Free Miscellanea

Elizabeth Gwillim’s watercolor of ‘Gwillimia indica’, sent by J.P. Rottler to J.E. Smith in 1805, Linnean Society Archives

In this series of posts, I’ve discussed freely accessible books, articles, and images on the web (1,2,3).  But there are resource types I haven’t mentioned, and I’ll try to remedy that here.  I have been listening to free podcasts for years, especially In Defense of Plants.  Since covid, the number has increased, as has access to free lectures, seminars, etc., etc.  Of course, organizations that often sponsor such events—museums, universities, botanical gardens, professional organizations—are also those severely impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout.  So it’s not surprising that some are charging for their programs, though often with minimal fees.  Others see free programming as a way to remind visitors of their continued existence and relevancy, with the hope that interest will spur voluntary contributions or future participation.  Some seminars are organized by educational institutions to give their graduate students a chance to present their work or listen to experts in the field; opening these events up to others is a way to spread word of the research and perhaps ignite the interest of future students.  It’s also a way to share rich resources that result from research.

It’s difficult to provide a guide to the lecture landscape; it changes daily as new ones are posted and others have already occurred.  Some of latter are archived, but many are not.  Keep in mind it takes storage space and expertise to archive lectures; usually a little editing would help too, and that requires more time and skill than may be available.  When I miss an opportunity, I comfort myself by looking on Twitter or Instagram where I often find new ones.  That’s how I discovered a Harvard Museums of Natural History lecture on the Blaschka glass flowers, and a friend on Twitter alerted me to one on the relationship between sewing and biology offered by the Wellcome Collection.  These were visually as well as intellectually stimulating, and are indicative of a continuing move to bring the digital humanities and science together, and to the fore in the online world.

An example of seminars and videos serving several of these goals is the Gwillim Project Online at the McGill University Library; many of its presentations are archived online.  It’s essentially an exploration of the writings and drawings of Elizabeth Gwillim (1763-1807) and her sister Mary Symonds (b. 1772) who lived in Madras (now Chennai), India, at the beginning of the 19th century.  I’ve only attended one of the seminars related to this project, which is also digitizing the sisters’ papers at McGill, but it provided insights into the botanical side of their work, particularly that of Elizabeth.  One presentation was by Henry Noltie, a research associate at the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh and expert on British botanical activities in colonial India (2002, 2016, 2017).  He noted that Elizabeth started investigating Indian plants as she was studying Sanskrit.  So much of what she read was about plants and their uses, but the species were unknown to her so the descriptions made little sense.  She sought assistance from local botanists including the German missionary and botanist Johann Rottler.  She also corresponded with botanists in Britain and sent specimens to them.  Her only extant botanical drawing is one of a magnolia that Rottler posted to James Edward Smith in England because he thought it was a new genus and wanted to name it after Gwillim.

Many new, or newly better known, resources on the web support online learning.  Some were available before covid, but have now become vital ingredients to enhance distance learning.  These are so diverse, taking on so many different forms that it’s not possible to even scratch the surface here.  I’ll just point to one portal that gets richer by the day:  Botany Depot, managed by Lena Struwe of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, has been a lifeline for teachers throughout the pandemic.  As so often occurs on the web, the links found here will also lead to still other finds, so it is worth visiting from time to time, just for intellectual refreshment.  Also useful are JSTOR’s Plant of the Month posts, Oak Spring Library’s Fantastic Flora, and the Jepson Herbarium’s videos on California flora.

Of course, many educational resources are behind institutional firewalls, since protecting intellectual property is important.  Still it’s great when something massive and useful is also free, sometimes as a result of funding stipulations, from National Science Foundation for example.  This is the case with an online course called Plants and Python, part of the Michigan State University project, Integrated Training Model in Plant and Computational Sciences: IMPACTS.  I have to admit that all I knew about Python is that it was a programming language, and I don’t much more now.  However, I did delve into the course’s first “notebook,” An Introduction to Plants and Python: Lists and Leaves.

Officially called Foundation in Computational Plant Science, the course begins with the statement that it “brings together plant biologists and data scientists to learn fundamental concepts in plant science using a computational mindset.”  Then in bold is the comforting addition:  “This course assumes no prior experience in plant biology or coding.”   How could I not read on?  The first question explored is “What is a plant?”  Then there’s a discussion of the function and architecture of leaves.  Basic stuff.  After this botanical grounding comes the introduction to making a Python list.  I played along for a while, but then made the decision that I am not going to be a coder, even in the service of plant form.  However, it somehow made me happy to know that such an opportunity is freely available to anyone so inclined.

I’ll end with a couple of sites in two genres made popular by the pandemic.  One is the Smithsonian digital puzzle site which uses images from its libraries, including beautiful floral illustrations.  The Manchester Museum has a museum-from-home site that offers many activities, including a coloring book of herbarium specimens.  What could be better than that!


Noltie, H. J. (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

BHL Users and Its Blog

3 BHL users

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.

