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!

History and Herbaria Online


Online Herbarium of West Virginia Wesleyan University

Over the past 15 years vast digitization projects have made the internet a researcher’s paradise, a paradise in two dimensions. Because book pages are relatively flat, as are paintings, these were among the first resources to become richly available online. Pressed plant specimens are also susceptible to flatbed scanning, and many herbarium projects, particularly at smaller institutions, were taken on using librarian equipment and staff. This meant that botany had a leg up on geology and zoology in natural history digitization, though these fields are catching up, at least as far as taking photographs or scans of specimens, though 3-D imaging lags behind.

Making all these resources available on the web in an functional form is a further challenge, especially because “useable” can mean very different things, from simply broadly accessible to linked to other types of related resources so that users in a variety of fields can benefit from them. What I want to discuss in this and the next few posts is what this means for digital herbaria. While in their present form they are useable by botanists and ecologists studying everything from taxonomy to environmental change, they may be almost invisible to other potential users, including artists searching for inspiration, historians investigating our relationship with nature in the past, economists, sociologists, and pharmacists.

As Roderic Page (2016) notes, taxonomists themselves could greatly benefit from linking library and herbarium resources. It would be ideal to be able to click on the reference for the original paper on a species from its type specimen record. Often both are available electronically, and in some cases they have been linked, as in JSTOR Global Plants, where images of over two million type specimens are online, linked to related information in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), Tropicos plant information website, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and journals housed in JSTOR. However, JSTOR lies behind a paywall, even though individual items may also be available on separate free websites. Even when economics isn’t involved, there are obstacles. The Smithsonian’s Field Book Project has put hundreds of notebooks kept by Smithsonian scientists online through BHL. Many have not only been photographed, but transcribed. Obviously, there are many plant species mentioned in some of these notebooks, but BHL doesn’t have links to herbarium specimens. There are some portals that do connect various types of information. For example, the EOL provides access to visual as well as textual resources for species. These often include original research articles, photographs, herbarium specimens, and even botanical illustrations. The Plant List also links to many resources (EOL, BHL, GenBank, etc.) but these must be accessed one at a time, and there is no guarantee that there will be useful information in any particular resource.

In the cases I’ve been discussing so far, the resources being connected are primarily scientific. Even here, there are many herbaria, especially smaller ones, that have unique and valuable collections, but for these institutions, just digitizing the information on the sheets, let alone imaging them, is a massive task that involves equipment, sophisticated software, expertise, and a great deal of labor. Launching a website to provide access to this data, when it is entered, is yet another challenge, and a great accomplishment when it’s achieved. To give one example, West Virginia Wesleyan University (WVWU) has an active herbarium with 25,000+ specimens. It is used in teaching and is available to researchers both at the University and elsewhere. Katharine Gregg, now professor emeritus of botany, applied for an NSF grant with a consortium of West Virginia and Appalachian institutions to digitize their collections. While the grant wasn’t funded, it spurred Gregg to apply for a smaller state grant to fund a similar project for WVWU. The grant from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Division of Science and Research won approval, and the university was able to buy the necessary equipment and then funded student workers to begin digitization and imaging. Now more than half the collection is online through the university library’s website. This collection is valuable for a number of reasons including the richness of its local plant collection, and WVWU’s experiences paved the way for the digitization of other West Virginia herbaria. Thanks to iDigBio, the NSF-funded project to make data and images of millions of biological specimens available on the web, WVWU’s specimens are now freely accessible to researchers and the general public.

However, I would like to argue that this is just the first step in the creation of a rich, multidisciplinary resource including historical and anthropological materials. My vision is quite ambitious, and perhaps even grandiose, but I think it will come and will indicate a new stage in the development of the internet. Before I get to that, however, I would like to investigate in my next post a number of projects that are leading in that direction. They vary in emphasis, aim, and scope, but all deal with linking resources from different disciplines in often novel ways.

Page, R. (2016). Surfacing the deep data of taxonomy. ZooKeys, 550, 247–260.