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Creating a digital inventory of biodiversity

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an important part of the Encyclopedia of Life Project (EOL). The latter is the highly publicized effort to create a digital inventory of biodiversity—one webpage per species. In those pages, the EOL attempts to make available what is known about each species and to distribute this information freely to all interested parties.

Our knowledge about biodiversity has been accumulating over centuries. Systematic biology is built on what is now referred to as its legacy literature. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is an international collaboration to digitize these rich resources and make them available through one central portal. This requires an incredible amount of coordination, agreements on standards and protocols, and, of course, resources. Despite these difficulties the BHL is growing rapidly.

New informatics tools are being developed to mine this multi-lingual literature. Developing these tools is simultaneously an informatics, a scientific and a historical challenge. For starters, species names as well as the names of locations have changed over time and are different in different languages. The BHL thus has developed a comprehensive catalogue of all known species names (living and extinct). This, however, is only the beginning of what can and should be done to utilize this rich database of historical information.

Moving beyond the straightforward identification of taxonomic names and geographic locations requires collaboration between historians and biologists. There is a lot of information in the legacy literature of systemic biology. But the underlying conception and practices of systematics have changed, sometimes dramatically, over the centuries. We can only take full advantage of this important resource for understanding biodiversity, if we appreciate these historical dimensions. Thankfully, this is beginning to happen. The Marine Biological Laboratory, a major partner in the BHL, has just established a program in history and philosophy of science to foster these kinds of necessary interdisciplinary collaborations.

The BHL is thus another case, similar to the Human Genome Project, where large scale and data driven science projects led to interdisciplinary collaborations.

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