Thursday, January 29, 2015

We need your Help to Tag over a Million Biodiversity Images in Flickr

BHL Images in the new IA Book Images Flickr Stream

Two Ways to Access BHL Images in Flickr 

Images from the books and journals of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) are now more readily available in Flickr than ever before. Thanks to the work of researcher Kalev Leetaru and developers at Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG), and the Internet Archive (IA), over 1 million images from BHL are being added to the IA's Book Images Flickr stream. This work began in the summer of 2014 when Leetaru extracted over 14 million images from 2 million IA public domain books and pushed them to the Flickr Commons. BHL images are a subset of this collection because, as a digitization partner for BHL, IA not only scans many of BHL’s books and journals but also hosts all of its content at the Internet Archive as a mirror of the content found at the BHL portal. To improve the discoverability of the images, developers at SIL, MBG, and IA added additional metadata, such as BHL Collections, contributing library, and digitization sponsor tags, to the images exposed through the IA Flickr stream.

As a result, BHL users now have 2 streams from which to access BHL images - the BHL Flickr stream and the IA Book Images Flickr stream.

The primary differences between the two streams have to do with the number of images in each, their organization, and presentation. For example, the BHL stream, which now contains approximately 94,000 images, is manually curated by BHL staff and can be browsed by albums (i.e. book titles) with images presented at the page level. The IA stream currently contains 350,000 BHL images but will rapidly grow to over 1 million in the next few months. While the numbers are significantly larger than the BHL stream, this stream is not organized into subsets or albums and the images are cropped to the illustration’s borders, removing it from the context of the larger page. The full page can be viewed by clicking on the "View Book Page" link beneath each image in the IA stream.

The new IA stream, along with BHL’s current Flickr stream, provides an even larger pool of content for our users to both view and tag BHL images. This moves us further towards our goals on the Art of Life project – to automatically identify, classify and describe BHL images and improve their access for both the BHL community and any scholars and educators who rely on visual resources in their research and teaching.

We Need Your Help! 

We need your help to add species common name tags to the BHL images in Flickr, either within the BHL or IA streams. Adding common names is a low barrier way for non-specialists to engage with these images, and common name tags can be very useful for educators trying to locate images of plants and animals with which to illustrate their lessons.

In order to tag BHL images with common names we recommend the following format:


If the common name is composed of more than one word use quotations around the phrase:

taxonomy:common="black bear"

And we still need your help to add taxonomic species name machine tags to images in the BHL Flickr stream. In 2011 we began asking users to add machine tags for taxonomic binomials to images in the BHL Flickr stream, and the community responded generously (as of Sept 2014 over 22,000 of these tags have been added to 14,000 BHL images). These tags allow the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to harvest the images and support their efforts to create a web page for every species on earth. See detailed instructions for adding species name machine tags.

Adding common and species name machine tags not only helps users in both Flickr and EOL discover our images, but these tags will also be used to enhance the BHL portal. Currently, the portal does not allow for searching on image metadata, but BHL is planning on incorporating this functionality in the near future. The Flickr tags added by users will be ingested into BHL to eventually enable image search within the portal itself.

Tips for Navigating the IA Flickr Stream 

With the browsing limitations of the IA stream we’d like to offer some search tips to help users navigate this collection. All BHL images are tagged with bookcollection:biodiversity, which can either be typed into the search box from any Flickr page or you can go directly to the subset.

To further filter results you will need to use the advance search in Flickr. Because all images in the IA Flickr stream are tagged with bookyear, bookdecade, and bookcentury these can be used as further criteria for searching.

More than one tag can be added to the advanced search box. Here is an example of searching on the biodiversity collection and year 1910.

Results of an advanced search on "bookcollection:biodiversity bookdecade:1910"

Users may even want to search a single year of a specific journal.

Results of advanced search on Hardwicke’s Science Gossip bookyear:1967

We want to thank the BHL community for helping us in our efforts to crowdsource these image descriptions and we look forward to seeing the fruits of your labor in a future version of the BHL portal - Happy Tagging!

Trish Rose-Sandler
BHL Data Analyst, Missouri Botanical Garden

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Notes and News from BHL

We are pleased to announce that the latest BHL Quarterly Report and Newsletter for Winter, 2015, are now available.

You'll notice a new format for our Quarterly Reports and a new design for our newsletters.

We're restructuring our Quarterly Reports as narratives detailing our quarterly activities and presenting content based on three themes: BHL Users, Member and Affiliate Activities, and Science. Our fourth Quarterly Report will constitute our BHL Annual Report, providing not only a report of the year's activities, but the statistics and program evaluations you've been accustomed to seeing in each Quarterly Report. See past reports on our website.

