Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Living Collections: Biocuration in the Broadest Sense

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Living Collections: Biocuration in the Broadest Sense

Article excerpt

From where 1 live, it takes me about an hour and a half to get into Manhattan, so I like to get as much done as I can while I'm there. A couple of weeks ago, the New York Hall of Science was sponsoring a lecture on the new online Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park. I decided to start uptown with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). I hadn't been there in awhile and I wanted to spend some time in their temporary exhibitions, but most of all, I wanted to revisit the dioramas. Though I hadn't planned it for anything more than travel convenience, these two stops turned out to be closely linked because they both dealt with collections of living things.

It might seem that the AMNH represents the old style of collecting and the EOL the new, but I don't think things are that clear-cut. First of all, the AMNH is one of the partner institutions in the EOL, which I learned is a huge and very complex project involving several different endeavors and a host of sponsors. The presentation at the National Arts Club was given by Cathy Norton, Deputy Director of the BioDiversity Heritage Library, one of the key components of the EOL. In this column, I don't want to get bogged down in the intricate organization of this project, but I will mention a few facts that I found interesting, because they helped me make sense of a number of online collection projects I've learned about, and used, over the past few years. I hope this information will also prove useful to you, because these resources are only going to get better and more essential to biologists in the years ahead-but don't worry, I'll also get back to the dioramas.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

One way in which my two Manhattan destinations are related is that the AMNH is one of ten organizations involved in the BioDiversity Heritage Library. Two other similar institutions are also represented: the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum, London. This consortium has agreed to digitize the key works in each collection, focusing on those published before 1923, the date after which copyright issues become more difficult. I am most familiar with Botanicus (, the part of this project, obviously enough, dealing with plants. It is being spearheaded by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Exploring this Web site is like getting physically lost in library stacks in which I could never really get lost, because I would never be let in. Many of the books here are too precious to be in open stacks.

But online, I can spend hours just leafing through Pierre-Joseph Redoute's massive masterpieces of botanical art, Les Liliacees. Last year I took a course at the New York Botanical Garden on the history of botanical illustration. Les Liliacees was one of the treasures we examined. Though there were only eight people in the class, we still felt crowded as each of us wanted to look closely at each image of a lily species-and we, of course, didn't turn the pages, but waited for a white-gloved book conservator to do so. On the Web, I can get a much better look at each and every page. And then I can turn to other treasures, dozens and dozens of them, and I can bookmark pages to share with my students. This is something I couldn't do very easily with the books I saw at the Botanical Garden, and it's definitely something that becomes less and less feasible to those who don't live in New York.

And what I am describing is just one small part of the BioDiversity Heritage Library (http://www.biodiversitylibrary. org/), which is just one part of the EOL. I hope this gives you some sense of the scale of this endeavor. The Library has just celebrated the scanning of its 10 millionth page. A good library is a great resource, and it used to be that one had to live near a good library to be able to use its resources on a regular basis. Interlibrary loan is a wonderful way to extend a library's reach, but they are not going to lend Les Liliacees. …

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