Using the Biodiversity Heritage Library

BHL Logo modified by L. Rochester 5/3/2017

BHL Logo modified by L. Rochester 5/3/2017

How many species of life are there on Earth?  Have humans studied and recorded the majority of life forms that exist, or have we just sampled a small part of the complex diversity on our planet?  Many scientists and researchers have attempted to answer this question.  A 2011 study published in PLoS Biology estimates that there are around 8.7 million forms of eukaryotic life on our planet.  This study takes into consideration that the people identifying species and the system of classification they use affects the estimated number of total species.  How do we manage and organize a classification system so large?  How do scientists in different countries, speaking different languages, compare findings on local flora and fauna to what is known globally?

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an organization that has recognized the need for a shared taxonomic literature database.  Before taxonomic literature was available online, scientists and researchers had to visit libraries, museums and universities all over the world in person to read descriptions of species written in historical manuscripts.  Many international researchers did not have access to records housed in Western institutions.  BHL was created to overcome these obstacles. 

Started in 2006, with ten cooperating museum and botanical garden libraries, the BHL set out to digitize the core collection of taxonomic literature and make it available free online.  Initially funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and MacArthur grants the BHL is sustained by the membership dues of participating institutions and continuing donations.  Today, with the support of most of the world’s major natural history institutions and organizations, the BHL has digitized over 119,000 titles and over 201,000 volumes of literature on biodiversity. 

Over 190,000 people visit the BHL site each month.  Users can search the site by scientific name, journal or book title, collection or author.  The articles and records can be read online or downloaded.  Responding to user feedback that all provided data be reusable, BHL allows multiple types of data export including MODS (Library of Congress), EndNote and BibText.  While BHL is aimed at scientists working in systematic biology, it can be useful in teaching a wide variety of disciplines.

BHL is connected to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) which houses knowledge data, species fact sheets and multimedia.  BHL has partners in Europe, China, Australia, Africa and South America that share species information globally.  Other megascience platforms that provide species checklists, DNA information and distribution data include Catalogue of Life (CoL), International Barcode of Life (iBOL) and Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

Considering the wide variety of names, spellings and translations, it is essential that species literature be as correct as possible.  BHL innovatively uses crowdsourced games to improve on computer scanned titles.  In the award-winning Smorball, players decode documents competitively to score points.  For gamers looking for a slower pace, Beanstalk rewards correctly typed words with a new segment on a growing beanstalk.  Both of these games increase the accuracy of digitized books and articles.

The BHL is a great resource for scientists and students alike.  Consider having your class look up the species they study in the lab on BHL.  Have them compare descriptions and variations from different countries and contributors.  See if they can locate the earliest mention of a specific organism.  Have them analyze the data provided by BHL and EOL for a given species to better understand how scientific records are collected and shared.

Open and accessible taxonomic records are essential for continuing the work of describing life on Earth.  The PLoS Biology study estimates that after 250 years of classifying efforts, only a small percentage of the world’s species have been described.  Looking at the literature for the species that have been classified, less than half of it is now available online.  Free online access allows scientists around the world to develop and share research on new species.  Taxonomy is important economically in that it plays an important role in agriculture, international trade, conservation and product development.  BHL’s mission to improve “research methodology by collaboratively making biodiversity literature openly available to the world as part of a global biodiversity community” is important not just to understanding organisms that exist today, but also forms of life that are already extinct or are in the process of extinction.

To look at other sites that provide taxonomic information visit the UIC Biology Research Guide.