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From poppies to pixels

Digitisation is transforming access to Kew’s unique Library, Art & Archives collections. Metadata & Digitisation Officer Joanna Durant tells us more about the work involved and Kew's contributions towards the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).
12 January 2018
Joanna Durant

Kew and the digital world

Kew’s Library, Art and Archives hold a unique and invaluable collection of botanical artwork and reference sources. Items from the collection can be viewed by visitors to our Reading Room who may be doing scientific research, revising for horticultural exams, or just looking for inspiration in the amazing variety of images and books that the department holds.

To make these resources even more accessible at the click of a button, Kew is in the process of digitising parts of this fantastic collection. Digitisation is fast becoming an important process across museums, libraries and archives around the world. The process involves imaging, assigning metadata to each image (such as the date, artist or author and title), and often transcribing any information on each item.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Part of my role within the Library is to digitise books which are either unique to Kew or have been selected as having high value to researchers, scientists and anybody else who may wish to refer to them. This is being done in collaboration with the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an online resource that is making biodiversity literature openly available by working with botanical and natural history libraries across the world.

The term “biodiversity” refers to the variety of plant and animal life on Earth. To study this variety and understand complex ecosystems and their reaction to climate change, scientists must have access to the world's collective knowledge about biodiversity. BHL members are therefore constantly striving to address this requirement by making biodiversity literature freely available to the global audience.

BHL’s members include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum here in London, plus other institutions from across the globe including Singapore, Uganda, China and Mexico to name but a few. These institutions form a consortium of knowledgeable members, passionate about BHL's work who collaborate to digitise and disseminate the biodiversity knowledge that is held in their collections.

Users of BHL can request the digitisation of specific books, or volumes in a series of journals which may be missing from the contributions of other institutions. The first book that I saw through the digitisation process from beginning to end was a single volume of the Gardens Bulletin Singapore, a journal which Harvard University Botany Library originally made available via BHL. Due to their physical copy of volume 19 being in an inappropriate condition for scanning, we were able to fill the gap by digitising our copy of that volume and adding it to the collection.

A scientific diagram from volume 19 of the Gardens Bulletin Singapore.

How does it work?

To image these books, a specialised book scanner is used which consists of two plates that move up and down separately, so that the heavier part of the book can be lowered whilst the lighter part is raised, making sure that pressure on the spine is minimal. A glass plate can then be brought down to flatten the pages, and each page is scanned individually.

One of BHL’s main aims is to produce a digital copy of each book or journal which is as close to the physical copy as possible. For me this means imaging every page as it comes with the page order preserved – so fold-outs (usually scientific diagrams or tables) are unfolded, blank pages are imaged and anything obscuring any content (such as a piece of tissue paper often seen in older books) is gently rolled back before imaging.

I am currently working on a series of books from the late 1800s – early 1900s called Flora von Deutschland, that consist of beautiful illustrations and descriptions of a variety of flora from poppies to conifers and even mistletoe. BHL provides the ability to download the content of a single page or a whole book as plain text. So, if you want to read the aforementioned book and your German isn’t quite up to scratch, you can simply copy the downloaded text into an online translator. Flora von Deutschland will be available on BHL in 2018.

An illustration of Agrimonia eupatoria, or “Common Agrimony”, from Flora von Deutschland.

Kew’s Library, Art and Archives collections have been a vital resource for a plethora of users over the years and will continue to be for many years to come. By digitising some of our most unique and scientifically or historically important items and making them available on Biodiversity Heritage Library, we are helping people from across the world with their studies and interests as well as preserving this wonderful collection for future generations.

Papaver rhoeas or “Common Poppy”, from Flora von Deutschland.

- Joanna Durant -

(Metadata & Digitisation Officer)

Further reading

Library, Art & Archives already has a successful history of digitisation, including the incredible feat of making over 30,000 letters from Kew’s Directors’ Correspondence collection available on the JSTOR Global Plants site. JSTOR is a subscription website, but non-subscribers can search the letters and view the letter summaries.

1,160 correspondence letters of the 19th century botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker have also been made available online by the archives team here at Kew.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is free to use and Kew already has already contributed a number of items to the site. You can view our contribution so far by visiting Kew's BHL Contributor page.