Greetings from the Biodiversity Heritage Library!

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 11.28.10

Hello Science Gossip Community (and thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself, Geoff Belknap!) I am looking forward to getting to know you! My name is Ariadne Rehbein and I am serving as a National Digital Stewardship Resident (NDSR) for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL,) a natural history and botanical library consortium dedicated to making biodiversity literature openly available through a digital library of the same name. I am based at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO, one of the founding members of BHL. Five BHL NDSR Residents are working on requirements to improve the functionality of the BHL digital library this year. (Keep up with all of our work through our blog!) NDSR is an Institute of Library and Museum Services program that supports the development of digital stewardship professionals in the United States.

My project focuses on improving access to natural history illustrations through the BHL digital library; illustrations that have been described through your efforts and the work of “taggers” on BHL’s Flickr account. Science Gossip was launched just a few months before the end of BHL’s Art of Life grant project in 2015, a celebrated collaboration between Trish Rose-Sandler and the AoL team members, Dr. Geoff Belknap of Constructing Scientific Communities, and Zooniverse.

Your work as a research community is groundbreaking; and for BHL it raises a similarly groundbreaking question: How does a digital library organization determine how to grow from its experiments in reaching new audiences? Research into the types of audiences reached through BHL’s illustration-based outreach and crowdsourcing initiatives, and their needs, has been very limited. BHL thus far has sought to meet the needs of scientists and librarians through its digital library functionality, reflecting the missions of its consortial members.

I have lots of research to do before I can determine technical requirements. Interface functionality surrounding illustrations based upon user studies and a method for metadata integration are required for my project. But what is the best way for BHL to approach future data production and engagement with content through crowdsourcing? I hope I can ask for your help. I would like to provide BHL with a clearer picture of who you are and what motivates you in your work. What are your opinions regarding sharing your work in a digital library? How might you like to use the data? I also believe it is critically important to convey what has made your work successful, and if and how you would like to improve it.

More to come

There are lots of interesting elements to this project that I would like to share as time goes on. There are many more illustrations to be described; crowdsourcing has just scratched the surface of the approximately 4 million that remain. Prioritizing these illustrations for description based on stakeholder viewpoints and determining an appropriate way to undertake this are future goals.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post. I hope to reach out again soon. (I am still in the process of honing my methodology and questions!) In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions for me, I welcome you to reach me at or through Science Gossip at arehbein.

Happy birthday, Science Gossip!

Well, Science Gossip is a self-determined toddler at 2 years old today. It feels like it was only yesterday that was launched onto the wide citizen science world! But looking back, we can see that in the last twenty-four months, we have done a whole lot.

You all – the wonderful volunteers on the Web – have done a really amazing job – completing 16 Victorian natural history periodicals, which accounts for over 150,000 completed pages with 540,000+ classifications. Had I attempted to discover and classify illustrations as a lone historian, I wouldn’t have even got through a tenth of these pages.

journalofquekett208quek_0551The periodicals you have all been classifying represent some of the most important sites for nineteenth century natural history. My task in the following year is to start writing a book-length account of how the illustrations, illustrators and species classifications that you have discovered can help to tell a story about the importance of images to practices and processes of observing and communicating knowledge about the natural world. As I write this account, I plan on bringing questions that arise out of the data back to the experts on ‘talk’ – so stay tuned on if you are interested in participating in these discussions.

What’s Next?

The current batch of periodicals that we have up should keep us going for a bit longer. Of the six journals left to classify, four are over 65% finished, and the remaining two are hovering at around 10% complete. Our two geology periodicals are very close to finishing, with only 10% left to go – so with a little group effort we should be able to get two more complete very soon.

What happens after we finish all of the current periodicals is up to you. We have already started a discussion on Talk about what the next tranche of periodicals could be. Join that discussion here!

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-18-17-25The Biodiversity Heritage Library – which has been the source for all the images and periodicals we have been classifying over the last two years – still has thousands of unclassified books and journals which are full of interesting, but currently hidden, images. The research decision on which sources we – as a community – should work on next is in your hands. This is the essence of citizen science.

With all the knowledge and expertise you have developed over the last two years identifying and classifying images – it only makes sense that the direction of the research becomes community-, rather than individually, driven.

I can’t wait to see what we’ll all do next!

A Year of Science Gossiping

On March 3rd, turns 1! And what a first year it has been.


