Friday, June 27, 2008

Wikimedia Wunderkammer

Not that I need anything to occupy my time, since there seems to be so little of it these days, but I've been meaning to sing the praises of Wikimedia Commons ever since I started using it on a regular basis. Today's post will, I hope, be the first on the many wonders I've encountered there, and perhaps encourage my small coterie of readers to see what the Commons has to offer.

I have to admit that I was a reluctant convert to Wikipedia, because my students insist on using it as their first (and often last) source when conducting research. It's not that I have anything against Wikipedia itself, but it's an encyclopedia--a terrific instrument for school-age kids, but limited in actual content (my rule is: use primary sources first, whenever possible). But Wikipedia also lists multitudes of auxiliary sources, both in print and online, that can lead a student in productive directions, so although I still won't let them include it in a bibliography, I don't mind their consulting it for further information.

Yesterday, while engaging in one of my seemingly random web searches--this one on the nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist and artist, Ernst Haeckel--I discovered that the Commons contains the plates from the 1904 edition of his Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of nature). The Wikipedia article on Haeckel had linked this collection, as well as some other really interesting web pages devoted to his work. Beloved Spouse was busy using a drum sander in our soon-to-be study, so I had time on my hands and went exploring.

In addition to an animated film about Haeckel's work, called Proteus, which I'll be ordering for our college library, the Wikipedia "external links" list included one to some gorgeous alpha channel transparencies of images from Kunstformen, by media artist Scott Draves, who links an online copy of the book, in German, with an index to all of the plates and a large-format .pdf version.

Inspired by what happened yesterday, today I went to the Commons home page and clicked on "Nature: Animalia" and then on "Mollusca: Gastropoda" and then on "Fossil Gastropods." Since I'm interested in natural forms and human design motifs, I figured that this would be a good place to look for spiral forms in nature for use in a new lecture in History of Art and Design I. Sure enough, there were scads of lovely photos--all available as public domain images or contributed under sharing licenses by a variety of good-hearted folk who, like me, might think that "intellectual" and "property" are mutually problematic ideas. I love the idea of the Creative Commons licenses, under one of which I published More News From Nowhere; I figure that anybody who might be even remotely interested in it shouldn't have to pay for it, especially given the novel's philosophical focus. Not that I don't think people should be paid for their work, but when ideas are floating around all over the place it seems absurd to start copyrighting and patenting stuff that's been out there for eons.

At any rate, I recommend meandering through the Wikimedia Commons at your leisure. I have found lovely photos to use on my blogs, such as those featured in today's post, and am happy to attribute them whenever possible. I'll probably start uploading some of my stuff, rather than trying to make a buck out of a lucky shot by putting it up on a stock photo sharing company site (even though it's the next best thing to the Commons, and one of my favorite former students works for one such outfit--so here's a plug, Lesa:

But now I have to get back to rehabbing our old house, and the business of sanding corners on my hands and knees. It's a lot more fun to go messing about among quaint and/or interesting topics and pictures, though, so I'll undoubtedly be doing so again soon.

Addendum, 24 July 2008: While making my weekly pilgrimage to the "new" section of the Kelley Library yesterday, I noticed--prominently displayed among the "check this out" selections--an absolutely gorgeous volume of Haeckel's work: Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (Munich: Prestel, 2006). This is a terrific addition to our collection, and one that (once they can get their hands on it) should inspire a whole new generation of students. But I'm not giving it up until after the weekend, when I'll have a chance to drool over the magnificent photos of Haeckel's study and his own private collection of interesting oddities--as well as the wealth of beautifully reproduced prints. Oh, and there's actual information included in here, too!

Photo credits: Ernst Haeckel, Ammonitida (Ammonite), Wikimedia Commons. Thalamophora, from Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel, .png file by Scott Draves. Viviparus glacialis; Borehole Rosmalen, Netherlands; Pleistocene: Late Tiglian, taken by Tom Meijer (PaleoMal), Wikimedia Commons.

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