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Pioneering biologist’s work now available to all

UVic library has assembled 50 years of observations by Ian McTaggart Cowan

Handwritten, drawn in pencil, captured with cameras and held in storage, the field notes, writings and artifacts of Ian McTaggart Cowan, pioneer B.C. wildlife biologist, are now digital and free online.

The University of Victoria Library has assembled, digitized and made available McTaggart Cowan’s life’s work: 50 years of observations, papers, pictures and collected objects.

“This material is really for the people of British Columbia,” said Lisa Goddard, UVic’s associate librarian responsible for digital scholarship.

“We didn’t want all these artifacts just sitting here in the university archive and used only by a handful of scholars,” said Goddard in a telephone interview. “We wanted anybody in the province who is interested in the subject material to be able to look at the original work.”

So now online for everyone to explore are a lifetime’s worth of field notebooks, lecture notes, sketches and photographs. Also available are 3D-style scans of collected specimens such as preserved bones and skins. There is even three seasons of TV shows hosted by McTaggart Cowan in the 1950s and 1960s and shown on CBC Television.

McTaggart Cowan has been called the “Father of Canadian Ecology.” He was a 35-year professor at the University of British Columbia, an associate of the Royal B.C. Museum and host of three seasons of nature shows, for children and adults, on CBC and UVic chancellor, from 1979 to 1984.

Decades before Canadians at large even heard of David Suzuki and the Nature of Things, McTaggart Cowan was inviting them to explore the science and wonders of their natural environment. He even had some part in the hiring of the young Suzuki.

McTaggart died in 2010 at the age of 99. He was predeceased by his wife and son. He is survived by a daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews, family who donated his writing, pictures and collections to UVic.

Goddard said recording and making the work available online was a large-scale data project, involving an estimated 30 people working for four years.

Notes, papers and pictures were scanned in as completed works. But they were also transcribed so they can be searched using key words.

For example, type into the search box a species name such as “Townsend’s vole” and you will be taken to things such as specific field notes written and later typed up by McTaggart Cowan.

Also, you’ll find photos of museum specimen trays lined with dried, preserved specimens of Townsend’s vole collected and tagged by him.

Other museum specimens, such as the preserved skulls of creatures like a Bighorn sheep have been recorded with 3D-style images.

The 3D image allows a viewer to move around and even inside the skull with the twist of a computer mouse.

Goddard said collaborators on the digital project included McTaggart Cowan’s family and groups and institutions like the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC.

“It was a challenge to work with that many partners,” she said. “But if you can do that, in the end you have a really fulsome product.”

“We wanted to make it more than just a collection of scholarly artifacts,” said Goddard. “We wanted an exhibit with contextual information, and narrative and discovery interfaces that would appeal to a wide, even popular audience.”

To view the Ian McTaggart Cowan Collection, go online to the University of Victoria Library at and scroll down to Event and Exhibits.


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