This quarter's report is themed "BHL Users," and in it we're pleased to feature many of the ways users across the world are using BHL and its resources to support their work. Next quarter, we'll feature the contributions our Members and Affiliates have made to BHL, including a summary of our Annual Member's Meeting in March. For our Summer Quarterly Report, we'll feature the many impacts BHL is having on global scientific research.

And don't forget our newsletter, which is a great way to get quarterly updates about BHL news and events directly to your inbox. See archived versions of past newsletters on our website, and if you're not on our mailing list, sign up today!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Bridge to the Past: The Writings of William Brewster

            William Brewster was a self-educated ornithologist who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From the mid-1800s until his death in 1919, he amassed a tremendous specimen collection and became one of the foremost experts on birds in the northeastern United States. In 1906, the Nuttall Ornithological Club published The Birds of the Cambridge Region of Massachusetts, Brewster’s exhaustive work on the avian fauna of his own backyard. While the book is a valuable historical resource, it is Brewster’s journals and diaries—spanning over 50 years of his life—that contain the goldmine of his recorded observations. Last year, the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University made these journals and diaries available on BHL. 

Photo of William Brewster in The Auk, Volume 37, 1920    
            Increasingly, researchers and conservationists rely on collections of data points to understand species’ habits, population decline, and migration patterns. One such collection is eBird, a website created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. eBird harnesses the contributions of bird-watchers around the world to create interactive maps that display individual observations as data points. These data points are integrated into systems such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), where they paint a rich picture of global environmental health that transcends individual, component snapshots of information.

            Since eBird launched in 2002, it has captured millions of bird observations. Prior to the World Wide Web, however—and especially prior to the advent of bird-watching as a common recreational activity around 1900—the record is more spotty. This makes the existing historical data, such as William Brewster’s carefully recorded observations, all the more valuable. 

A bird list from Brewster’s 1890 journal    
            Brewster saw the effects of urbanization and development on the Cambridge of his boyhood; more than the changed landscape, he lamented the loss of birds. In Birds of the Cambridge Region, he wrote of the Mt. Auburn area:

Knolls and ridges have been levelled, swamps and meadows drained or filled, and woods, groves, thickets and orchards swept away, to make place for settlements of houses...Most of the native birds have disappeared…So complete has been the transformation, that it is only by appealing to the imagination…that one can hope to reconstruct even the more prominent features of the landscape as it was twenty or thirty years ago.

            In addition to the effects of development, Brewster witnessed the explosion of non-native House (English) Sparrows, the effects of 0ver-hunting, and the cost of human attitudes and ignorance. Brewster listed the Great Horned Owl as an “occasional or accidental” visitor to Cambridge and the Cooper’s Hawk as “expunged or doubtful”; at the time, people believed that these birds were a serious threat to domestic fowl, and they killed them at every opportunity. Wild Turkeys were totally extirpated from the region during Brewster’s lifetime.

Map of Fresh Pond, c.1866, from The Birds of the Cambridge Region of Massachusetts; image provided by Charles Sullivan, Cambridge Historical Commission    
Fresh Pond, one of Brewster’s favorite birding spots, is a case study in the harmful effects of human engineering. Before Fresh Pond was made a public park in 1884, hunters decimated the migratory duck populations that had once been abundant. The establishment of the park allowed the ducks to return, but at the cost of marsh birds: the vegetation at the water’s edge was cut down for a perimeter path, and some of the pond’s coves were filled in. With their habitat gone, several Rail species that Brewster commonly encountered around the pond disappeared. According to eBird, they’ve rarely been seen since. Even as the duck population rebounded, the city charged policemen with shooting their guns to scare them off, afraid that they would pollute the municipal water supply.

eBird Cooper’s Hawk sightings in the Cambridge region for 2014    
House Sparrows may be here to stay, but not all the damage has been permanent. Cambridge is working to restore Fresh Pond as a sanctuary for local wildlife. Cooper’s Hawks are now spotted regularly in the city. And Great Horned Owls and Wild Turkeys reside in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where Brewster is buried. As we continue to make progress, the historical information provided by Brewster and others serves as a guide to conservation, filling in critical gaps in the stories of hundreds of bird species.

Making Brewster’s writings available on BHL is an important step, but the work doesn’t end there. In order for his journals and diaries to be truly useful, they need to be converted to searchable text files. Ordinarily, a computer would do this using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), but because the technology has trouble reading cursive handwriting, transcriptions must be typed out one page at a time. Thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), volunteers and project partners at the Ernst Mayr Library are doing just that. Read about BHL’s involvement in the Purposeful Gaming grant, and if you want to help, try your hand at transcribing Brewster’s diaries and journals. By making these writings accessible, we can reach into the past to find information that will help us plot a course for the future.