As a historian, I have been trained to look at books and images and to say something about them that is relevant to other historians. But – and this is my confession – when it comes to doing history with citizen science/humanities I don’t have any training or expertise. And this is what has made this first year so interesting for me – I’ve learnt so much from the 8000+ community that has participated in classifying historical images, and it has been changing the way I think about researching and writing history. But more on that in a future blog, for now, let’s celebrate all we have done!

So what have we achieved over the last year?

We’ve classified just under 135,000 pages from 19th-century journals. Which means that we have completely classified 13 journals and are approximately 90% away from classifying three more.

To put this in perspective – a very diligent historian, working on his or her own for 3-4 years might be able to do thorough research into 4-5 periodicals over a 10-year run. You lot have shown just how important working as a community can be.

What’s more is this means not just an increase in productivity, but new thoughts and ideas a solitary historian would not be able to come up with on their own.

For instance, we now have new information on female illustrators, created a comprehensive list of contributors, and even made an amazing alphabet – all driven by the work and interest of the Talk community.

We’ve also been gaining some attention from within the history of science community. We were shortlisted for the British Society for the History of Science newly founded Ayrton prize, for outstanding web projects.

Viewpoint Scan

For me – as I hope for the rest of the community – it has really been an amazing year. But, we are hoping it is just a taste of what is yet to come.

What is to come for sciencegossip?

To start we have 5 new periodicals for everyone to whet their appetite. These include a new journal on microscopy, 2 on botany, and 2 new journals focusing on geology.

Over the upcoming year, the data on the currently classified journals will be used to inform a new understanding of what it meant to participate in 19th-century science, drawing and journal publication. While this will, in part, take the form of academic articles and ultimately a book – we are also planning a collaboration with digital humanities experts such as Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis – which will help us visualise the data you all have collected into an interactive platform.

Most important of all, however, is that from here on in we would like you, the community, to take the helm over the content and direction of sciencegossip. Up to now, the research team has decided what periodicals will go up, and what questions will be asked of the data. So far, this has worked well – but we don’t want to hog the fun! If you find or know of a historical periodical or book that is on the BHL archive, then let’s make a decision as a community over what the next uploads are going to be. Let’s also make new hash tags and discussion threads over what you find most interesting in the documents and images. What the content and research of the website looks like in March 2017 is really up to you!

Because, after all, this is citizen humanities – which means the community is in control, not the individual.

We met our Science Gossip challenge!

Thanks to all those who took part in the Science Gossip challenge! In the last 2 weeks you contributed ~110,000 new classifications to the data, and completed approximately 21,000 pages! Talk was very active too, which is great. A number of volunteers discovered some great images including:

Beautiful maps of Wiltshire –

A full page plate full of dragonflies

Facsimiles of notices from the 1604 plague –

And some lovely looking photographs of slime mold!

Not only did we meet our challenge goal of 100k classifications, we were able to complete 3 of the 5 new journals that were uploaded earlier this month:  Botany Miscellany (1830–1833), Journal of Botany: Being a Second Series of the Botanical Miscellany (1834–1842), and London Journal of Botany (1842–1848).  Two of the older journals are very close to being done – Wiltshire archaeological and natural history magazine. (99% complete) and Hardwicke’s science-gossip : an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature. (82% complete).

You can also dip in and see some of the data generated over the project’s lifetime, check out Here you’ll find pages displaying the aggregated and individual assessments made by volunteers. All of this has been anonymized, but it’s still interesting to see how many people picked out particular keywords.

More content is on the way so stay tuned at

Thanks so much for all your hard work,
Trish, Geoff, Jim, Victoria and everyone on the Science Gossip Team

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New journals available in Science Gossip: Let’s celebrate by classifying all of the data, old and new!

The Science Gossip team recently uploaded five new journals that were established and edited by William Jackson Hooker*, founding director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and one of the most important botanists of the nineteenth century. These include:

Botany Miscellany (1830–1833), Journal of Botany: Being a Second Series of the Botanical Miscellany (1834–1842), London Journal of Botany (1842–1848) and Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1849–1857). The Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club (1868 to present) is the longest running ‘amateur’ journal for microscopical societies. The society, which was established in 1865, came directly out of the community developed through the natural history periodical Science Gossip – with founding members including the publisher Robert Hardwicke and editor and mycologist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke.

