Impressions from afar: an account of our Fourth Annual Global BHL Meeting

View Full Size ImageMore than a month ago, on May 27 and 28, we took the opportunity to have our Global BHL Meeting in Fez, Morocco, because some of us were on our way to ICADLA-3, the 3rd International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives in Ifrane later that week.  This year, it was particularly special, not only because we had a superb backstage, staying and meeting in a Dar in the old Medina, but also because at least one representative of each BHL Node (except for Brazil) managed to converge for the occasion in such a historic city and they all had something big to report from their annual achievements.

It was very inspiring to hear all the reports highlights and share about common global topics for our initiative: from award-winning volunteers digitizing in Australia to the dedicated colleagues generating Chinese OCR and manually tagging common names; from the laborious staff scanning a whole library in Brazil in just a few months to the quick generation of online exhibitions with BHL material in Europe; and from the development of Macaw, a specialized tool to upload selected material to our collection in a much easier way, created in the US with collaboration from Australia and Brazil, to the implementation of full-search text, annotations and underlining capabilities on the Arabic portal by Egypt – all these achievements crowned with the establishment of a continental BHL node by and for African colleagues in less than a year… for me, this is priceless!

I gave a presentation for the Technical Update, explaining how having the user interface, initially developed by the BHL-Australia staff, now available on top of the BHL-US/UK functionality, is much more than a mere change of look. There’s new functionality made available by providing access to article-level information and more taxa is now found through the services of the Global Names Architecture project (supported by the National Science Foundation) to provide for a closer integration with authors lists and taxa aggregators like Zoobank and IPNI, among others.  And these are just the tips of the iceberg.  The continuous growth of the BHL corpus at a steady rate for more than 5 years, echoes the work of all those who support BHL and reflects the value of our staff contributions and the usage of our content that our users promote by creating references that link to it.  I ended my talk with a mention of the latest developments on several of our projects, like our NEH-funded Art of Life.

But it hasn’t been a year without challenges of all sorts: the end of funding for some projects, staff turnover, priority changes, and even political turmoil… During this time, our colleagues from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole have managed to solve previous issues with the performance of our content copy on their Cluster repository.  BHL-Europe has also solved some issues it had that slowed down the process to upload files and now it’s steadily ingesting content, thanks to their Organizations’ support and sometimes even personal effort and interest to maintain the project going on.  BHL-China has also found a renewed interest in providing services to other institutions through novel projects.  BHL-Australia has empowered collaborations with their volunteers’ network and BHL-Egypt has kept advancing the replication of content with firm commitment to their participation, even after major changes in the country.  Needless to explain, the challenges that BHL Africa had to overcome in order to have, in less than a year, 12 institutions from different countries eager to establish a new node and sign up the Memorandum of Understanding to participate in such effort by the time of the launch inauguration.  But changes are opportunities, and the obstacles faced only makes it even more important and valuable to recognize the wonderful contributions and achievements that have been carried out around the globe in the last 12 months by our BHL community.

The Global BHL is a cooperative network of autonomous members operating programs and projects to make biodiversity literature available under principles of open access, collaboration, decentralization, interoperability, transparency and legality, and I believe it is its diversity that makes it resilient to obstacles in a particular node.  For me, this is the reason why, even in times of adversity, it has always been growing, increasing not only in size, but also developing in more regions, with more languages, topics and types of content and adapting to technology changes, improving or developing new tools and synchronizing content among nodes, even after the original project (and funding) from The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for Global BHL Coordination ended last year.

Now better and higher goals are already established. BHL-Australia and BHL-Europe want to reactivate and adapt their own projects to expand to new institutions and collections.  BHL-Africa and BHL-Brazil have the goal of starting to upload their digitized content and expand participation to other countries.  Likewise, BHL-China also wants to extend their content and services to new topics of their scientific community. BHL-Egypt is interested in integrating content with other global initiatives and exploring joint projects, while BHL-US/UK is looking to consolidate its new framework of membership and expand the services provided to their users.  Learning from each other’s successes and experiences helps us to keep working together, ensure redundancy and resilience, while at the same time increasing new unique content, tools and services that provide novel opportunities for collaborations.

Every time I return from our Annual Global BHL Meeting, I come back full of positivism and ideas, proud to be part of this global initiative that involves so many amazing people collaborating from so many different places.  I have met a lot of people, but not all of them yet, I have to say; and to be fair with them, I have avoided singling out anyone here, but having the privilege, at least once a year, to share together with all the Global BHL representatives about the work their colleagues do and hear about their contributions to this worldwide endeavor, is a real treat for me…
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William Ulate served as the BHL Technical Director from 2012-2014. Prior to this, he served as BHL's Global Coordinator.