Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The fine art of digitisation

I recently had to scan in some photographs and a short document. Even with modern technology, it’s a laborious business.

It struck me just how valuable is all the digitising work going on behind the scenes.

A favourite website of mine is Botanicus, which has an astonishing mission statement.

It regards digitising, indexing, and annotating historical scientific literature as vital to future research in systematic botany, the science of the identification of plants.

As is stated on the site, like other natural history disciplines but – unlike the physical sciences – systematic botany is built upon and requires frequent reference to the literature of its past.

To conduct carefully documented and authenticated research, botanists spend weeks in library collections searching the published botanical literature for data to develop a new project or substantiate their recent observations.

It seems that comprehensive collections of botanical literature are only available in a handful of libraries, all located in North American and Europe. For botanical researchers, these library-centred literature searches, while a crucial requirement of any project, delay hypothesis development or recognition and publication of new plant discoveries. For those travelling in remote parts of North America or stationed overseas, lack of access to library resources compounds these difficulties.

Further, no matter how scrupulous the search, when scientists must work manually through an array of journals and books it is impossible to be sure that all historical facts have been located and all published observations have been seen.

It is astonishing to discover that there are more than 67,000 systematic botanical publications in existence, but only those most recently published are in digitised form.

This is where organisations such as Botanicus come in. It is wonderful – a freely accessible, web-based encyclopedia of digitised historic botanical literature from the Missouri Botanical Garden Library. Staff has been digitising materials from our library since 1995, focusing primarily on beautifully illustrated volumes from its own rare book collection. Botanicus has been supported by generous funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the W.M. Keck Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Its four aims are as follows: to

  •     develop a model for digitised scientific literature
  •     program and test an extensible reference system based on the scientific literature model and universally applicable to all areas of natural history
  •     capture a robust, targeted subset of systematic botanical literature as images and associated defining metadata for those references, and employ automated markup protocols to convert the image to text and embed links to external data sets
  •     provide a web portal to the scientific literature system that will facilitate research and intensify the vital work on science-based conservation of the world's biological diversity through an interactive, intelligent interface to systematic botanical literature.

And in answer to the inevitable questions, all of the images on are free for non-commercial use, as long as you abide by the terms set down in the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 licence.

I applaud their work.

The glorious plate pictured is from The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala.

By Pamela Kelt

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