Going digital: Putting the museum’s impressive library collection online

by Roberto Lima and Teresa Neamtz

Two women stand in front of a display of rare books.

Some of the museum library’s rare books on display during our Open House. Our Rare Book Collection consists of more than 4,000 pre-20th century monographs, manuscripts and periodicals. These cover expeditions, natural history, and biological and Earth sciences dating back to the 16th century. Image: John Davies, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As Canadian Museum of Nature library professionals, we want Canadians and visitors from around the world to have greater access to the museum’s impressive library. And, increasingly, this means not putting books in readers’ hands, but making them accessible to their screens.

This is why the museum is an active participant in the global digitization initiative.

We’re scanning and photographing key parts of our collection to make them available via the Internet.

Our digitization project is in collaboration with the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It’s an international consortium of natural history libraries that’s digitizing rare and historically important biodiversity literature and making it available online, for free.

With the help of summer student Teresa Neamtz, we recently boosted the museum’s online collection to approximately 80 publications.

A woman working at a computer.

Teresa Neamtz, a summer student in the museum library’s Scientific Training Program, edits a Biodiversity Heritage Library scan. Image: Roberto Lima © Canadian Museum of Nature

Digitizing our publications is done with modest equipment, a digital camera for bulky or fragile rare books, flatbed scanners for most other books.

It takes hours to scan, edit, and upload each book. With limited resources, we can’t make everything in the museum’s library available online. How do we set priorities?

To start, if a publication is already online, we don’t redo that work but instead focus on gaps that we can fill. For example, much of the museum’s Syllogeus series has been digitized by other libraries, so we stepped in to digitize missing volumes.

A page of hand drawn butterfly illustrations.

A colourful illustration of butterflies, complete with handwritten notes, in 19th-century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse’s manuscript Entomologia Terrae Novae. Image: Philip Henry Gosse, public domain.

Next, digitization is a great way to protect fragile or unique items, such as 19th-century naturalist Phillip Henry Gosse’s wonderful Entomologia Terrae Novae. Having a digital version reduces handling of the original, and ensures that its valuable information will not be lost if the physical copy is ever damaged. Digitizing rare books also makes them much more accessible to the public.

Finally, in deciding what to digitize, we consider the level of interest and enduring usefulness of a publication. For example, The Native Flora of Churchill, Manitoba by H.J. Scoggan is a 1959 publication still used by museum botanists. Digitizing it means that multiple researchers can use the book at once.

Researchers can even download the book to a tablet and take this onto the tundra with them when doing fieldwork.

It will take years to fully curate the museum’s high-quality online library.

In the meantime, we always welcome in-person visitors to the library who wish to use the original paper copies of our scientific publications!

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