We Dig Bio | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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We Dig Bio

The future of digitizing museum collections

During the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections, thousands of volunteers 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.

 

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 3-D image of the specimen or object.

“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.

a photo of crabs in a specimen jar

a photo of a specimen label
An example of the specimens volunteers were digitizing during the WeDigBio event at NHMLA, called the "Crab Shack" project.

With over a billion specimens housed at museums around the world, the magnitude of this task presents a significant hurdle for museum staff. Depending on the type of organism or object, collections can be stored in a variety of ways — suspended in alcohol in a jar, lying 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 and Director 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.

From October 22-25, 2015, 21 science institutions held the first global citizen-science event focused on the digitization of biodiversity specimens. 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 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!”

 

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