his death in 2009.  I have to say I just stumbled on all these resources and try to keep track of them for future reference.  Lately I’ve been more organized, in part because I’ve discovered several new items.

The Australian National University has published Communicating Science: A Global Perspective, a large edited volume; a hardcopy is available for sale, but a download of the PDF is free.  The same is true of a number of books published by University College London Press including Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices and The East India Company at Home, both edited collections.  And the National Academies of Science Press has published Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century in the same way.  Two more thought-provoking topics are Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 and Data Journeys in the Sciences.

Outside the scientific world, there are two art and art history collections accessible for free.  One is the Getty Publications Virtual Library where over 300 books can be downloaded.  The coverage is so broad that even botanists can find a few gems including Gardens of the Roman World by Patrick Bowe and European Drawings 3: Catalogue of the Collections by Nicholas Turner and Lee Hendrix with a cover featuring Martin Schohgauer’s Studies of Peonies that suggests how observation in early modern painting stimulated botanical observation (see above).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art also makes many of its past publications available for download.  Several deal with the Unicorn Tapestries, including the plants pictured in them.  This set of textiles is one of the Met’s great treasures at the Cloisters, their museum of medieval art, built overlooking the Hudson River in upper Manhattan.

In closing I’ll mention the spectacular guides to the sedges, mosses, and woody plants of  the northern American forests, all publications of the Northern Forest Atlas Project.  Then of course, there are the endlessly rich resources of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Internet Archive, and Google Books.  And before I go, one more nice find I should mention is an introduction to Botanical Classification and Nomenclature published by the Meise Botanic Garden that’s a great little book.

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