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4 Posts tagged with the biodiversity_heritage_library tag



It seems extraordinary now, but if you had entered a lottery in 1786, you might have won a whole museum. The tickets were priced at one guinea each, and the museum up for grabs was that of Sir Ashton Lever, collector of natural history and ethnographical specimens.


The museum was based in Leicester Square, London, and contained approximately 27,000 items. Leicester House, a large mansion, cost Lever £600 a year to lease, and when it opened in February 1775 he charged visitors half a guinea to enter, a large sum at the time. Despite the cost, the Leverian Museum proved popular. Those who visited found sixteen rooms of specimens interspersed with corridors lined with cases containing even more items. One room was separate and was billed as containing “very curious monkies and monsters”; ladies were warned that they may not have wished to enter for fear of being disgusted. As well as the specimens, there was a library containing books on natural history. Interestingly, advertisements at the time specify that good fires were to be found in the galleries – not something that one would expect to find in museums now!





As well as the general public, artists and natural historians of the time came to draw and study the exhibitions. Lever added to the collections frequently, stocking the cases with zoological and ethnographical items brought back from expeditions such as those of Captain Cook, from exotic locations such as the Americas, Africa and the Far East.



[Image above] – “Bird display. A perspective view of the grand saloon and gallery [of the Leverian Museum] from A Companion to the [British] Museum (1790) by Sir Ashton Lever.” NHM Picture Library Ref 036756







Sarah Stone (ca.1760-1844), the daughter of a fan painter, began painting at the museum in the late 1770s. Her baptism certificate has not been found, so the precise date of her birth is unknown.  She came to the attention of Lever and was commissioned by him to formally record specimens. Her artwork is considered of great importance as it gives some idea of the species collected by explorers and of the long-since demolished museum. Some of the animals she painted are now extinct, or have endangered populations.


The Library at the Natural History Museum has a large collection of Stone’s watercolours. Many of the known paintings and drawings in existence (over 900 in total) are of birds, such as the image above of a mandarin duck, Aix galericulata.


Stone’s use of colour and shadow, delicate brushwork and faithful representation of her subjects made her work distinctive and admirable at the time. Although these qualities are still prized, some of her drawings can look ‘stiff’ to modern eyes. In particular, the sloth on the left in the picture below looks incapable of climbing its branch. However, this may also be the fault of the taxidermy techniques of the period.


[Image on right]   “Mandarin duck, Aix galericulata. Sarah Stone, 1788.” NHM Picture Library Ref 024290





So who did win the museum? For five weeks after the lottery, no-one knew. Finally James Parkinson, a barrister, came forward to claim his winnings. The chosen ticket had belonged to his late wife and he had only come across it when sorting through her estate.


He owned the museum for twenty years, though kept the ‘Leverian’ name, and oversaw a move to a different site in Albion Place, south of Blackfriars Bridge. Most of Stone’s drawings are dated to before Parkinson took over the museum. In 1806, the collections were broken up and sold at auctions lasting for sixty five days (excluding Sundays and the King’s birthday). Interestingly, two of the lots were Stone’s own watercolours of the specimens.


The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) webpage hosts some books which contain paintings by Sarah Stone. Some examples are here:



You can also see more of Sarah Stone’s artwork in the forthcoming Images of Nature Gallery exhibition on women artists, which will be on display the Museum from March 2014 and is accompanied by a book by Special Collections Librarian Andrea Hart. Keep a look out for forthcoming blogs providing more information about the new exhibition next month and then throughout 2014/2015.




Jackson, C.E. (1998). Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd.


[Image below] – “Pale-throated three-toed sloth, Bradypus tridactylus. Sarah Stone, c. 1781-1785.” NHM Picture Library Ref 024334




The new Biodiversity Heritage Library User Interface is active today. 


Please take a look and  I suggest you check out the guide to the new BHL Guide to the New BHL .


A blog post has been set up, with links tweets and Facebook posts. 


Of particular interest will be the ability to search BHL by articles (>80,000 will be indexed and available in BHL by the launch) and improvements to the PDF generation process.


Coincidentally BHL Europe is launching today.


Its an exciting time for BHL and all associated with it.  We hope th users will find the new site an BHL a useful additional tool in their portfolio.  PLease send your comments to or leave a comment on the blog post.


Alison Harding




Imagine a natural history library open 24 hours a day with all your essential journals and books inside.  The

Biodiversity Heritage Library will be that Library.  It is available 24 hours, wherever you are, for free, with over

38 million pages of information already scanned and more being added everyday.


It all started about 2005 with a consortium of Natural History and Botanical Libraries meeting to organise the what

and how of a freely available resource of biodiversity literature.  The consortium was mostly based in the USA (eg

Smithsonian, Missouri Botanic Garden, American Museum of Natural History) plus the NHM and Kew. The idea was to

create a freely available resource containing the legacy literature of biodiversity taken from the collections of

the members of the consortium. The first portal was launched was in 2007.