Hookers Journal 2

In addition to the new journals, there are approximately 24,000 pages still to be classified between the five original journals: Gardeners Magazine and Register or Rural & Domestic Improvement (23% complete), Gardener’s Chronicle (2% complete), Hardwicke’s Science Gossip (77% complete), the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (86% complete), Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine (96% complete).

With your help we can identify the wealth of illustrations locked in these wonderful Victorian natural history journals, and make them available for researchers and any interested parties for years to come!

** Free access to the Hooker article was provided by The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and Oxford University Press. It is available until 30 November, 2015.

Citizen Scientist’s Algorithm Helps Science Gossip Team to Reduce Text-only Pages

Thanks to the efforts of an active Zooniverse volunteer and the Science Gossip project team, users can now focus on the beautiful illustrations found in Science Gossip’s 19th century natural history periodicals and spend less time marking pages with no illustrations. The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) had developed algorithms for filtering out pages without images in a previously-related project called Art of Life, where project partners from the Indianapolis Museum of Art Lab developed 4 algorithms. The two deemed most useful were based on 1) coordinate metadata from ABBYY software and 2) contrast properties of the pages. The Science Gossip project team had considered using these algorithms to filter pages before uploading to the Zooniverse site but decided against it because it was surmised users might like to view all pages in a journal for contextual reference. After the launch in March 2015, it became clear many Science Gossip users wanted the team to reduce the numbers of pages without illustrations because they didn’t want to spend their time on these types of pages when the project was really about illustrations.

An active volunteer, Briana Harder (aka Quia on Zooniverse), prodded the Science Gossip team to consider using automated methods for filtering and even put together an algorithm herself for the team to test against its existing algorithms. Briana’s algorithm picks out chunks of images and if the background is too variable sometimes picks out text. When comparing the accuracy of the 3 algorithms together, Briana’s and the BHL ABBYY algorithm performed well with less than a 1% margin of error. Contrast performed poorly and Briana and the team deemed it was not useful for filtering. In the end it was decided to just utilize the ABBYY algorithm since the pages had already been processed by that algorithm and it would be much quicker to implement.

The filter was applied in mid-May. Since then the number of pages without illustrations has been reduced considerably, hopefully resulting in a more satisfying experience for our users. Thanks go out to Briana and the folks on the team who worked on this task. When asked what her motivations were for contributing to Science Gossip and other Zooniverse projects Briana explained:

My involvement with Science Gossip is an adventure in serendipity. Darren McRoy, Zooniverse’s community builder, gave me a nudge to go check out some of the newer Zoo projects, among others I ended up on Floating Forests, and in one of their blog posts, they asked for help in improving their pipeline for selecting coastline images for classifications. […] I wrote an algorithm that improved the pipeline […]

Briana’s work on Floating Forests led that team to reprocess their data and dramatically speed up the project. While this reprocessing was underway, Science Gossip launched a beta test. Briana noticed that there were a lot of text-only pages in this project—another opportunity for an algorithm!

I thought ‘There has to be a good way to filter out all these pages, text recognition is a well developed field…I bet I could write something to filter these so the project can be more efficient.’

And she was absolutely right –Thank you Briana and all Zooniverse users who go above and beyond to help us improve our projects! The collaborative spirit of this community continues to benefit all of us in ways we never expected. We hope everyone is benefiting from the reduced noise in the Science Gossip dataset and would love feedback from our users on the impact of the filtered pages.

Trish Rose-Sandler, Data Analyst, BHL and Data Projects Coordinator, Missouri Botanical Garden

Citizen Science Uses Art to Unlock Scientific Knowledge

Since the release of Science Gossip a little less than a month ago, 3,600 volunteers have enthusiastically completed 160,000 classifications of natural history illustrations from the pages of 19th century science periodicals! As a result, the periodicals Recreative Science and Midland Naturalist are now fully classified and both the Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology and the Intellectual Observer are nearly complete (approximately 80%).

Science Gossip Periodicals

Science Gossip Periodicals

Volunteers have identified illustrations from a wide variety of topics, from Barnacles transforming into Geese to Egyptian Village Life to a plant called Vegetable Sheep, all of which demonstrate the diversity of domains covered in these 19th century science periodicals.

Barnacles into Geese

Barnacles transforming into Geese. Magazine of Natural History. v. 5 (1832).

Some of the illustrations volunteers have discovered relate to other Zooniverse projects such as these gems:

Egyptian Village Life.

