Afterlives: Animal and Vegetable Physiology

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that “cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use” across the globe. With help from the Internet Archive and “local digitization efforts, the BHL has digitized millions of pages of taxonomic literature, representing over 120,000 titles and over 200,000 volumes” (source). Access to the BHL site and its contents is entirely free, as part of the Library’s effort to make biodiversity literature available to all.

The BHL holds a digitized version of Animal and Vegetable Physiology: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology by Peter Mark Roget. The copy of Animal and Vegetable Physiology that was used to create this digital facsimile belongs to the North Carolina State University (NCSU) libraries, and it was scanned on April 28, 2008 (source). This digital facsimile of Roget’s two volume work is extremely useful, and contains information beyond the content of the original text itself, which I will outline in this post.

This digital copy of the text is very easy to navigate. The site provides options for a single page view, a two page view, and a thumbnail view, which shows users 8 thumbnails at a time.


On the side of the page, there is a box which allows users to navigate to different pages in the book. Next to each page number is either (Text) or (Illustration), indicating whether the page has an illustration on it. Additionally, when users are looking at a certain page, there is the option to copy the URL for the specific page in the text.

The most interesting and useful component of the digital copy of Animal and Vegetable Physiology is the “Scientific Names on this Page” section. The following image shows what appears in another box on the side of the webpage:

The BHL has indexed every page of both volumes of Animal and Vegetable Physiology according to the scientific names that appear on them. When you click on a name, the site directs you to a bibliography of every other text in the BHL database that also contains that word. For example, on page 79 of Volume I of Animal and Vegetable Physiology, the name Ranunculus aquaticus appears. When you click this name in the Scientific Names box, you are directed to the following bibliography.

Hundreds of other texts appear, and the BHL provides you with the title, author, and page number (as well as direct links to them) of other places you can learn more about the specific subject. This function of the digital facsimile is extremely useful for individuals who are interested in exploring certain topics further. With a physical codex, this process is a lot more difficult to undertake. In Sarah Werner’s essay “Digital First Folios,” she notes that many people “still have not learned to think of digital objects as distinct from what they represent” (5). I would argue that in this case, the BHL digitized version of Animal and Vegetable Physiology certainly acts as a distinct object in that it provides vastly more opportunities for learning than does the physical, stand-alone version. The facsimile is part of an entirely independent, large-scale online library dedicated to making biodiversity literature accessible. Roget’s work was published in 1836, and a great deal of intellectual advancement has occurred since then, likely rendering a lot of the original publication’s content outdated. For a modern day user hoping to learn more about the Ranunculus aquaticus, for example, this online bibliography opens up a great deal of options that go far beyond the scope of the Animal and Vegetable Physiology codex. The digital version of this work offers users (not “readers,” to adopt Werner’s terminology further (1)) much assistance in navigating its content.

There are certainly benefits to using a physical codex instead of a digitized version. For example, it can often be easier to flip from page to page in a codex, particularly if you are interested in reading two pages simultaneously that appear in different parts of the book. This is especially true with Animal and Vegetable Physiology because it is a reference book, not a novel. Technical issues often present themselves, as well, which can make the use of a digital work very frustrating. Additionally, the Colby College Libraries’ copy of this text has many helpful annotations in it, specifically corrections to errors in the printing (outlined in my Use post), which do not appear in the digital version. However, in the case of Colby’s copy of AVP, the binding is very fragile. Users have to take great care when handling it, which is not an issue with the digitized version.

Another interesting element of the BHL’s facsimile is its OCR option (optical character recognition). When users click, “Show OCR” on the webpage, the site provides the text as is.

The following disclaimer appears: “This text is generated from uncorrected OCR and as such, may contain, inconsistencies with the actual content of the original page.” Regardless, this feature can be very useful, especially for individuals who may want to use an excerpt of Roget’s text because they can copy and paste large sections of it.

Generally, the digital facsimile of Animal and Vegetable Physiology in the BHL is helpful for use that goes beyond the scope of the work’s independent content. Users can share information, download images, access related informational content, and more. There are important differences to note in the physical and digital versions, however, especially pertaining to Colby College’s and NCSU’s copies. There are many noteworthy copy-specific features of both texts, especially pertaining to provenance and use. As I mentioned above, the digitized version of AVP does not contain the helpful annotations of the codex.

Incorrect page numbering in digitized version

The digitized version, also being from a library, has an interestingly different inside cover, as well, and the title pages of both copies have different signs of use.

Image of inside cover of digitized version
Title page of physical version
Title page of digital version

Overall, navigating the physical and online copies of Animal and Vegetable Physiology are different experiences. Information such as provenance and ownership of specific copies can be lost in online versions, but in the case of the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s online facsimile, a great deal of information can be gained, as well.