Plant Talk

Digital Seed Sharing

Posted in Inside our Collections on July 20, 2020, by Susan W. Lynch

Susan W. Lynch is the Systems, Digitization and Web Services Librarian at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a vegetable seed packet

Favorite Collection Seeds. Fairview Seed Farms, 1909. Contributed to BHL by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library

Although the LuEsther T. Mertz Library is not among the collections that will be physically accessible during the Garden’s initial phase of reopening that begins July 21, enthusiasts can nonetheless continue to enjoy its many treasures through Mertz Digital, the Library’s own digital repository.

When we select items from our print collections, digitize them, and make the digital images freely available, we unlock a stunning and sometimes humbling amount of creativity, excitement and scholarship. People of all backgrounds, nationalities, and economic circumstances discover the material. They remix and repurpose it in ways that those of us who initiated the digitization process never anticipated. Best of all, creative use of the digitized content does not diminish over time but instead increases as digital images and descriptions of them flow freely from one repository to another.

Take a closer look at this phenomenon through the lens of the Mertz Library’s collection of seed and nursery catalogs, one of the largest collections of its kind in North America, perhaps the world. With the help of multiple generous grants, the Mertz Library digitized hundreds of issues and thousands of pages from this collection, uploaded first to Mertz Digital. (The current Mertz Digital user interface is undergoing a mobile-friendly face lift; please check back later this year.)

During the past year, NYBG staff members and volunteers loaded additional digitized seed and nursery catalogs into Internet Archive (IA) and Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), two exciting digital libraries. Internet Archive is the single largest digital library in the world and is multi-disciplinary. Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), of which NYBG is a founding member, is limited to biodiversity literature that includes seed and nursery catalogs. The seed and nursery catalogs contributed by the Mertz Library can be found here while digitized catalogs from all contributors can be found here.

Photo of a painting of nasturtiums

Nasturtiums. Emma V. White, 1908. Contributed to BHL by the LuEsther T. Mertz Library

Starting a few years ago and gaining momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital images contributed to BHL by the Mertz Library were loaded into Flickr by staff members and devoted volunteers. Full-page illustrations and cover art from the seed and nursery catalogs are now well represented in Flickr. The flow of digitized content and descriptions isn’t done yet. Images and descriptions flow from BHL and Flickr into Wikimedia Commons where the images can be discovered by the volunteers who author and edit Wikipedia articles and incorporated into those articles.

People reuse and repurpose digital content in countless creative ways. Andrew Tschinkel, a former digitization technician at NYBG, became so enthralled by historical seed and nursery catalogs that he began reading extensively on the subject. His research lead to authorship of a fascinating article about historic seed and nursery catalogs that can be found on the Library’s website. The United States Postal Service created a series of stamps using images from the digitized seed and nursery catalogs. Glorious images from this collection have inspired the creation of merchandise available at NYBG Shop.

These examples are only a small sample of the ways in which the digitized seed and nursery catalog collection has been used. If the pandemic has inspired you to plant a garden, you might enjoy viewing illustrations of heritage tomatoes. If you live in the area surrounding NYBG, e.g., the Hudson Valley or Long Island, you might enjoy viewing digital copies of the catalogs of nurseries located in those communities but no longer in existence. Maybe you want to download a particularly beautiful image of flowers and incorporate it into your next DIY project. The possibilities are limitless and the librarians working in the Mertz Library are on call to help you navigate the digitized seed and nursery catalog collection as well as our other digital collections. Please don’t forget to share the way that you use the content with us so that we can share it with others.

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