The Biodiversity Heritage Library Makes 150,000 High-Res Illustrations of the Natural World Free to Download

You may have heard of “plant blind­ness,” a con­di­tion defined about 20 years ago that has start­ed to get more press in recent years. As its name sug­gests, it refers to an inabil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy or even notice the many plant species around us in our every­day lives. Some have con­nect­ed it to a poten­tial­ly more wide­spread afflic­tion they call “nature deficit dis­or­der,” which is also just what it sounds like: a set of impair­ments brought on by insuf­fi­cient expo­sure to the nat­ur­al world. One might also draw a line from these con­cepts to our atti­tudes about cli­mate change, or to our ever-less-inter­rupt­ed immer­sion in the dig­i­tal world. But if any part of that dig­i­tal world can open our eyes to nature once again, it’s the Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library (present also on Flickr and Insta­gram.)

Pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for its vast archive of two mil­lion illus­tra­tions of the nat­ur­al world, the BHL has received more cov­er­age this year for the more than 150,000 it’s made avail­able for copy­right-free down­load. Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Hakim Bishara quotes Hen­ry David Thore­au — “We need the ton­ic of wild­ness. We can nev­er get enough of nature” — before writ­ing of how thrilled Thore­au would have been by the exis­tence of such a resource for images of nature.

These images include “ani­mal sketch­es, his­tor­i­cal dia­grams, botan­i­cal stud­ies, and sci­en­tif­ic research col­lect­ed from hun­dreds of thou­sands of jour­nals and libraries across the world,” some dat­ing to the 15th cen­tu­ry. He high­lights “Joseph Wolf’s 19th-cen­tu­ry book Zoo­log­i­cal Sketch­es, con­tain­ing about 100 lith­o­graphs depict­ing wild ani­mals in London’s Regent’s Park” and “water­col­ors depict­ing flow­ers indige­nous to the Hawai­ian islands” as well as “an 1833 DIY Taxidermist’s Man­u­al.”

As’s There­sa Machemer notes, “The prac­tice of cre­at­ing detailed illus­tra­tions of flo­ra and fau­na, whether to doc­u­ment an expe­di­tion or a med­ical prac­tice, gained pop­u­lar­i­ty well before pho­tog­ra­phy was up to the task.” Hence such ambi­tious projects as the Unit­ed States gov­ern­men­t’s com­mis­sion­ing, in 1866, of water­col­or paint­ings depict­ing every fruit known to man. But even today, “an illus­tra­tion can offer more clar­i­ty than a pho­to­graph,” as you’ll find when you zoom in on any of the BHL’s high-res­o­lu­tion illus­tra­tions. Accord­ing to the BHL, “a world­wide con­sor­tium of nat­ur­al his­to­ry, botan­i­cal, research, and nation­al libraries,” its mis­sion is to pro­vide “access to the world’s col­lec­tive knowl­edge about bio­di­ver­si­ty,” in order to help researchers “doc­u­ment Earth’s species and under­stand the com­plex­i­ties of swift­ly-chang­ing ecosys­tems in the midst of a major extinc­tion cri­sis and wide­spread cli­mate change.” But by reveal­ing how our pre­de­ces­sors saw nature, it can also help all of us see nature again. Access the illus­tra­tions here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

In 1886, the US Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sioned 7,500 Water­col­or Paint­ings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Down­load Them in High Res­o­lu­tion

Watch 50 Hours of Nature Sound­scapes from the BBC: Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly Proven to Ease Stress and Pro­mote Hap­pi­ness & Awe

A Shaz­am for Nature: A New Free App Helps You Iden­ti­fy Plants, Ani­mals & Oth­er Denizens of the Nat­ur­al World

New Study: Immers­ing Your­self in Art, Music & Nature Might Reduce Inflam­ma­tion & Increase Life Expectan­cy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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