Data Born in Literature: 600 Years of Special Collections Serving the Planet

Course Information

Instructor: Martin K. Kalfatovic
Location: Smithsonian Libraries and Archives / Washington D.C.
Mode: In-person
Dates: August 14 – August 18
Tuition: $1200.00


In biology, taxonomy is the scientific study of naming, defining (circumscribing) and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics. Unlike many scientific disciplines, taxonomy is reliant on a linear chain from the earliest description of a species to current research. Access to species descriptions must be traced back to the earliest publication of the species, in many cases the work of Carl Linnaeus (in his Systema Naturae, 10th edition, 1758).

For us to know about life on our planet, we need to know where and when it occurs, and key characteristics about life: what does it eat? What eats it? How big is it? And many more. These data has been systematically collected by humans for 600+ years and is often recorded in rare materials held in sometimes difficult to access collections. Creating actionable data from print-based materials liberates these data aggregators and museum collections is challenging and evolving rapidly.

This course will examine key texts in the history of taxonomy, case studies of how these sources have informed current scientific information about species and the extinction crisis facing the world. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) will be explored as the premier aggregator of taxonomic data. How the BHL has worked with special collections in the leading natural history collections around the world to make these materials freely available as well as ongoing efforts to transform these “data born in literature” to reusable data for global biodiversity research tools.

Guest lectures will include global experts in extracting taxonomic information from text materials, experts in the field of natural history publishing, and manuscript materials housed in Field Notes collections.There will be two tours/field trips of important natural history book collections in the Washington, DC area and a visit to a specimen collections area of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Additionally, there will be a discussion of digital conversion targeted to issues around taxonomic publications.

Learning Outcomes

Participants will

  • Develop an understanding of how life is described and named through systematic taxonomy;
  • Discover the ongoing importance of 600 years of published literature to current scientific questions around the climate crisis and species extinction;
  • Learn how trace a species through historic taxonomic literature;
  • Learn about new tools and services that extract data from historic taxonomic literature;
  • Gain a basic foundation in digital initiatives around taxonomic literature


Not sure if this is for you? Take a look at these readings and see if your interest is piqued:

  • Judith E. Winston (2018) Twenty-First Century Biological Nomenclature—The Enduring Power of Names, Integrative and Comparative Biology, Volume 58, Issue 6, December 2018, Pages 1122–1131,
  • David Hone (2013) “How a new species is named,” The Guardian.
  • Elinor Michel (2016) Anchoring Biodiversity Information: From Sherborn to the 21st century and beyond. In: Michel E (Ed.) Anchoring Biodiversity Information: From Sherborn to the 21st century and beyond. ZooKeys550: 1–11.
  • Other papers from the above symposium help tell the full stories of Charles Davies Sherborn and his Index Animalium who’s story will remind you of the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created.
  • And lastly, explore some of the 319,000+ images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library that are part of the visual data that will be discussed: Biodiversity Heritage Library: Flickr




Completion of this course helps to meet requirements for one of the following certificate requirements:

  • 1 of 3 elective credit courses for Certificate in Rare Books and Manuscripts, or
  • 1 of 2 elective credit courses for Certificate in Librarianship, Activism, and Justice