Thursday, January 19, 2012

Peter Hirtle Weighs in on SOPA

With the events of yesterday's SOPA protests, I thought I should consult my copyright mentor, Peter Hirtle. Peter is Senior Policy Advisor of Cornell University Library, and co-author with Emily Hudson and Andrew T. Kenyon of Copyright and Cultural Institutions, an incredibly useful set of guidelines for libraries, archives, and museums. His name may sound familiar to you because I interviewed Peter last August when I visited Cornell and toured the archives and the Kheel Center. That interview is posted here.

Below, in a brief email interview, Peter talks about the long-range effects of SOPA; the pros and cons of the legislation; what it could mean for the DNS structure of the Internet; how it could affect libraries, archives, and other educational institutions; alternatives to SOPA, and who ISN'T in on the discussion. I hope you will find it as instructive and interesting as I do.

The Interview

From 10,000 ft, what do you think would be lasting effects of SOPA as it stands today (because who knows what will happen in February) on copyright law?

PBH Even if SOPA is implemented as is, I think that the biggest lasting effect is going to be that it has gotten the tech companies involved in the political process. They may find that they are happy about it because SOPA/PIPA is likely to have a chilling effect on future technical innovation in the U.S., allowing the current tech leaders to try to monopolize their existing practices. But I believe in general those companies are willing to innovate rather than sit on their laurels. That means that we may see an important counter-weight to old media companies develop. This might lead to a more open copyright policy.

How would you summarize the pros and the cons of this legislation?

PBH The legislation does try to do something about counterfeit sites and intellectual property violations in foreign countries. No one wants to buy something on the Internet and discover it is a counterfeit. The cons are that there is no evidence that it would actually be effective in limiting counterfeits and infringements. Furthermore, because it was developed without the input of anyone who understands the internet, it runs the risk of chilling innovation, interfering with free speech, and placing libraries and archives at risk for criminal violations.

How would SOPA affect the functionality of the Internet?

PBH Here you better look at other experts; I am not an Internet engineer. My understanding is that by allowing the U.S. to remove DNS names from DNS servers, it corrupts the universal DNS scheme. The Internet no longer exists if the DNS system in, say the UK, is different from that in the U.S. Security specialists fear that this could actually open security holes by making it easier for sites to pretend that they are a different site.

What does SOPA mean to libraries and archives?

PBH There is a danger that an archives could be accused of willful criminal conduct if it made copyrighted material available – even inadvertently.

How does SOPA affect other educational web sites? Or could it?

PBH For those web sites that allow users to post content, they may feel that they need to actively monitor that content to try to ensure that there is no infringing content being posted. This would be both expensive and invasive. There are also possible criminal violations for streaming content to classrooms.

What would be alternatives to this legislation to accomplish the same high-level goals without causing so much push back?

PBH I think that one could craft legislation to limit access to foreign pirate sites. Wyden’s OPEN Act, which would have the International Trade Commission investigate, is one possible solution. Most importantly, the legislation would need to be developed in discussion with the Internet industry and in an open manner to ensure that it does not harm to high tech innovation, the primary driver of growth in the country.

Have you been involved in crafting copyright legislation? And, were you consulted on SOPA by Congress?

PBH This isn’t strictly speaking copyright legislation. It affects copyright, trademark, criminal offenses, and importation laws. No one, as far as I can tell, outside of the entertainment industry, has been consulted on SOPA. The only public hearing on the bill had only supporters of the legislation speak. As for my involvement, I haven’t been following it that closely in my copyright role – but only because of my personal interest in how the internet will develop.

Thanks again to Peter Hirtle for his speedy response to my questions on SOPA. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tour of the United States National Herbarium, Smithsonian Institution

In my fourth and final tour in this series of Smithsonian Institution visits, I will share with you the brief tour Carolyn Sheffield and I took of the U.S. National Herbarium. What’s in an herbarium? Many, many samples of botanical items collected during exploring expeditions all over the world.

Some of the benefits of having a National Herbarium include digitized resources that say what plant might be related to another plant, documentation of what plants grow where, and documentation of new plants that had yet to be discovered. According to the Smithsonian’s web site, the herbarium includes important historical collections such as “the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), LaPlata Expedition (1853-1856), Mexican Boundary Survey (1854-1855), California Geological Survey (1860-1867), International Boundary Commission: U.S. and Mexico (1892-1894), and Colombia Cinchona missions (1940-1945).”

