BHL Use Case: Facilitating the Study of Mollusca in southern Africa

Imagine that you live in a developing country and you’re studying a rare species of Mollusca. You need to verify the identity of a species you uncovered while performing some field work, but to do so you need to view a publication from the 1700s. Unfortunately, you do not have access to a library that holds the volume you need. What is a scientist to do?

Cue the Biodiversity Heritage Library! BHL is helping to improve the efficiency of scientific research around the world, particularly in developing countries, by providing free, global access to natural history literature, much of which can be found in only a few select libraries in the developing world.

Scientists everywhere feel the value of BHL, especially those in developing countries, like BHL user Dr. Dai Herbert, who graciously agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to tell us how BHL has impacted his research on the Mollusca of southern Africa.

BHL and Our Users: Dr. Dai Herbert

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What is your title, institutional affiliation, and area of interest? Chief Curator: Mollusca, KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg and Honorary Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

My field of interest is molluscan diversity and biogeography in southern Africa, with an emphasis on taxonomy and systematics. In work of this nature it is essential that one is fastidious and painstaking about accuracy. Consequently one often needs to go back to original sources to check information and these can sometimes be old and rare literature resources.

How long have you been in your field of study? Heavens, it’s a long time now – over 30 years.

When did you first discover BHL? I can’t remember exactly when I first came across BHL, but I have been making progressively more and more use of it over the last five years.

What is your opinion of BHL and how has it impacted your research? BHL is a tremendous and extremely valuable resource. As I mentioned previously, I frequently need to refer to the older literature, but before the advent of the internet and the BHL, this was usually a very frustrating task because much of the relevant material was not available in South Africa. This represented a considerable stumbling block and hindrance. The BHL has greatly alleviated this problem. Far more often than not, I am able to find what I need on the BHL. This resource has done an enormous amount to enhance the capacity of developing countries to undertake taxonomic research on their biota. I am extremely grateful to those who set up and manage this resource. Keep up the good work!

How often do you use BHL? This is variable and depends upon how much time I have for research (i.e. how much nonsense the bureaucrats and administrators thrust my way), but hardly a week goes by when I don’t use it. When fully engaged in a project, I might use it almost daily.

How do you usually use BHL (read the titles online/download whole PDFs/Select Pages to Download for a custom PDF/etc.)? Normally I search for the reference or journal by title, download the pdf and print the section that I need to refer to. I guess I’m still a little old fashioned in that I like to have a hard copy of original descriptions and I then scribble my own notes on these and store them for reference.

What are your favorite features/services on BHL? The advanced search facility and the pdf download option.

If you could change one thing about BHL, what would it be, or what developmental aspect would you like the BHL team to focus on next? BHL works well – the big issue is to get as much of the older literature scanned as possible.

If you had to choose one title/item in BHL that has most impacted your research, or one item that you prefer above any other in BHL, what would it be and why? This is impossible for me to say. I use many titles of considerable importance to my research.

Interested in sharing how the BHL has helped facilitate your research? We would love to hear from you! Send us an email to With continuous input from our users, we can ensure that our development priorities continue to transform BHL into a tool that best meets the needs of our user community!

Avatar for Grace Costantino
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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.