Exploring with Livingstone
JSTOR Global Plants is big. It contains some 2,171,000 plant specimens and roughly 240,000 primary sources contributed by herbaria from all over the world, and is still growing. That enormity has helped it to become an indispensible resource for plant taxonomists and botanists. But that sheer number can also be overwhelming to non-specialists, making it harder to find the cool tidbits and eye-opening factoids it contains. What’s the old line? “There are eight million stories in the naked city?” Well, there are some two and half million stories in JSTOR Global Plants, and we were interested in ways that would help researchers, teachers and students discover those stories.
We started by gathering together all the content we could find related to a single expedition: David Livingstone’s expedition up the Zambezi River to Lake Nyassa and beyond in east Africa. JSTOR’s completely-awesome Plants team did this work, finding nearly a thousand items, including maps drawn by Livingstone himself, letters between members of the expedition party, reports to the Royal Geographic Society on the expedition’s progress (and gruff dismissals of their requests for more money), and, of course, hundreds of plant specimens Livingstone’s botanist John Kirk brought back to the Kew Herbarium in London. With these treasures collected, we then looked for ways to link all of these items to make it easier to find the connections between them, and, by extension, all those hidden stories.
(Of course, the Labs team did this in yet another flash build.)
Inspired by the New York Public Library Labs’ work with New York City historic maps, we started to tinker with Map Warper, an open source tool to overlay historic maps on top of today’s geo-precise maps. Onto this layered map, we pinned all the content we’d found from Global Plants, JSTOR and beyond. On top of all this, we added an animated timeline to help people discover how the expedition unfolded over time.
We think the combo of being able to explore both geographically and chronologically is exciting and powerful. We hope it will help researchers, teachers and students to discover all the important stories contained inside of this collection, stories like Livingstone’s dawning awareness of the horrors of slavery, the conflict and correspondence with the expedition funders, and personal stories like the tragic death of Livingstone’s wife. We also hope it might inspire librarians, archivists and publishers – anyone who is a custodian of such rich historical and cultural material – to find ways to share and enrich that content. In doing so, they’ll make it possible for researchers to get a bit of the same thrill of discovery as Livingstone. But with fewer mosquitoes.