I was astonished to learn that researchers are able to borrow specimens, and in some cases, take samples from the specimens or dissect them. Our tour guide, Deborah Bell, Assistant Collections Manager, told us that some researchers use the samples to compare DNA with other samples in order to help identify plants. Additionally, researchers may add their annotations to a herbarium specimen if it adds to the knowledge of the plant.

The herbarium’s patrons include plant-science researchers from museums, universities, and botanical gardens around the world, who are engaged in studies of plant species, taxonomy, systematics, floristics, and evolution, says Rusty Russell, Collections Manager. Approximately 250 patrons per year are served by an army of professionals: 14 research curators, 18 research support staff, 8 collection support staff, and 4 informatics support staff. There also are 12 resident associates, pre- and post-doctoral students, and researchers on sabbatical at the herbarium. Notably, there are 20 volunteers per week who help out.

About the Collections
While the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian was established in 1892, the first samples were collected back in the 1840s for the herbarium’s predecessor, the National Institute, according to the Smithsonian’s web site. The herbarium holds 5 million specimens, with a large portion mounted on sheets such as the one shown below.


When I first saw this sheet, I wondered if it had grown some mold (from the gray spotted areas of the sheet). Deborah told us that it wasn’t mold, but in fact, the result of contamination by mercuric chloride. She said that mercuric chloride had been used as a fungicide by the scientists collecting the samples out in the field. When first applied, it appears clear, but then grays over time.

Here’s Deborah showing us some samples from the sample cabinets.



Some of the samples are quite old. For example, the materials below date from 1877.


Samples of flowering plants can comprise leaves, branches, flowers, fruits, and seeds. Other specimens include algae, lichens, mosses, and related organisms. Below is a sample of algae. I’m amazed by how it was able to keep its color.


The collections also include paper-based records, electronic records, images, maps, illustrations, and more. There are more than 280 families of botanical materials at the herbarium, organized from most primitive to most highly evolved. For example, below, Deborah shows us some bamboo skeletons.


She said that different bamboo species flower at different intervals and, when they do, every individual of that species flowers regardless of location. When that happens, like annual plants, they all set seed and die. An entirely new generation of that species arises from seed. It's pretty miraculous, if you ask me.

If you’re interested in doing some hunting in the cataloged collections (only one-fifth of the vast collections have been inventoried, but that’s almost 1 million items from which to choose, so it will keep you busy), you can do it online here: In-person visits must to be arranged in advance, but if you’re a serious botanist, you should definitely visit our nation’s herbarium. It’s run by a great group of folks who tell fascinating stories and are very knowledgeable about the collections.

Contact Information
Rusty Russell
Collections and Informatics
United States National Herbarium
MRC166 - Botany
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Friday, January 06, 2012

Tour of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution

In this third installment of my Smithsonian Institution tours, I focus on one of the 20 Smithsonian Libraries, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. According to the library’s collecting policy, it collects works “that directly support the collections-based research of the National Museum of Natural History, primarily botanical and zoological taxonomy and systematics, as well as various earth sciences and anthropology/archaeology.” The library also holds volumes on “voyages of exploration and scientific expeditions and the history of natural science museums.”

Established in 1978, this group of Special Collections includes 16,000 rare books, nearly all published prior to 1840 (the Smithsonian’s cutoff date for “rare”). Although the library was created in the late 1970s, its volumes had been collected at the Smithsonian for more than 150 years, mostly in the museum offices and libraries, according to the library’s web site. Carolyn Sheffield (see the previous tour) accompanied me on the tour of the Cullman Library, and enjoyed seeing a part of the Smithsonian she had wanted to visit for a while. Our host was Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Natural History Rare Books.

About the Curator
From Smithsonian Tours

Leslie Overstreet, pictured above inside the vault at the Cullman Library, is a 30-year veteran of the Smithsonian. She has degrees in English Literature and Secondary Education from Reed College, and in Library Science from the University of Maryland. She also has attended the prestigious Rare Book School at Columbia University and later the University of Virginia since 1989.

