Getting to Know the BHL Users

For my NDSR project at Smithsonian Libraries, I’ll be gathering feedback from the users of BHL to help inform the next version of the digital library. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with several partners of BHL and sit in on BHL Member, Collection, and Tech Team meetings. Through these interactions, I’ve been able to identify three main groups to solicit feedback from for my research: (1) Consortium Users; (2) System Users; and (3) Individual Users.

1. Consortium Users:  A contributor to BHL including Members, Affiliates, Partners, staff, and volunteers

2. System Users:  Organizations or individuals who interact with BHL for the purpose of enriching another system via APIs (Application Programming Interface) or manually

3. Individual Users:  Anyone visiting the BHL website to search for information to answer their research needs such as, scientists, collection managers, librarians, etc.

Consortium Users

As a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries BHL is made up of Members and Affiliates. Each of these consortium users are committed to the mission, vision, and key values of BHL centered around free and open access to biodiversity literature.

Example of digitized content found in BHL. Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. v. 1, ed. 1. pl. 16. Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries.

Staff at these partner institutions participate in various ways including scanning their biodiversity resources to be added to the BHL content and taking part in BHL working groups and committees as needed. As I’ve sat in on the meetings for some of these committees, I’ve been able to learn more about the BHL Members and Affiliates and their needs. The majority of these members are museums or libraries serving their own users as well. Members are looking for ways to streamline the process for digitizing their materials into BHL and promoting and accessing their content through BHL.

Another important group are volunteers including volunteers through Member institutions or with BHL as a whole. They assist with scanning and uploading content, managing social media, tagging illustrations with taxon names, and participating in crowdsourced transcription efforts, among other activities. These endeavors increase the visibility of and enhance the content in BHL. Check out a couple of BHL’s most active volunteers on social media – Siobhan Leachman and Michelle Marshall and her Historical SciArt.

System Users

There are several other organizations and individuals that BHL works with at the system level, and I’ve been meeting with many of these users over the last couple of months to learn more about their interactions with BHL.

My NDSR mentor, Carolyn Sheffield (BHL Program Manager, BHL Secretariat/Smithsonian Libraries) and I met with Bob Corrigan, Director of Operations for Encyclopedia for Life (EOL). EOL aims to have “a website for every species,” and the literature found in BHL complements this species information. If a scientific name match is found between BHL and EOL through the Global Names Architecture’s name finding algorithm, an icon next to the name on the page in BHL will link to the webpage for that species on EOL. Then EOL will link back to BHL when a BHL source is cited or a BHL illustration is uploaded. EOL and BHL are interested in exploring additional opportunities for cross-linking and interoperability between their systems.

Example of scientific name found in BHL content through the Global Names Architecture naming finding algorithm with link to EOL (Encyclopedia of Life) species web page.

Carolyn and I also spoke with Dmitry Schigel, Scientific Officer at GBIF. BHL is an Associate Participant in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) network, and GBIF and BHL work closely on providing access to biodiversity information. GBIF taxon pages link to a bibliography of BHL pages with the same scientific name. Similar to EOL, GBIF and BHL are partnering on other opportunities to cross-link data.

Biostor and its creator Rod Page work with BHL data through its API to provide article level metadata. Along with Carolyn and two of my fellow residents, Alicia Esquivel at Chicago Botanic Garden and Ari Rehbein at Missouri Botanical Garden, we spoke with Rod to learn more about his interactions with BHL. Biostor’s goal is to ease the process of locating articles in BHL. During our meeting, Rod shared he is further interested in using BHL’s API to mine the literature for data and explore ways to visualize that data. Learn more on Rod’s blog, iPhylo.

Additionally, I recently had the opportunity to meet the staff of the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), a program that works to provide authoritative taxonomic information. ITIS operates as a partnership between institutions, among which are the Smithsonian and the U.S. Geological Survey, both of which also host BHL Member libraries. Gerald “Stinger” Guala, Director of ITIS, invited Martin Kalfatovic, BHL Program Director, Bianca Crowley, BHL Collections Manager, and me to join in on one of their staff meetings. ITIS staff are BHL power users and shared with us how they rely on BHL in their daily work of verifying scientific names of different species. As for many other researchers, quickly being able to locate the original description and other relevant literature to confirm a species is an indispensable component to their work. ITIS staff member, Sara Alexander, shared her experience working with biodiversity literature on the BHL Blog.

The other residents and I along with the BHL staff have been so grateful to all of the partners who have been willing to meet with us and offer their feedback and guidance as we work to determine recommendations and requirements for the next version of BHL.

Individual Users

Consortium users and system users are working together to make biodiversity information more freely and openly available. Individual users are coming to BHL and the sites of other members of the biodiversity community for a variety of research needs. BHL has more than 187,000 website visits every month and over 68,000 followers on social media. The BHL Flickr feed has an average of 5.5 million views on content every month.

A wide variety of researchers glean valuable information from BHL – museum curators use BHL to gather information for their exhibits, field scientists turn to BHL for the early literature to cite and identify different species, teachers utilize content from BHL to instruct their students in natural history, and scientific illustrators compare works in BHL for their own illustrations. Historians, citizen scientists, librarians, and others find BHL helpful to their work as well. While I have not had the opportunity to meet many of these users, I have been able to learn more about them through the BHL Users series on the BHL Blog. If you are a BHL user and would like to be interviewed for the blog, let Grace Constantino, BHL Outreach and Communication Manager, know at

User Research

In researching the users so far, there is overwhelmingly positive feedback for BHL and how it makes vital biodiversity information easily accessible. This open access allows users to complete research that would have been impossible or too time-intensive or financially difficult to obtain previously. Researchers feel this has made their work much more efficient.

Users can submit feedback and issues through a form on the BHL website. Over 10,000 feedback issues have been received by BHL to date demonstrating the tremendous interest and involvement of BHL’s users. Most of these issues have been resolved, but some are suggestions that can’t be implemented at this time due to the underlying system architecture. Reviewing these recommendations will help provide some valuable background for considering the next version of BHL.

Moving forward, BHL looks to build on this foundation by enhancing current features and implementing new features that will enrich the user experience providing additional insight into the world’s knowledge of biodiversity. Investigating user needs with BHL may also prove useful in identifying user behaviors and preferences that would be applicable for other digital libraries as well.

Next steps will be reaching out to these groups with some more formal methods of user feedback – stay tuned! If you’d like to get in touch about my project in the meantime, please leave a comment, connect with me on Twitter @Pam_McClanahan, or send me an email at!


3 thoughts on “Getting to Know the BHL Users

  1. Pingback: BHL and Social Media | Herbarium World

  2. Pingback: User Survey Update | NDSR at BHL

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