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Let’s say you’re writing an article about a plant, or your local flora, or a pioneering botanist. Now … close your eyes and imagine you’re in a huge library dedicated exclusively to biodiversity, with 200,000+ holdings (many rare) scattered across the globe. Next, imagine giving the name of your plant or botanist to a “librarian” who then piles all relevant books, articles, field notes, correspondence, etc., on your desk almost instantaneously! In fact, this library is not imaginary. It’s quite real, though in a virtual kind of way. It’s the Biodiversity Heritage Library—headquartered at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, but easily accessible from your office, home, or favorite coffee house.
I discovered the BHL in 2014, while putting together a post about the history of the lanceleaf cottonwood (Populus acuminata). BHL soon became my go-to site for information about botanical exploration of the American West. What I like most is the quick easy access to lots of useful information. Documents that were difficult to access or even unavailable only a few years ago are now just a search and a click away.
Per Axel Rydberg’s Populus acuminata. From American Black Cottonwoods, 1893; BHL.
Edwin James’s Jamesia. From Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1875; BHL.
|Fossilized palm frond (Powell palmetto perhaps?) collected near Rock Springs, Wyoming. From JS Newberry’s The later extinct floras of North America, 1898; BHL.|
The BHL is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that are digitizing legacy biodiversity literature, making it easily accessible as part of a global “biodiversity commons.” Much of this literature has been available only in select libraries, mainly in the developed world, making limited access a major obstacle—for example in research, conservation and education. Providing it online free-of-charge is a radical and exciting change. “Free global access to digital literature repatriates information about the earth’s species to all parts of the world.”
Put another way, BHL is making biodiversity literature “freely accessible to a global audience … thereby liberating taxonomic names and bibliographic data associated with the content for creative re-use.” Among the plant names most recently liberated were those in our very own Castilleja, the newsletter of the Wyoming Native Plant Society.
It all started last October when the BHL blog featured a post titled A Local Focus: The Native Plant Societies of the US. When I read that native plant society newsletters were being added to the collection, I contacted Project Investigator Susan Fraser at The New York Botanical Garden, asking if Castilleja were part of the plan. Indeed it was. “We would be thrilled to include Castilleja in the project,” she replied.
Incorporating native plant society newsletters into the BHL is part of Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature—a two-year project designed to “preserve and provide access to small natural history and botanical collections and publications.” It’s conducted by the New York Botanical Garden in partnership with Harvard University, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
“We are grateful to the native plant societies who have generously shared their local expertise by making their newsletters available to researchers through BHL. In addition to the biodiversity information they contain, these publications are a wonderful snapshot of the small, dedicated groups of people working all over the U.S. to document and preserve our native plants.” –Patrick Randall, Community Manager, Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature; Ernst Mayr Library, Harvard University
Before Castilleja issues could be processed, a permissions form had to be signed (the society President took care of this). Fortunately, PDFs were available for all issues; these were transmitted en masse to BHL. Then the techies worked their magic. Now, whenever someone searches BHL for Boechera pusilla or Yermo xanthocephalus, for example, relevant issues of Castilleja appear on the results list. We’ve hit the big time!
The image below shows one result from a BHL search for “yermo xanthocephalus”—the desert yellowhead, endemic to Wyoming. As I scrolled through Castilleja Volume 17 Number 4 (1998), scientific names on each page appeared in the box on the lower left. Note that contents can be printed or downloaded (either the entire work or selected pages). I’ve used the latter option many times. Usually the pages arrive well within the hour, whether from the newsletter of a neighboring native plant society, or from a rare old book in a library thousands of miles away.
How did BHL manage to find yermo among the 51,749,439 pages held in the collection? It was magic!!! No, not really … sorry. But it’s just as cool as magic. As texts are processed, scientific names are extracted from each page using Global Names Recognition and Discovery (GNRD), a taxonomic name recognition algorithm. GNRD provides an open and global-names-based infrastructure to index, organize and manage biodiversity data. Like BHL, GNRD aims for easy public access, with the goal of spurring widespread and innovative use of biodiversity data. A noble goal indeed!
So if you’re in need of biodiversity literature, especially if it’s old or rare or otherwise difficult to access, pay a visit to the BHL. Adventure and discovery start here. And if you’re looking for a good time, browse the always-interesting BHL blog (warning: you'd better have plenty of time on your hands).