If you ever felt like you were on a long-term research project, think again. For the past 15 years, Leslie has been investigating the printing and distribution of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, (London, 1731-1743) in order to identify an unusual copy of the work that the library holds. She says, “This includes a copy-census. I am contributing a chapter to a colleague’s book on Catesby’s watercolors and hope to publish my own research (finally!) in the coming year.” To see color images digitized from Catesby’s volume, visit the Smithsonian’s Galaxy of Images at

Leslie’s favorite collections include the James Smithson Library and the 18th century botanical and zoological monographs “for their extraordinarily beautiful hand-colored engravings,” she says. I can understand why she would favor the personal books of the Institute’s founder. It’s a fantastic collection covering a wide range of subjects including chemistry, mineraology, family cookbooks, and much more.

From Smithsonian Tours

From Smithsonian Tours

In the photos above, Leslie shows us unbound and uncut pages (in signatures) from a botanical book in the Cullman Library’s collections. In Smithson’s day, books were commonly sold un-bound or only partially sewn into a text-block, so that the buyers could select their own covers. Wealthy people would have their books bound into leather and gilt to match other volumes on their library shelves. But Smithson didn’t often bother. He kept most of his books just as he bought them – in paper wrappers (often lined with printers’ waste paper). An example is shown below.

From Smithsonian Tours

More About the Collections
Because the Cullman Library has limited funds for new purchases, it does not purchase titles that duplicate the holdings in local libraries such as those of the Library of Congress, university libraries, the Folger, etc., unless the works are central to the research mission of the museum. That said, the librarians are happy to accept donations of personal collections. For example, many of the collections have been donated by Smithsonian scientists and staff, dating back to the early days of the Institution.

The library only has two staff, Leslie and a library technician, Daria Wingreen-Mason. They are very busy people, handling research visits, reference queries, scanning requests, and group tours, as well as curating exhibitions, searching for old books to fill gaps in the collection, and managing cataloging and conservation projects. Leslie also has had Library Scholars in Residence, who usually stay for a few months, researching various topics.

During our tour, Leslie showed us some real treasures of the Cullman Library’s collections. Among those items, I have selected just a few to share with you in hopes that the next time you are in Washington, D.C., you will visit Leslie and see the Cullman Library’s excellent collections.

The first example is this Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of 1491.

From Smithsonian Tours

The original annotations you can see on the pages were done in two different inks, in different handwriting. It is unknown who the annotators were. Leslie says that Pliny’s was the first truly scientific text from the classical era (ancient Rome) to be put into print.

This next work is an extraordinary hand-colored folio by Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist who lived from 1647-1717. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium shows the metamorphosis of insects and butterflies and the plants and plant parts on which they lived during their lives. See the photo below for an example.

From Smithsonian Tours

Early in her career, Merian had been barred from publishing her entomological and botanical drawings because she was a woman, but she worked around the system by presenting them as patterns for embroidery. Later, after her voyage to the Dutch colony of Surinam, she published the Metamorphosis herself in 1705. It was the first folio-sized, fully illustrated, and hand-colored work based directly on first-hand field observation and specimen collection, and it kicked off two centuries of beautifully illustrated works in the natural sciences. To see more of the gorgeous images from the book, visit the Smithsonian’s Galaxy of Images at and enter the term “merian” in the Search field.

The final example of a rare book in the Cullman Library’s collection is quite a recent work. Published in 2008, the Botanica Magnifica is a breathtaking set of 5 volumes of digital photographs by Jonathan Singer, with text by botanical curators W. John Kress and Marc N. Hachadourian.

From Smithsonian Tours

My photo of the custom wooden case and "Florilegium" volume (above) do not do the work justice. Each volume is a double-elephant folio and is “bound in dark brown goatskin with gold- and platinum-embossed leather onlays in botanical designs; gilt-tooled spines and cover titles,” according to the Smithsonian’s Library catalog page. Singer has said that no other copies of the work shall be made in as large a size. The five volumes are titled “Orchidaceae,” “Florilegium,” “Proteus,” “Zingiberaceae,” and “Botanicus.” To see examples of Singer’s photos from the Botanica Magnifica, visit his web site:

Contact Information
Leslie K. Overstreet
Curator of Natural-History Rare Books
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
NHB CE-G15 / MRC 154
P.O. Box 37012
Washington DC 20013-7012
(202) 633-1184