Biodiversity Heritage Library visitors

08 June, 2010

Large group of visitors in the Museum Victoria main library.
BHL visitors in the Museum Victoria main library with a selection of rare books.
Source: Museum Victoria

US members of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) visited Melbourne Museum last week, following Museum Victoria signing on to coordinate the Australian node of this important archive project. Visiting were Martin Kalfatovic from the Smithsonian Libraries and Assistant Director of the BHL, Chris Freeland from the Missouri Botanic Gardens (MOBOT) and Global Technical Director of BHL, Phil Cryer also of MOBOT and Anthony Goddard from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

The BHL began as a consortium of US and UK libraries, herbaria and museums working together to digitise historic biological literature. Systematic biology – the investigation of evolutionary relationships between organisms – is critical to the study of biodiversity and relies heavily upon historic literature. Digitising these valuable resources means that they can be viewed by anyone over the internet. It also helps preserve fragile books, some of which are two or three centuries old, from damage through over-handling. To date, the BHL has made over 42,000 titles available through their website and is expanding with new international partners, such as MV.

The visitors met with staff from MV, the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) and other Australian institutions to discuss the project, including techniques to photograph and upload material and where to begin this enormous task. Between practical discussions, librarian Leonie Cash and exhibition producer John Kean hosted a viewing and discussion of some of the treasures of the museum’s rare books collection that may one day end up in the BHL.

A 1705 Dutch book by Georg Rumpf called D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer was a special highlight. John rediscovered the book, which has been packed away safely for over a decade, while researching an upcoming travelling exhibition about scientific illustration. Since reference texts were previously housed with natural history collections rather than in the central library, some amazing books have escaped notice for many years. Leonie reported that this book is exceptionally rare and that its illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian are considered some of the finest drawings of crustaceans ever produced.

Collaborations like BHL can bring some fascinating connections to light. The museum’s copy of the Scott sisters’ exquisite Australian Lepidoptera excited staff from the Herbarium because they have illustrations of plants and a collection of specimens made by Harriet and Helena Scott. Martin Kalfatovic of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries identified another 18th century treasure: The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands by Mark Catesby. Having just researched the Smithsonian’s copy of this book, Martin provided some useful information about its importance and provenance.

The first task of the Australian BHL node is to digitise back issues of the journals published by participating institutions, including the Memoirs of Museum Victoria which were established in 1906. BHL-Au is the literature component of the Atlas of Living Australia, which is an initiative funded by the Federal Government that aims to deliver comprehensive information on Australia’s biodiversity. The first public release of the Atlas of Living Australia and BHL-Au is planned for mid-September. 

Comments (1)

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John R 12 June, 2010 09:13
What a great international project and great that we are contributing. Good to see the Museum's library staff involved in this too.
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