Recently I’ve become interested in the development of natural history in nineteenth century Australia.
After all not only was the Victorian era the heyday of natural history, but in Australia it had an importance in people trying to understand how the ecology of this wide brown land worked and in describing what they found.
There were individuals such as von Muller who was employed as the colonial botanist to carry out a botanical survey of Victoria, the numerous local clergymen, doctors and phramacists who did a little botany, entomology, or zoology as a hobby, and the numerous watercolourists (mostly but not exclusively female) who painted the plants they found in their area.
Put together, they assembled a picture of Austalia as it was before it transformed from a lightly populated pastoral country to the post industrial country it is today. It also gives us an ecological baseline from which to gauge the effect of climate change.
But it’s not only local naturalists. Ships’ naturalists visited as well, including Hooker, Huxley and of course Darwin.
Now the interesting thing about ships’ naturalists is that they were usually employed as assistant surgeons by the Royal Navy – which meant that they had some medical scientific knowledge, and some knowledge of botany and zoology. What’s more, their conmtracts of employment meant that all their journals and records became property of the British government on the end of their contracts – which is why quite a few of the early records are in London.
So, I thought I would do a little bit or reading about ships’ naturalists.
Well there’s not that much written. There’s a book and what looks to be quite an interesting PhD thesis held at the University of Queensland. The abstract certainly suggested that it would be worthwhile downloading.
Except for one little problem – access was restricted to staff and higher degree students at UQ.
So I emailed the UQ library to ask if I could have access to the thesis. They replied that they didn’t handle requests from individuals and that I would have to ask my local library.
We’ll ignore the fact that the thesis was already digitised and it would have been as easy for me to download it directly rather than get it through my local library, but its their data, so its their rules.
Asking my local library was fun. I’m no longer affiliated to an academic institution, but my local library is a member of the Swift consortium, and had been able to get me a book on nineteenth century paleography from the State Library of Victoria in the past so I reckoned I was in with a chance.
So I talked to them. They’d never done this before, but UQ did have a page explaining how libraries could request a copy of a digitised thesis.
And they did give it a go, very successfully. I now have a copy of the thesis sitting on my OneDrive account.
But I do have a little niggle. The process cost me $16.50 in processing charges, which is something I’m happy to pay once. After all I’m basically a dilletante – but on a repeated basis, perhpas not.
And that raises a larger question about citizen science – people doing it are funding it out of their own pockets, and paying for access to materials, and, in these days of open access should that really be the case.
Equally the other thing about citizen science is, what happens to the data?