Scientists are creating a digital collection of insects

The National Science Foundation awarded a grant last year to digitize millions of photographs of insects into a national database.  The idea being that researchers and other interested parties could access this database to view insects quickly and easily.

Scientists at a college in Illinois give an example of a how the database is being built.  The Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) is part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois and is home to one of the largest collections of insects in the country.  The insects are currently stored in little drawers with information about each specimen handwritten on a label attached to the drawer.  There are over 7 million insects at INHS with some of the oldest added to the collection 150 years ago.

The specimens are carefully stored in a climate controlled environment and some can be quite fragile.  High-resolution photos will be taken of each of the specimens from a variety of angles.  The images will then be stored in a searchable database along with the notes written on the label.

The INHS digitization project is just part of a larger database.  A site called InvertNet is where users can go to search for and view the images of the insects.  InvertNet will give access to insects and their history that was previously only available to a very small number of people.  The first goal is to provide universal access to 22 collections in the midwestern United States with a total of 55 million digitized specimens.  Of course the platform is designed to be universal and could theoretically contain digital images of every specimen on the planet.

InvertNet is a perfect example of the benefits of a standardized digitization project.  They are combining insects and other specimens that are stored in different places and that are owned by different organizations.  The are bringing images and searchable data on all of those specimens into a common repository with standardized storage parameters.  Anyone in the world will be able to search for and view the images.  The servers that the database is stored on will be scalable, redundant, backed up, and secure.

This project demonstrates the advantages of a National Digital Public Library.  Such a library would essentially do what InvertNet is doing.  It would combine digital collections from everywhere in the United States and store them in a standardized, scalable, redundant, backed up, and secure database.  Such a library would store our cultural heritage and our history in a searchable, digital format that could be accessed from anywhere.

Opening up valuable data to everyone in the world is one of the greatest benefits of the Internet.  It also happens to be one of the main reasons we have public libraries.  Isn’t it time we had a National Digital Public Library of America?