Thursday, December 13, 2012

Citizen Science in the Library, by Allison Scripa

"He sits on the branch a while longer and then..."
is a Creative Commons licensed picture from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Citizen science is a method of conducting scientific research that uses people without formal scientific education or training to gather the data needed for the experiment. In some cases, the data has already been collected and volunteers help mark up it up to make it usable by scientists. This technique helps gather and/or process large amounts of data that would be impossible for one scientist, or even a team of scientists, to gather and process on their own. This is important because large data sets reveal trends that would be impossible to see on a smaller scale. Many citizen science projects focus on some type of environmental monitoring, however subjects can range greatly.

So how does this fit into libraries? Well, we’re all about lifelong learning. Citizen science projects don’t just help the scientists running them; they provide an opportunity for people participating in them to learn something new about their world. Proponents of citizen science believe that participating in these projects may increase a person’s scientific literacy. An understanding of scientific principles and how experiments work is crucial to all of us in order to understand and make decisions about public policy and our own personal health.

Further, citizen science projects generate knowledge. The information collected is often made available to participants or freely on websites. You get to see your contribution to the project along with others from all over the country or the world.

Here are a couple of examples of successful citizen science projects:

eBird A joint venture between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird provides a venue for participants to report and keep track of birds they have seen. This data is made publically available through the eBird website, with dynamic maps, charts and graphs available to anyone interested and provides valuable information about bird populations and migration patterns.

Project Budburst Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Project Budburst has participants report the timing of phenophases of plants—the stages in a plant’s life such as first leaves, fruiting, or leaves changing color. Participants can choose a specific plant and follow it over time (preferred) or submit single observation reports. Data collected is available on the Project Budburst website and reveals changes in timing that may occur as a result of climate change.
Because the goals of citizen science—education, generation, and dissemination of knowledge--align so closely with ours, these projects are “outside the box” as well as a fun way to bring science programming into libraries.

Interested? You could hold informational programs, just telling your patrons that these projects exist, by discussing one project in detail or several projects that are centered on a theme. You could speak about these projects yourself (lots of information is included on their websites) or you could bring in an expert. As an example, if you wanted to talk about some of the bird-themed citizen science projects, you could reach out to your local ornithology club to see if they have someone who is willing to talk about bird watching and a specific project. You could also vary the age groups you target with these programs; many citizen science projects are targeted to children. Many craft projects tie into the environmental themes. This is an easy way to introduce or augment science programming in your library. In conjunction with a program, you could gather resources—both print and online—that will support those participating.

Perhaps the best way to incorporate citizen science into your library is to actually engage in a project. Here at Virginia Tech, we have created a “Citizen Science Challenge” at one of our residence halls. In this particular hall, students are divided into “houses” (think Hogwarts), and are in a competition to win a “House Cup” at the end of the year. For one portion of the competition, teams are participating in 3 citizen science projects over the course of the year. Those teams who submit the most data to the projects earn the most points for their house. Before each project commences, we have speakers from related departments on campus coming to talk about how the project ties into the “big picture” of science and, more specifically, into research at Virginia Tech. At the end of the year, the teams can participate in a poster session competition, for which there are glorious prizes—tours of unique labs and cool places on campus—and of course lots more points! We are in the beginning phases of this project and have yet to see how it will all turn out—but we are very excited. Please feel free to contact me ( to talk more about our program or about other ideas to bring citizen science to your library.

Resources for finding projects:

Allison Scripa is the College Librarian for Sciences at Virginia Tech
. She occasionally tweets @ajscripa

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