Natural History, Digitized

By Mēgan A. Oliver, Digital Collections Librarian, UofSC. [Cross-posted from Mining McKissick, McKissick Museum’s blog]

Digitizing natural history collections is quickly becoming a specialty of ours, over at the Digital Collections department at the University of South Carolina Libraries. We’ve partnered with McKissick Museum for the past few years on their nationally grant-funded digitization project entitled ‘Historic Southern Naturalists’ (HSN); many thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the grant. This digital project has been highly collaborative and has produced a useful and beautiful web portal from which to access myriad museum collections of fossils, rocks, dried botanicals, and minerals, as well as the library’s collection of early naturalist manuscripts.

The Bahamas Titmous[e], first edition of Mark Catesby’s “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands”, 1731.
Since the HSN digital collaboration yielded such great results in providing museum and library users with fantastic historical resources, we’re excited to be back at the beginning of a new natural history digital collection.

In 2019, UofSC officially established the Mark Catesby Centre, a collective of scientists, librarians, curators, rare book experts, and naturalists, with invested personnel spread across the United States and the United Kingdom. The Catesby Centre’s work revolves around researching and promoting the ever-important findings and illustrative records of Mark Catesby, a naturalist who came to study biology in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas almost three centuries ago. Catesby’s seminal work predates that of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus by 29 years, with Catesby’s first edition of natural history findings published in 1729. Linnaeus would not release his now-famous biological classification system until 1758. The entirety of Catesby’s work in his multivolume set “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” was published over the course of 18 years, beginning in May of 1729 and ending in July of 1747.

Digitizing these rare and sometimes delicate natural history items requires specialty scanners and camera equipment, fully trained staff, and a great deal of time and patience. We strive to ensure that the color balance and tone distribution captured with our digitization equipment is as true to the physical, original item as possible. Calibrating and staging a single shot or scan can take up to 30 minutes, or the process could involve multiple scans of the same item in order to get the digital facsimile just right. In our department, this attention to detail often captures the iridescence and depth of the pigments used to hand color illustrations, as well as the texture of paper and the organic signs of age that rare books exhibit. Our staff, often graduates of the School of Library and Information Science here at UofSC, take great pride in producing such detailed work, as digital collections like these provide researchers with the next best thing to seeing a rare item in person; seeing it anywhere in the world at any time, online.

Last year alone, we digitized and helped to format metadata (data that describes the digitized items online) for about 12,000 items for the Historic Southern Naturalists digital collection, and we scanned a little over 2,500 pages and prints from our Catesby rare books.  In creating yet another stunning natural history digital collection for students, scholars, and historians to peruse, we hope to create a diverse wealth of natural history primary resources online.

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The Bahamas Titmous[e], first edition of Mark Catesby’s “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands”, 1731.

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