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Museums and herbarium books available online

Lynne Raughley

Good news for researchers who’ve been missing easy access to rare and special books in the Museums and Herbarium Collections: they’ve now been digitized and made available online via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The project was initiated back in 2019, after the university had moved all of its museum and specimen collections to a facility equipped to preserve and store them, along with the related library collections that had always resided nearby for the convenience of the researchers who needed them.

But not all the books made that journey.

The new location at the Research Museums Center on Varsity Drive — which holds the collections of the Anthropological Archaeology, Herbarium, Paleontology, and Zoology Museums  — didn’t offer preservation-grade space for rare and fragile books, some of which date back to the 18th century. Those books were placed in a remote facility better equipped to preserve them, and are available on request for viewing in the Research Museums Center.

Passiflora, The Ladies Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants by Mrs. Loudon, 1849.

To enable more immediate access to these materials, Scott Martin, biological sciences librarian, teamed up with digital conversion specialists Lara Unger and Larry Wentzel to obtain a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

The project would have been completed in 2021, but as with so many other things it was delayed by the pandemic.

“When COVID arrived in earnest in March 2020, it derailed us on multiple levels: the shutdown of campus operations prevented us from accessing the materials, and once we resumed, the project took a back seat to digitizing materials for remote instruction,” Martin explained. “Meanwhile, our preferred scanning vendor was also affected by a prolonged operational shutdown, so by the end of 2020, none of the materials had yet been scanned.”

The work was finally completed earlier this year after a one-year extension of the grant period.

Collection highlights

The project’s benefits extend well beyond the University of Michigan, because many of the newly-digitized books are quite rare. Martin recalls a request from a medical team preparing for surgery on a zoo elephant in North Carolina suffering from an impacted tusk, and seeking a book called The Elephant’s Head, a rare volume whose images could help them plan the procedure. At the time, the library was able to provide high-resolution scans of the relevant images; now, a high-resolution scan of the entire volume is available online to everyone.

The Elephant’s Head: Studies in the comparative anatomy of the organs of the head of the Indian elephant and other mammals, plate 20, J.E.V. Boas and Simon Paulli, 1925.

In fact, many of the items contain beautiful illustrated plates — some of them hand-colored — of a vast range of flora, fauna, and ethnological subjects that everyone can see, download, and reuse. (A necessary caveat: while most of the newly-scanned collection is in the public domain, some in-copyright volumes, which are search-only online, were scanned for the sake of completeness and their eventual entry into the public domain.)

To find items of interest in the collection, you can search the entire collection in HathiTrust, or filter your search by subject, author, format, and other categories. Local favorites include The Ladies’ Flower-garden volumes by Mrs. Loudon; 49 volumes of photographs & pictorial works; and a 19th-century illustrated herpetology atlas.

Herpetology Atlas by Charles Frédéric Girard, 1858.

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