The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL): Providing Vital and Cutting Edge Access to Scientific Literature During a Pandemic and Beyond

by Mai Reitmeyer on

Library News

The AMNH Library has a collection that is rich in retrospective scientific literature, some going back to the 15th century. It includes many materials that are difficult to find elsewhere and, as a result, forms one of the finest collections for zoological systematics.

Museum scientists, researchers and students regularly make use of our collections for their research. However, everything changed in mid-March due to COVID-19. Suddenly access to our print collections was no longer a possibility as everyone was required to shelter in place while New York City combated the virus. This new reality made access to online scientific material not only a convenience but a necessity. Fortunately, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an effort which began in 2006 by a cooperative of ten natural history and botanical garden libraries, including the AMNH, has been filling this void and is an indispensable resource for many researchers working on taxonomy during this challenging time.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) Homepage.
Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) Homepage.

The original goal of the project was to improve efficiency of research by addressing the lack of easy open access to natural history literature by digitizing core taxonomic literature, making it freely and openly accessible to anywhere in the world. When the BHL launched in 2007, it included just over 300 titles digitized by the ten partner libraries. Today, the BHL has also grown to include Members, Affiliates, and Partners around the world and the collections have now grown to include over 250,000 volumes. It has become one of the world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature, reaching millions of people since its launch.

Over the past thirteen years, the BHL has grown exponentially, not only by the number of collections, but also by the diversity of the collections and the additional features added to the database. In 2011, members of the BHL staff began putting illustrations from BHL books on Flickr which provides users with easy access to the images in BHL while also allowing for outreach to a whole new group of audiences, including K-12 educators, demonstrating that BHL has much to offer outside the realm of taxonomy.

BHL originally only included items that were in the public domain. However, in 2015, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded a project titled Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature, which helped libraries, museums, and natural history societies make their in-copyright content more widely available through BHL. Through this effort, societies like Wilson Ornithological Society, granted permission to share their quarterly peer-reviewed journal, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology on BHL with a 5-year embargo on the most recently published volumes. The Wilson Ornithological Society, named for Alexander Wilson, the “Father of American Ornithology”, is the second largest ornithological society in North America and has been publishing the Wilson Journal and its predecessor, The Wilson Bulletin since 1894. While most of the volumes were scanned by the Ernst Mayr Library at Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, the AMNH was able to fill in gaps for volumes that they were unable to scan making this project a truly collaborative effort.

In 2016, two major grants by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) funded the digitization of field notes. These primary source documents describe the events leading up to and including the collection of specimens or observations recorded during field research. This collaborative project of eleven partners, including the AMNH, resulted in over 500,000 pages of field notes being digitized and made accessible via BHL. These important documents provide insight on Museum expeditions and the resulting collections. Many serve as records of the flora and fauna of a specific place and time, providing a reference point to how a habitat has changed. You can explore digitized AMNH Field Notes in BHL.

The newest enhancement to BHL launched this summer is a new taxonomic name finding tool using Global Names Architecture’s (GNA) gnfinder to improve the speed and accuracy of identifying taxonomic names throughout its 58+ million pages. More on this can be found on the BHL blog. If you are not already making use of BHL, I encourage you to explore the database. Help documentation and training videos are available via BHL or you can always contact us if you have any further questions or need help finding a resource.

This is the twelfth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Mai Reitmeyer, Senior Reference Librarian.