The participating institutions realised that their collections of rare and historic scientific information that are

essential for taxonomics and systematics were available to visitors only.  Natural history is unusual in science in

that historic data is essential and must be consulted.  Hence BHL is destined to be one of the largest subject

specific resources on the Internet.




The material scanned into BHL includes anything in the public domain (upto 1923 in the USA and 100 years old in the

UK) or items where agreement has been reached with the copyright holder.  Recently material has been ingested from

sources other than the BHL consortium members such as the Internet Archive, the University of Illinois at

Urbana-Champaign.  Additionally any user may request items for digitisation (using the feedback button on the top

right of the BHL screen).


This amazing resource is free to use and is available anywhere that has Internet access, so from the Museum, from

home and out in the field.  All pages are index for scientific names using UBIO ( ).  Material can

be downloaded as a PDF or OCR, all or page by page or just images.  The bibliographic information can be downloaded

in MODS, BibTeX or EndNote format.  The information downloaded can be saved, re-used or re-purposed freely, see the

BHL Flickr site BHL also has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and

itunes, and has a blog featuring book of the week, articles by users of BHL, information about meetings and new

developments, and much more!


By promoting itself as an open digital collection, BHL allows the taxonomic names and associated bibliographic

information to be used by other digital initiatives such as Encyclopedia of life, Tropicas, Biostor and Citebank

The BHL family is expanding with collections coming online for Europe, Australia, China, Brazil and Egypt.  Also

negotiations are underway to initialise a project for Sub-Saharan Africa. 



Chris scanning at the Scribe machine.


The Natural History Museum has contributed 639 titles to BHL since scanning started in 2007.  Scanning is carried

out using a Scribe machine which incorporates a super structure that supports two cameras on sliding tracks, lights

(continuous, not flash), a bed and glass platen set at an angle, with a foot pedal for raising and lowering the

platen. The Cameras are Canon Mark IIs. Images are processed using software developed at Internet Archive

(processing includes cropping, rotating/ de-skewing, and converting from RAW to JPEG2000) and then uploaded to the

Internet Archive, where they are further converted to .pdf, .epub, etc. The scans need to be associated with the

appropriate metadata from the Library catalogue, achieved using Z39.50 technology.  Library staff are heavily

involved in the preparation of items for scanning.


Help expand the BHL user-base and have a look today.  If you need any help please contact me via


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The personal scientific library of Charles Darwin has been made available online for the first time via the Biodiversity Heritage Library – including notes and comments scribbled him on the pages and margins.


The digitisation of Darwin’s Library is a collaborative effort involving the NHM Library, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History, Cambridge University Library, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.


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View of Darwin's Library on the shelves at Downe House about 1876-77

(Image from Cambridge University Library)


These annotated books are now in the process of being digitized. The first phase of this project has just been completed, with 330 of the most heavily annotated books launched online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library for all to read.


Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital edition and virtual reconstruction of the surviving books owned by Charles Darwin. This BHL special collection draws on original copies and surrogates from other libraries. It also provides full transcriptions of his annotations and marks. In total, Darwin’s library amounted to 1480 books, of which 730 contain abundant research notes in their margins. In this first release (2011) 330 of the most heavily annotated books have been made available.  To support the project BHL has developed a new facility on the BHL website to feature special collections.


Because Darwin’s evolutionary theory covered so many aspects of nature, reading served him as a primary source of evidence and ideas.  Darwin once complained that he had become a ‘machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts’.


The pages of Darwin’s Library, smothered as they are in his tantalising scrawl, give us a direct view of the great Darwinian intellectual machine in action. With the Charles Darwin Library online, now everyone can retrace how Darwin systematically used reading to advance his science.

Most of Darwin’s personal library rests at Cambridge University Library and at Down House.  Although the majority of the books are scientific, some are humanities texts on subjects that Darwin transformed into scientific topics.


The series of transcriptions accompanying each page allows everyone to see which passages Darwin found relevant to his work, stimulated his thinking, or just annoyed him as he read the work of others.


For example, his friend Charles Lyell wrote in his famous Principles of Geology that there were definite limits to the variation of species. Darwin wrote alongside this: “If this were true adios theory”.  See the image below.




Final page of Volume 2 of
Lyell’s Principles of Geology (5th edition, 1837).
Note the annotation on the left page
“If this were true adios theory”
(Image from Cambridge University Library)



The online transcribed marginalia relies on the work of two scholars, Mario A. Di Gregorio and Nick Gill, published in the 1990s and now greatly enhanced by Gill. Finally, in addition to images of the books and transcribed jots, the information is fully indexed so that people can search for topics and ideas relevant to their interests or work.


The digitisation project was jointly sponsored by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) and National Endowment of the Humanities through a Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration Grant.

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                                            The NHM Library Specialist Digitisation Unit scanning NHM volumes for the project