Monday, November 3, 2008

Botanicus - Digital Library from the Missouri Botanical Garden

Botanicus - the Digital Library from the Missouri Botanical Garden is an interesting approach to digitization. Botanicus is designed to fill a specific niche: "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-centered literature searches, while a crucial requirement of any project, delay hypothesis development or recognition and publication of new plant discoveries. For those traveling in remote parts of North America or stationed overseas, lack of access to library resources compounds these difficulties." Botanicus now has over one million pages of rare botanical manuscripts online.

This is a very different digital collection than those I usually highlight here. Though there is a lot of historical information within these volumes, the focus here is on botany, and many of the older volumes (the oldest book is from 1480!) are in Latin as well as French, Spanish, Italian and German. (The image to the left is from Tabacologia, a 1616 treatise on tobacco.)

There are a lot of things to like about this project. Though the search function is weak, there are a lot of ways to browse the collection, including by date of publication, as a tag cloud of LOC headings (I've never seen that one before!) and as a list of locations on a Google Map. The user can zoom in and out of the page images using the mouse scroll wheel. The project has a blog to allow users to follow along with the progress and to comment on features. Titles may be downloaded as PDF files or even reprinted via the internet publishing service And many of the illustrations in the books are simple breathtaking, as in the 1801 muscorum frondusorum.

A few items at Botanicus need work. The search function is simple, allowing only keyword searches. And it does not work very well, searches for "tobacco" and "Indians" get zero results, though the collections do contain items about tobacco and Indians and both appear as tags on the tag cloud page. And given the project's emphasis "primarily on beautifully illustrated volumes from our rare book collection" an image search or at least an image browsing capability would be nice.

Botanicus is an excellent model of a large scale digitization project that utilizes some innovative technologies and strategies for sharing information.


peacay said...

MBG also contribute some/most of their publications to the Biodiversity Library (multi-institutional).

Mm...there are many quibbles that can be voiced about the supporting metadata and technologies. Even browsing a book looking for illustrations is often made more difficult by incorrect page classification, believe me (!). But then, it's such a fantastic project which is at least thoroughly indexed in title/author terms, that it's hard to criticise them too forcefully, as it were.

(thanks for the tip about Hedwig's moss book!)

Larry Cebula said...

Incorrect page classifications? I wonder why more sites don't have a "report and error on this page" field ala Google Book Search.

peacay said...

It's actually what you might call "more institutionalised" than the occasional googlebooks hiccup. Sometimes a book will have page numbers in the dropdown sidebar menu with "illustration" noting the obvious. But sometimes it will be "text" or sometimes "plate" but all of these are kind of interchangeable, not always applicable and affect the whole book. So "text" might mean text or it might mean illustration or it might mean blank page. It must be automatically generated. I think I tried to tell them somewhere along the line. But as I say, it's more in the way of hiccup than huge problem. Or at least, it's ME that is affected more than most, just because it diminishes my skimming abilities. I don't hold it against them.