Acknowledging Harm, Rethinking Collections

The Biodiversity Heritage Library has released an Acknowledgment of Harmful Content to recognize deep prejudices within some of the pages of its collection. As a digital library of natural science publications and archival materials, BHL is a free and open access online resource that primarily reflects the print collections of its contributors. Some of the content in BHL is harmful because it reflects ableist, classist, colonialist, eurocentrist, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and other biased views, especially in descriptions of peoples, lands, and species. The long and, at times, painful history of the scientific record has privileged hegemonic perspectives with the right to print while stifling the voices of the powerless.

Acknowledgment of Harmful Content

The Biodiversity Heritage Library acknowledges the existence of harmful content in many biodiversity science publications and original materials included in its collection. We are reckoning with the, at times, painful heritage of our collection and seeking to address its impact on science and culture today. As a curated digital collection aggregating content from hundreds of providers into a single platform, BHL is a reflection of the historical collection development decisions of those providers as well as the publishing practices and historical colonial processes that have shaped the scholarly record of biodiversity science. Scientific understanding evolves over time, through critical analysis of new information and scrutiny of its mistakes. We recognize that as a free and open access digital library, we simultaneously increase and promote access to materials, some of which espouse deep prejudices that are counterproductive to the advancement of scientific knowledge and overshadow the contributions of marginalized peoples across the globe. At best these views are outdated; at worst, the legacy of natural sciences is unjust and inhumane. The harmful content in BHL’s collection goes against the values of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It is provided for access as part of the historical record.

BHL joins recent global outcries against racial and environmental injustice. We are assessing our role as a digital library and the responsibility we have to question our neutrality and address harm without reducing access. We are deeply concerned about the continuing crisis of global species loss and the inequitable divisions within our own species. Reflecting on ourselves, we see an organization grappling with inclusion and the acute consequences that these harmful views have on the world and its people today.

Heritage institutions such as the AfricaMuseum, Digital Public Library of America, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Trove, and others are also addressing these issues. In general the museum and cultural heritage community is reckoning with our organizations’ past and present, as well as the ways in which our collections, publications, public exhibitions and strategic goals impact society.

Over the course of 2020, BHL rethought the implementation of our strategic plan with the goal to challenge ourselves towards more equitable collection management, technical development, outreach, partnership development, and mission enabling practices. With regard to our collection management objectives going forward, we will be:

  • publishing a collaborative research bibliography to inform new collection management strategies that focus on global challenges including biodiversity loss, systematic racism, and the effects of a worldwide pandemic on scholarly research,
  • identifying and filling gaps in the collection to achieve more complete and inclusive representation of the available knowledge of and perspectives on biodiversity, e.g. including indigenous knowledge,
  • and conducting a comprehensive review and revision of our collection development policy.

If “knowing the past is critical to reforming the present” as Dr. David Silverman suggests [1] then publicly acknowledging the biases in our collection is a first step towards making our collection more inclusive. As a global consortium with a variety of social, cultural, epistemological, and political factors at play, we are unified in our commitment to advancing equity in the global biodiversity community while also maintaining access to the historical record.

Sincere thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library Collections Committee for participating in many challenging discussions and writing BHL’s Acknowledgment. In addition, we would like to thank BHL’s Executive Committee, Secretariat, as well as BHL Staff and Partners for their careful consideration and feedback. The Acknowledgment would not have been possible without the thoughtful input of our reviewers including: Lidia Ponce de la Vega, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Diversity Equity Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) Committee, as well as colleagues within our professional networks especially Cornell University Library, MBLWHOI Library and the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

[1] Silverman, D. (2019, November 18). [This Land Is Their Land] |

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Written by

Bianca Crowley is the Digital Collections Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library, headquartered at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. She has spent her career in this role helping consortium Partners grow and curate BHL's collection. Her main responsibilities revolve around program administration and collection management, but you can also find her tackling technical development, documentation, copyright, and cataloging issues as time allows. She received her MSLIS from The Catholic University of America.