Egyptian Village Life. The Intellectual Observer. v. 7 (1865).

Furthermore, within the first week, one of the volunteers managed to uncover the background image we use for the Science Gossip website!

Talk has been very active with questions about the best way to classify. Based on regularly recurring questions from users we have begun an FAQ, and this list will grow over time. If you have a question you think should be added to the FAQ, please post here.

Vegetable Sheep.

Vegetable Sheep! The Intellectual Observer. v. 11 (1867).

We are in the process of uploading new content and are looking to reduce the number of blank and text only pages that volunteers have to weed through to get to pages with illustrations. Algorithms that can help automatically identify pages with text are being tested, although they are not 100% accurate. Stay tuned for progress and we look forward to seeing what other illustrative treasures our volunteers will unearth over the next month!

Trish Rose-Sandler
Data Analyst, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Missouri Botanical Garden

Piecing Together the Story of a Female Naturalist through Victorian Journals

Since the launch of Science Gossip on March 4, 2015, we’ve had an overwhelming response from contributors! Over 3,000 people have added over 140,000 classifications to the pages of Victorian periodicals available through the project.

Riding Crocodile

“On Riding on the Back of a Crocodile.” Magazine of Natural History. v. 2 (1829).

One of our favorite outcomes have been the incredible insights and discoveries Science Gossip contributors have shared with us. For instance, @SiobhanLeachman shared on Twitter her discovery that you can find live bats and frogs when you dig coal shafts! Or how about jules’ discovery of an 1829 article about riding on the back of crocodiles?!

There are countless more discoveries to be made in these fascinating historic natural history articles. Sometimes, it is by combining information across multiple Victorian journals that we can uncover the most impactful stories. Case in point? The amazing contributions of fossil collector and naturalist Mary Anning, whose discoveries (sometimes credited to her, sometimes not) are documented within 19th journals, including some contained within the Science Gossip project: the Magazine of Natural History and the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London.

Mary Anning: The Woman Naturalist

Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap outcrop in the background, Natural History Museum, London. This painting was owned by her brother Joseph, and presented to the museum in 1935 by Miss Annette Anning.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, in the seaside community of Lyme Regis, in the south of England. From the outset, she had an eventful life; she was named after an older sister who perished in a house fire, and at the age of 14 months, young Mary was the sole survivor of a lightening strike that claimed three members of her community. Her father, Richard, was a cabinetmaker, but also a fossil collector who sold his finds to the visitors of Lyme Regis beaches. When he died in 1810, the Anning family fell into debt. It was in 1811 that Mary’s older brother Joseph found the skull of a “crocodile” in the cliffs near their home, prompting Mary to investigate further. Nearly one year later, she had located the complete skeleton and hired help to free the fossil from the cliff. This specimen is usually considered the first Ichthyosaurus to be found (although reexamination of the historical record shows that other specimens were discovered earlier), and its description and image were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1814. Noticeably absent from this paper is any credit due to Mary Anning or her brother.


Image of Mary Anning’s Plesiosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 1.

Mary sold the famous Ichthyosaur skeleton for a handsome sum, following in her father’s footsteps and quickly becoming the family breadwinner. In December 1823, Mary’s next major discovery came to light; it was the nearly complete Plesiosaurus described in the Transactions of the Geological Society of London; once again, Mary Anning is not credited by name in the paper.


Image of Mary Anning’s Pterosaur from Transactions of the Geological Society of London. ser. 2 vol. 3.

It is around this time that Mary Anning became an object of fascination to the scientific community. Visitors came to Lyme Regis to meet her, including scientists and collectors from around Europe and the United States. The next decade continued to be a productive one, as she found the first Pterosaur ever discovered in Great Britain; the flying reptile captured the public imagination and her fame spread outside of scientific circles, possibly because she was named in the paper. She also unearthed more complete Plesiosaur and Ichthyosaur specimens, correctly identified coprolites as fossil feces, discovered a remarkable fossil fish named Squaloraja, a creature illustrating the link between sharks and rays, and found specimens of the invertebrate Belemnosepia with intact fossil ink sacs, containing viable ink that could be used for drawing. By the late 1820s, Mary’s work was recognized and her new discoveries often published by William Buckland, the great geologist who described the bones of the giant reptile he dubbed Megalosaurus, which we now recognize as the first published description of a dinosaur.

