More than just a pretty picture: improving the discoverability of illustrations in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)

Tris Rose-Sandler, USA , Kyle Jaebker, USA

In 1918, the last known surviving Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot species native to the eastern United States, died. Before its extinction, natural historians like Mark Catesby captured this beautiful bird through scientific illustration. Though this and thousands of other extinct species may be lost from the planet, thanks to natural history literature, they are not lost to memory. Unfortunately, much of this literature is confined to museum libraries with limited global distribution. Modern digital initiatives, like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, are working to change that.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a digital library project dedicated to providing free access to the world’s biodiversity literature. Providing access to nearly 40 million pages of digitized literature representing over 500 years of scientific research, BHL not only contains a textual record of scientific discovery, but also thousands of natural history illustrations. These illustrations are largely hidden, however, as limited image metadata and the lack of a dedicated image search in BHL makes it difficult for users to locate them. In an effort to improve discoverability, BHL staff began manually extracting the images from the BHL corpus, associating bibliographic metadata with them, and uploading them to Flickr, a web-based, photo sharing application.

Since the inception of the BHL Flickr photostream in July, 2011, the collection has grown to over 50,000 images, with over 3 million views and almost 2,000 contacts. In the past year, visits from Flickr represented 35% of all social media traffic to BHL. It has also allowed BHL to serve new audiences, including artists, and increase the efficiency of educational outreach, as images constitute an extremely accessible content type for students and teachers. The BHL-Flickr has quickly become a user-favorite, inspiring comments such as “My Favorite Flickr in the whole world,” “I think I’m in love,” and “I’d like to wallpaper my whole house with BHL images.”

To further improve access to images, the BHL staff developed strategies involving backend updates to the BHL database, in order to increase the efficiency of uploading content to Flickr. These improvements have supported the initiation of crowdsourcing activities that allow users to augment image metadata by tagging illustrations with species names. With support from a grant received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, BHL is working to further automate image discovery through algorithmic identification.

The use of social media applications, like Flickr, allow unprecedented access to museum collections with historically limited distribution. The success of this initiative is proof that, by embracing web-based technologies, museums can reach millions of new users and establish continued relevance in an increasingly digital world.

Demonstrators hope to inspire colleagues to liberate underexposed image resources in their collections by sharing best practices and examples of how the repackaging of scientific illustrations can impact personal artistic expression, art history and biology research groups, social media engagement, and biodiversity websites such as the Encyclopedia of Life.