Thursday, April 17, 2008

Open access for natural history texts

Nine institutions have formed the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an online collection of freely available biodiversity texts. The following organizations are working to digitize the most important works in their collections.

  • American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY)
  • The Field Museum (Chicago, IL)
  • Harvard University Botany Libraries (Cambridge, MA)
  • Harvard University, Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Cambridge, MA)
  • Marine Biological Laboratory / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Woods Hole, MA)
  • Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis, MO)
  • Natural History Museum (London, UK)
  • The New York Botanical Garden (New York, NY)
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Richmond, UK)
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries (Washington, DC)
The literature being digitized is a large portion of taxonomic and systematic biological literature surviving today. As of this post, 3,743 titles (9,099 volumes/3,511,140 pages) have been digitized. The BHL offers an RSS feed to inform interested researchers of newly digitized pages.

As shown in the cloud tag above, topics include many disciplines in biology and natural history. Texts have been digitized from as far back as 1480 to the present day. Students in Marine Science may be particularly interested in the offerings from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For example, I am constantly telling classes to be careful about the resources they try to obtain, that conference proceedings can be difficult to obtain. Several proceedings from the 1970s and 1980s have already been scanned by WHOI, and I imagine more will become available.

A search on our own Tampa Bay found 1 text:

Low-level monitoring of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, in Tampa Bay, Florida, 1988-1993 / by R.S. Wells ... [et al.].
Publication Info: Miami, FL :U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center ;[1996]
Contributed By: MBLWHOI Library
Tags: Bottlenose dolphin Ecology Florida Monitoring Observations Tampa Bay

The search engine is not extremely robust at this time, however from blog postings on the project, more capability is planned. Individual texts are tagged with hyperlinked subjects that can be used to search for other texts on similar topics. It is also possible to search by donating institution, year, language, names, titles, authors, and map.

The map feature is a nice example of integrated Web technology. Powered by Google, the map’s pinpoints are linked to location tags on individual texts. You can zoom into areas with several pinpoints to find more specific regions. Nothing’s perfect, however, as I found by clicking on a pinpoint near Naples, Florida, to be brought to a text referring to Naples, Italy.

Another interesting tool is TaxonFinder, which uses XML to find scientific names on the pages of scanned texts.

This is a very exciting project, and I will continue to monitor its progress to learn of new developments.

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