Mary’s fame continued to grow, and she continued to operate her fossil shop in Lyme Regis, selling significant specimens to scientists, collectors, and museums. In 1838, she was recognized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science with a special yearly stipend of £25. In 1846, the Geological Society of London arranged further funds for her welfare. Sadly, in 1847, Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47. She was honored with an obituary published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, a particularly remarkable tribute given that the Society was not open to women at this time.

Anning Letter

Mary Anning’s letter to the Magazine of Natural History. n.s. vol. 3, 1839.

Despite Mary’s significant contributions to science, there is only one item known to be authored by her in the published literature, a letter she wrote to the Magazine of Natural History, published in 1839.

As the world celebrates Women’s History Month in March, we salute one of history’s often-overlooked early women in science. Piecing together Mary Anning’s contributions to the field through Victorian journals demonstrates the important historical, not to mention scientific, value of these periodicals.

What discoveries will you uncover as you page through the books on Science Gossip? With your help, we may be able to uncover new insights into unknown authors and illustrators – like Anning. There’s a vast treasure trove of information just waiting to be unearthed!

Rebecca Morin
Head of Research & Instruction, Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library
With Contributions By:
Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Citizen Science Now and Then

Science Gossip investigates the making and communication of science in both the Victorian period and today. This project is born from a collaboration between an Arts and Humanities Research Council project in the UK, called ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ (ConSciCom) and the Missouri Botanical Garden who are providing content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (

The BHL has digitized millions of pages of historic literature on biodiversity from the 1400s to today. Hidden within these pages is a treasure trove of illustrations that you can help identify and classify. The data you create by tagging illustrations and adding artist and engraver information will have a direct impact on the research of historians who are trying to understand why, how often and who made images depicting a whole range of natural science topics during the Victorian period.

In this post, Dr. Geoffrey Belknap, historian of Victorian Science, explains the links between scientific investigation in the past, and the work of Citizen Scientists today:

Victorian Periodicals are endless fun. They are loaded with odd stories and illustrations made by people whose contributions are not widely recognized, but whose work was important nonetheless. Unlike books, periodicals were usually bought, read and then discarded, unless they were purchased by a library and preserved for posterity like those in the BHL collections. While many of the volumes I study are held in public libraries, sometimes they reveal traces of past readers. One day, while perusing a periodical, I encountered a fern specimen pressed between the pages of two issues. It was placed there by an as yet unknown (and likely never to be known) collector. For a historian of periodicals, this is treasure indeed!

2014-07-17 13.28.50Periodicals are notoriously bad at retaining traces of their readers – or, in this case, users. The placement of the fern on a page – incidentally entitled “A Thing of Beauty” – acts as a reminder for me in my research. These texts and the past that they represent are three-dimensional: they held knowledge in terms of articles and illustrations, but readers could add to this by using the pages of periodicals to their own ends.

The periodical containing the fern is called Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature, and–as you’ll have guessed–it is the inspiration for this project. The aim of Science Gossip, then as now, is to bring together a range of people eager to engage with scientific discovery and research. The most enticing aspects of Science Gossip, for both Victorian and modern readers, are the illustrations dotted across almost every page of the journal. What a reader could see on any given page ranged from Diatoms to imagined 17th-century apes, and everything in between.


The illustrations constituted an essential part of Science Gossip’s appeal, which in turn encouraged a wide range of contributors. Over a 15-year period – beginning in 1865 when the periodical was founded – Science Gossip published work by over 550 individual authors. Finding out more about the social, economic and scientific position of these authors will be a central part of my research over the next three years. One of the challenges I face is that the authors for Science Gossip are largely unknown. Help me and my collaborators at Zooniverse and the BHL unlock these illustrative treasures.   Let us know who created them, their subject matter and any particular species and other information they portray. Your work will help us understand what constituted a nineteenth-century citizen scientist, and indeed a twenty-first century citizen scientist!

This is the first Zooniverse project where citizen scientists are both the researchers and subject of the research. Citizen scientists of today can have a direct impact on how we understand historical and modern notions of what it means to do science.

Geoffrey Belknap, Postdoctoral Research Assistant for Constructing Scientific Communities and historian of Victorian Science, Visual Culture and Periodical History

Trish Rose-Sandler, Data Analyst, BHL and Data Projects Coordinator, Missouri Botanical Garden

Victoria Van Hyning, Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, Zooniverse