BHL and Social Media

I have a Facebook account that I ignore. I go into it about once every six months with the intention of using it, but I can never figure out its attractions, so I abandon it yet again. However, I use Twitter a lot, not to communicate so much as to keep up on the doings at institutions that interest me such as botanical gardens, herbaria, and natural history museums. Along the way, I’ve found several people and institutions posting notable items and I follow them too. For example, Donna Young (@HerbariumDonna) of the World Museum of Liverpool tweets and re-Tweets great material, as does the herbarium at St. Andrews University, Scotland (@STA_herbarium). Needless to say, in light of my last post, I also follow the Biodiversity Library, BHL (@BioDivLibrary). This is how I can keep up with its blog and all its latest endeavors. Because it’s trying to engage with as large an audience as possible, BHL communicates through a variety of social media outlets, since, like me, people have different tastes in their favorites apps. In 2016 it added Instagram and Tumblr to its internet presence along with its more longstanding Twitter and Facebook accounts. In total, it had a 76% increase in followers between 2015 and 2016, suggesting that these efforts have been successful. Perhaps its most fruitful outreach has been through Flickr where it has posted over 100,000 images from its resources, but I’ll get back to that later. I also want to note that there was a 54% increase in the number of visits to BHL from other social media sites—almost 100,000 in all, indicating users are coming to BHL from a variety of platforms. The most notable is Pinterest; posts from its accounts provided for more than half this traffic. Obviously many Pinterest users posted images sourced from BHL directly or from its Flickr account. These numbers suggest the general expansion of the social media universe and particularly of BHL’s participation in it. They also indicate its sophisticated approach to outreach.

At the moment BHL’s efforts in this area are being substantially assisted through the work of five one-year interns in the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) developed by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The five residents, now at the half-way point in their work, are at five different BHL member institutions. Pamela McClanahan at the Smithsonian Library has posted a user survey and will analyze the results, which are important to planning BHL’s future direction and where it will focus its resources. Ariadne Rehbein at the Missouri Botanical Garden has joined a Codergirl cohort in St. Louis and is also interviewing Flickr and BHL volunteer taggers about their work and how the work flows can be improved. These contributors to bettering BHL participated in a two-year grant from the NEH to develop a system for volunteers to identify and tag images in BHL volumes. This is a great example of a citizen science project where a pool of interested and committed individuals can help to enhance BHL.

At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Marissa Kings, along with several summer interns, is creating and editing metadata for the museum’s Contributions in Science publications in preparation for uploading these and other in-house publications to BHL. She is also exploring how recently digitized museum entomology specimens and related data can be linked to the relevant literature in BHL. I have very limited experience in this area, but I know enough to realize that none of this is trivial. Having well-defined workflows and metadata can make all the difference when it comes to linking different types of data. Another intern, Alicia Esquivel at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is doing statistical analyses to estimate the size of the total amount of biodiversity literature—a difficult task to say the least. But even a rough estimate would give some idea of what percentage of that literature is now in BHL, in other words, how big its impact could be on the biodiversity research community. At Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the fifth NDSR resident, Katie Mika is learning about adding structured bibliographic metadata in Wikidata to improve the quality of references in the Wikimedia universe and to reconcile messy data. By adding BHL IDs to Wikidata, it becomes a more robust knowledge base and improves the discoverability of BHL’s content. As you can see from these brief synopses, the NDSR program is providing BHL with expertise in several key areas and allowing it to both strengthen its foundations and move in new directions.

Before I close this post on BHL and social media, I want to get back to Flickr. BHL’s Flickr site is quite literally a joy to behold. There are now over 100,000 images from BHL content in Flickr and that number continues to rise. The contributions are arranged in albums, with each album representing one publication. For example, the album for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 136 from 1910 has 60 images. Searching for this item in BHL will provide all these images as well as the related text, but to just enjoy the beautiful illustrations, BHL at Flickr is the way to go. All these images are copyright free and downloadable. I should note that while I gravitate to the botanical literature, Audubon’s birds are here and Gessner’s animals. Needless to say, many people stumble upon this treasure trove when they are surfing in Flickr and don’t investigate further, don’t go into BHL at all. However, some do, and that is the point of social media outreach, the more the right outlets are used, the larger the payoff.

Flickr has turned out to be an effective tool for BHL. It is also a wonderful place for a biologist to spend time on one of those days when spreadsheets and graphs make no sense and it’s easy to forget what makes biology so wonderful. Another fun way to join in is with Color Our Collections. Users can download black and white illustrations contributed by member institutions and then satisfy their urge to color them in any way they want. This project, which has become popular on the web and is continuing, grew out of a social media exchange between a librarian from the New York Academy of Medicine and a committed citizen scientist/BHL tagger from Australia—a beautiful example of BHL’s global scope (Garner, Goldberg & Pou, 2016).


Garner, A., Goldberg, J., & Pou, R. (2016). Collaborative social media campaigns and special collections: A case study on #ColorOurCollections. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 17(2), 100–117.