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SIL and BHL in South Africa

Nancy Gwinn and Martin Kalfatovic at Mae Jemison Reading Room
Dr. Nancy Gwinn and Martin Kalfatovic at Mae Jemison Reading Room.

On June 10-15, 2012, Dr. Nancy Gwinn (Smithsonian Libraries Director and Biodiversity Heritage Library Executive Committee Chair),Martin Kalfatovic (Assistant Director, Digital Services Division, Smithsonian Libraries and BHL Program Director), and Grace Costantino (BHL Program Manager), along with several other BHL colleagues from across the US, traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to attend a series of meetings aimed at creating a BHL for sub-Saharan Africa.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that collaborate to digitize past and present biodiversity literature, all of which is made freely available online at BHL is a global initiative, with project nodes in the US/UK, Europe, China, Brazil, Australia, and Egypt. The BHL US/UK Secretariat is housed at the Smithsonian Institution, which is a founding member of the project.

On Monday, June 11, before the Cape Town Meetings commenced, Dr. Gwinn, Mr. Kalfatovic and Mrs. Costantino, upon invitation from the United States Embassy in South Africa, traveled to the Mae Jemison U.S. Science Reading Room at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus to present SIL and BHL to a group of local students. The Mae Jemison Reading Room is a partnership between the U.S. Embassy and the University of Pretoria to support the education of local students in the sciences. The facility offers a collection of approximately 3,000 books and films, computers with free internet access, and exhibition spaces for science experiments, demonstrations, and lectures.

Nancy Gwinn at Mae Jemison Reading Room
Nancy Gwinn presenting SIL at the Mae Jemison Reading Room

In front of nearly two dozens participants, Dr. Gwinn kicked off the proceedings with a presentation about the Smithsonian Libraries, focusing on the history of specimen collection and its documentation in books, many of which are held in the Libraries and used even today for scientific research. The Embassy encouraged the presenters to involve the students as much as possible in the discussions, so Gwinn challenged the audience with direct questions about material presented during her talk. The students’ engagement was confirmed with ready answers to her questions on the number of rare books and manuscripts held at SIL (50,000) and the name of the chemical used by collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries to preserve specimens (arsenic).

Following Gwinn’s presentation, Martin Kalfatovic introduced the Biodiversity Heritage Library to the audience, focusing on the importance of online access to scientific literature and highlighting the digitization process. Kalfatovic also showcased the BHL Flickr collection, which provides free access to over 35,000 images gleaned from books in the BHL collection. Grace Costantino demonstrated how the students could directly contribute to BHL by tagging images in Flickr with species names (learn how you can contribute to the BHL Flickr).

The presentations closed with a trivia challenge, during which Gwinn and Kalfatovic asked the students a series of questions related to the presentations, including the name of the spaces used by early natural historians to display their specimen collections (Wonder Rooms), the number of objects held by the Smithsonian Institution (139 million), and the first global BHL group formed outside of the US/UK (Europe). Each correct answer earned the responder a prize, chosen from a collection of Smithsonian coins (unique designs for each museum) and a book highlighting the Smithsonian’s rare book collection.

Piet Sathekge
Piet Sathekge exploring the BHL Facebook site at the Mae Jemison Reading Room.

Following the formal discussions, attendees approached the presenters with specific questions and comments, asking about funding for the Smithsonian, BHL digitization processes, and collaborative opportunities with SIL and BHL. Piet Sathekge, a local student, was particularly interested in BHL and its social media outlets, wasting no time visiting the BHL Facebook page while BHL representatives were still on site.

Gwinn, Kalfatovic and Costantino left the Reading Room with an emboldened sense of purpose for SIL and BHL activities in Africa. Many of the bright, energetic students in attendance have limited access to materials often taken for granted in the Western Hemisphere. However, while computer access is scarce, most African residents, from child to adult, have cell phones and access to the internet via this outlet. Thus, one of the best ways to reach African audiences is through mobile technology, and the development of appropriate applications was a key discussion point at the meetings that followed in Cape Town. One project and initiative at a time, we’re working towards repatriating knowledge to all parts of the globe. Gwinn, Kalfatovic and Costantino were humbled by their experiences in Africa and look forward to collaborative opportunities with our friends in the future.

Learn more about the BHL-Africa initiative, and get inspired about the difference institutions and projects like SIL and BHL can make, with this video.


– Grace Costantino, Biodiversity Heritage Library Program Manager

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