We Dig Bio

Release Date: 
Thursday, January 18, 2018


During the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections, thousands of citizen scientists around the world completed over 50,000 digitization tasks. NHMLA Crustacea Collections Manager Adam Wall assists volunteers with digitization, closely supervised by a zebra specimen in the NHMLA Age of Mammals Exhibit.

Los Angeles, CA, January 17, 2018 — In an effort to make biological collections more accessible for researchers and the public, many natural history museums are prioritizing the digitization of their collections. The digitization process involves making information about a specimen available on an accessible database — things like when and where it was collected, the species name, and sometimes a photo or 3D image of the specimen or object.

These collections are a record of biodiversity over time. They provide data that can be mined to investigate climate and ecological change, inform conservation efforts, understand population genetics and evolution, and inform education and policy decisions. But they can’t be used if people can’t access them. The more institutions digitize their extensive collections, the better.

“Adding digital data to analog specimens is a critical step in mobilizing museum collections for use in timely research, education and policy,” said Dr. Libby Ellwood, research fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.

To that end, from October 22-25, 2015, 21 science institutions held the first global citizen-science event focused on the digitization of biodiversity specimens. The sites — including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA, which includes the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum), Florida State University, Smithsonian’s National Natural History Museum, the Field Museum, the Australian Museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and many others — hosted events in which members of the community came behind the scenes into museum collections to transcribe specimen labels and enter the information online on platforms like Notes from Nature, DigiVol, Smithsonian Transcription Center, Les Herbonautres, and Symbiota. Others participated remotely by logging onto these online platforms to transcribe labels and enter data. During this Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections (WeDigBio.org), thousands of community scientists around the world completed over 50,000 digitization tasks.

Today, in their evaluation of the programs, researchers report in BioScience that participants stayed engaged long after the initial event was over. Since these online platforms can be accessed anytime from anywhere, this heightened engagement provided ongoing assistance to the massive task of collection digitization.

“WeDigBio provides museums and natural history collections the opportunity to engage with local communities and the online public while providing enriching and enjoyable experiences for participants,” said Ellwood.

While many museums around the world are currently pushing to digitize as much of their collections as possible, with over a billion specimens housed at museums around the world, the magnitude of this task presents a significant hurdle for museum staff. It is common for collections to house hundreds of thousands or even millions of specimens. Depending on the type of organism or object, it can be stored in a variety of ways — suspended in alcohol in a jar, laying flat in a drawer, or hanging in special climate-controlled storage. The digitization of 2-dimensional objects is the most straightforward, as they can be scanned with relative ease. But 3-D objects can be especially challenging. Labels that contain all the information about an item — some of which were penned over 100 years ago — are sometimes difficult to read, or in the case of wet specimens in jars, curled up inside a vial within a large container of, say, 100 crabs.

“To digitize these items, someone has to physically pick up, remove the labels and unfurl them, then read and transcribe the information inside, so automation or assembly line systems are nearly impossible to implement,” says Dr. Regina Wetzer, Associate Curator of the NHMLA’s Marine Biodiversity Center.

This is a perfect job for a broad, diverse community of enthusiastic people, also known as community or citizen scientists. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear to many institutions that the most feasible way to chip away at these enormous digitization projects is to involve the public. This is a symbiotic arrangement: museums receive much-needed assistance, and members of the community get rare behind-the-scenes access to these science and cultural institutions and enjoy the opportunity to learn more about science, nature, and culture.

“In NHMLA's project, digitizing labels from about a thousand big crabs, we were really delighted at the level of enthusiasm and commitment that the participants contributed,” said Dean Pentcheff, an NHMLA Project Coordinator.

The next WeDigBio event is scheduled for October 2018.

“Since 2015, WeDigBio has grown and expanded to include new museum-based projects, participants in new countries, and even new transcription platforms,” said Ellwood. “We're already looking forward to our October 2018 event and hope you'll join us!”