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Plant Humanities Resources

Databases, library collections, and projects of interest to plant humanities research topics, including biodiversity, ethnobotany, botanical illustration and artwork, medicine, and scientific exploration.

Databases Library Collections Projects

Databases

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is the world’s largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. Contributing research institutions and botanical libraries digitize the natural history literature held in their collections and make these resources freely available through BHL. 

Good for: locating digitized rare books, full-text searching, indexed scientific names

Search help: A Harvard Library guide offers search tips, an introduction to BHL’s advanced features, and instructions for downloading content.

The Medical Heritage Library, Inc., is a collaborative digitization and discovery organization committed to providing open-access resources in the history of healthcare and the health sciences.​ Like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Medical Heritage Library is composed of resources that have been digitized by member institutions.

Good for: locating digitized rare books, particularly herbals and other medical texts; full-text searching 

Search help: a guide to using the full-text search tool is available on the MHL’s website. 

Through Kew Science’s Plants of the World Online, you can browse over 1,113,000 global plant names, 65,800 detailed descriptions, and 191,400 images. The database’s focus is on tropical Africa, but plants from other regions are represented as well. Entries include a description and images of the plant, information on its distribution, and synonyms drawn from Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone.

Good for: a place to start your research, locating secondary and primary sources for a specific plant, basic scientific information 

For example, the entry for cork oak (Quercus suber L.) includes a description of the plant and its common uses; photographs of the cork oak and specimens from the Kew Herbarium Catalogue; an image of a colored plate from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Vol. 2, 1887; and a short bibliography of secondary literature.

Search help: the interface is incredibly easy to navigate: simply enter the scientific or common name of the plant into the search bar on the database’s homepage and select the appropriate record from the results list.

Native American Ethnobotany is an online database of foods, drugs, dyes, fibers and other plant derivatives used by Native American Peoples. The database contains over 44,000 items, representing uses by 291 Native American groups of 4,029 species from 243 different plant families. Each record links to the US Department of Agriculture PLANTS database, which contains complete botanical information on useful plants, including pictures, range maps, and endangered status.

Good for: discovering how plant species were used by Native American Peoples, locating secondary sources related to ethnobotany in North America

Search help: the database allows you to perform a basic keyword search or filter results by tribe or use category (Drug, Dye, Fiber, Food, Other). In addition to a target search, you can also browse a list of all tribes or plant species

For example, you can see all documented uses of Mentha spicata L. (Spearmint). Each record describes a specific use for the plant within an individual tribe, gives a citation for that use, and links to the USDA PLANTS database. You can click on the tribe name in the search results list to view all plants used by that tribe.

 

Library Collections

The Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries (CBHL) lists member Plant Libraries, many of which have made portions of their collections available online.

New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library collects works pertaining to the fields of botanical science, horticulture, and landscape and garden design. In addition to their digitized materials, which include curated selections of Latin American Plant Literature, Great Flower Books, Books on Trees, and Botanical Art, the Mertz Library has created extensive research guides for their physical collection and exhibitions and a list of relevant databases.

The Oak Spring Garden Library comprises a collection of over 19,000 objects, including rare books, manuscripts, and works of art dating back to the fourteenth century. The collection mainly encompasses works relating to horticulture, landscape design, botany, natural history, and voyages of exploration. ​Oak Spring has published four catalogs of their collection, which they have made available as searchable e-books.

The John Carter Brown Library is an independently funded research library located on the campus of Brown University. The collection, which includes books, maps, and manuscripts related to the history of the Americas from the late fifteenth until the middle of the nineteenth century, has increasingly emphasized indigenous language materials and other sources related to America’s earliest indigenous inhabitants. The library’s digital collections can be accessed through LUNA or through the Internet Archive.

Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the development of botany as a science. The collection contains botanical publications dating from the late 1400s, including early agricultural and horticultural works, seventeenth- through nineteenth-century color-plate books, modern taxonomic monographs, floristic works, and serial titles in the plant sciences.

The library of Christoph Jacob Trew, an eighteenth-century physician and scientist of Nuremberg, is one of the largest private collections of science books in the German-speaking countries. Over several decades, Trew gathered 34,000 books, relating mainly to medicine and science, 19,000 scholarly letters dating from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, as well as an extensive natural history collection, which are housed at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. The university has also digitized several other examples of botanical literature.

The Digital Library del Real Jardin Botanico CSIC (Madrid)​ is an online botanical information resource that provides free and open access to more than 7,500 publications, primarily drawn from the collection of the Library of the Royal Botanical Garden.​

The Peter H. Raven Library at the Missouri Botanical Garden contains more than 250,000 books, botanical artwork, field books, photographs, and modern and historical maps. The collection’s focus is on plant names and descriptions, but the Library is also rich in other subjects such as the study of edible and medicinal plants, the art of botanical illustration, and the history of scientific exploration. Digitized materials are available through Botanicus Digital Library or through BHL.

The Botanical Illustrations exhibit on Harvard Digital Collections​ provides free, public access to objects digitized from the Botany Libraries. The original works of art in this collection of botanical illustrations date from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s and include works by Harvard botanists, professional artists, “amateur” women who studied plants, and others.​

In addition to providing access to their own digitized monographs, plant catalogs, and periodicals, the German Horticultural Library has compiled extensive bibliographies of digitized garden literature from other institutions.

 

Projects

Welcome to the Ethnobotany Lab is a guide to resources for investigating the plants used by the ancient and modern Maya and Nahutal cultures. The site provides a detailed history of the various plant-based colorants used in Mesoamerican codices and includes short essays highlighting ethnobotanical subjects that give context to the plant descriptions. There is an emphasis on indigenous names drawn from a variety of linguistic and ethnographic sources and on the systematic plant classification system of the Nahua, including an explanation of the Nahua Glyphs used both in place name construction and plant identification.

The resource was created by John Hessler, the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress. Hessler also gave a series of seminars on the Nahuatl and Mixtec maps held by the Library of Congress, with a particular focus on plant iconography. These seminars are available for free on Rare Book School’s website.

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) is a group of scholars and students creating transcriptions of manuscript recipe books written in English between 1550 and 1800. EMROC's efforts focus on making searchable, encoded versions of these texts freely available for scholars and the general public. This corpus is particularly useful for any scholars interested in how plants were used in cooking, home remedies, and other recipes. The original manuscripts and transcriptions are available on LUNA, and there are instructions for searching the collection on EMROC’s homepage.