I’ve been using the excellent Biodiversity Heritage Library recently for both work and play based research into animals and specimens. If you don’t know it, it’s an excellent initiative by a consortium of natural history institutions with a short and sweet mission, taken from their website.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library improves research methodology by collaboratively making biodiversity literature openly available to the world as part of a global biodiversity community.
In essence, it’s digitising and releasing the history of biology, for free to reference (you can make a donation though) or under creative commons for others uses which takes the sting out of trying to hunt down all the early references, many of which include original taxon descriptions and it includes publications that are incredibly rare or valuable and in some cases very odd. One of the very best things they’ve done recently, well 2012, is release over 24,000 images to flickr which is a great thing to do but is also a different way of browsing the history of biology. Although the image searching could be a little better, the released images are sometimes in little ‘curated’ albums which are just a pleasure to browse. Here is the BHL fLickr page and a few of my favourite albums are Sloths!, Monsters are Real, a gorgeous collection of
desktop wallpaper squid and, ahem, Octopi. One particular highlight brought to my attention from the images alone, and the subject of this blog post is Sea fables explained. London :W. Clowes and sons, ltd.,1883. WHICH YOU MUST HAVE A LOOK AT.
Sometimes, it’s all too easy (well for me anyway) to get a little bit down about how, once you scratch the surface, there’s still a lot we just don’t know about animals (and plants, and fungus, and etc. etc.) How they reproduce, where they live, what they eat, where they go or how they interact with and affect the complex ecosystems they are part of. However, perusing the illustrated pages of Sea Fables explained, it’s buoying to realise we’ve actually come quite far since the late 19th Century.
Such Sea Fables, which required explaining back then include where do geese, the birds, geese, actually come from (hint, they don’t grow inside barnacles which grow on trees), the fable of the paper nautilus or the argonaut surfacing and using it’s webbed tentacles as sails and the flotilla of fables around merpeople. It’s also somewhat reassuring to know that a museum interpretation favourite about the supposed desperation of sailors to confuse dugongs and manatees with alluring mermaids is recounted almost identically as it is today, at least as far back as this publication and probably earlier. It’s also a bit humilifying (sure, that’s a word) in that both dugongs and manatees are noted as being hunted to extinction, 130 years later and dugongs are classified as endangered and manatees are vulnerable across all species.
My point here though is that looking at images in isolation, is a way into written content that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with or dug out otherwise (okay so I probably would leaf through a physical copy of Sea Fables if I chanced upon one). A pet peeve with some archive digitisation, particularly in older science publications is that plates are sometimes left unscanned, which is particularly annoying in my line of work, but I think the BHL’s flickr albums show that you really shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover THIS IS AN AWFUL ENDING, DO NOT PUBLISH LIKE THIS.
UPDATE 27/10/2015. According to the BHL the number of images is now over 100,000. Get clicking.