Time Traveling with BHL: Open Access to Historic Data Empowers Modern Research…At Home

As the world’s largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has revolutionized global research by providing free, worldwide access to knowledge about life on Earth. BHL’s digital collections provide researchers with the information they need to document Earth’s species, conserve biodiversity, research the history of science, and confront formidable challenges — from extinction crises to climate change and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Digital access to this essential literature is especially important right now, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes physical access to collections and institutional libraries impossible for many. Open access digital libraries like BHL make continued research possible.

Dr. Nicholas Pyenson, Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Paleobiology, has been a longtime user of and advocate for BHL. The historic data accessible through publications in BHL underpins much of his work. For example,  the Discovery Reportswhich present the results of groundbreaking investigations into the biology of whales, helped inform Pyenson’s studies on the evolution of cetacean body size and whale hearing.

Man in a blue coat on a beach investigating whale bones

Dr. Nicholas Pyenson at Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Photo credit: Martha Stewart.

While BHL has been a valued resource for Pyenson for many years, digital access to scientific literature has become especially important as research has shifted to a telework environment.

“As a researcher, the Biodiversity Heritage Library gives me the opportunity to seek and find scientific literature especially from home, during this pandemic — that’s something so valuable to me, when I’m far away from the Smithsonian Libraries’ many branches and deep storage archives,” emphasizes Pyenson. “Access to words, images, and ideas that are either decades or centuries old drives so much of my work. It also gives me a sense of connection to people I’ve never met, but nonetheless seem very real for the questions I want to answer.”

Pyenson shares more about BHL’s impact during these unprecedented times on the Smithsonian Libraries’ YouTube channel.

As our understanding of the natural world deepens and grows, trusted, openly available resources become ever more important. BHL’s Secretariat and technical staff, together with our colleagues at BHL’s over 80 partner institutions globally, are committed to ensuring continued access to BHL resources for researchers around the globe. Your support today is deeply impactful to our ability to continue providing support to the thousands of researchers who rely on access to our digital collections.

If you’re able to give, we welcome your contribution.

Avatar for Grace Costantino
Written by

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.