Digitizing Audubon: Behind the scenes

By: Caraline Annichiarico

This Fall 2021, I completed a Natural History Digitization Internship in Digital Collections to digitize John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-1838) for the Irvin Department of Rare Book and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina. Under the direction of the project supervisor, Dr. Michael Weisenburg, I assisted the project manager, Kendall Hallberg to handle, scan, and compose metadata for 435 unbound plates in Robert Havell’s edition. For the sheer size of Audubon’s plates, the Zeutschel OS 1400 A0 overhead scanner was used to completely fit them on the scanning bed. As each plate is approximately 39 by 26 inches, two people were required to carry each plate to provide sufficient support and maintain proper preservation practices when handling these rare and special materials.

Kendall and I devised a system to carefully transfer the plates efficiently to and from the Zeutschel’s scanning bed. This photo offers a glimpse into our methodical scanning process.

Two women placing a large print on an overhead scanner

My interest in identifying birds and their calls made this internship particularly appealing to work so closely with Audubon’s rare collection. For instance, although I am familiar with the Whip-poor-will’s distinct call for which it is named, I have never seen this nocturnal bird in real life. Therefore, it was thrilling to view the Whip-poor-will for my first time in Audubon’s life-size drawing. Every one of the 435 plates are sensational, emotion-provoking, and dramatic; some containing scenery that depict nature at its best.

Whip-or-will flying with butterfly and leaves

During the metadata creation process, it was interesting to observe the nomenclature that Audubon used in his captions and follow the evolution to modern nomenclature used widely today. An integral resource for the metadata creation was referencing Susanne M. Low’s (1988) An Index and Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America, which provided scientific and common bird names as well as a description and brief history for each of Audubon’s plates.

To view Audubon’s magnum opus, navigate to University of South Carolina’s Digital Collections. I recommend zooming into the plate images, as the high-resolution quality is superb!