San Diego PL Enlists Citizen Scientists as Bug Collectors

When the bug IS the feature, the result may look something like San Diego Public Library’s Catalog of Life @ the Library project. Launched in March 2017, the project provided bug collection kits that could be checked out of the library. Specimens' DNA was extracted and barcoded, and became part of a global database.

LifeScanner kit

We’ve all heard the saying “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” But when the bug is the feature, the result may look something like San Diego Public Library’s (SDPL) Catalog of Life @ the Library project. Launched in March 2017, the project provided bug collection kits that could be checked out of the library. Patrons gathered specimens, preserving them in the provided tubes, and returned them to the library. Specimens were then sent to Canada, where their DNA was extracted and barcoded, to become part of a global database. Patrons could log in online, track their specimens, and see what bugs their fellow SDPL patrons had discovered. The city of San Diego is well known as a hub for life sciences, biotech, and innovation, and Shaun Briley, manager of SDPL’s La Jolla/Riford branch, has led the way for biotech opportunities in the library since he arrived in 2014. Briley, a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker, launched the branch’s Bio Lab—the first biotech lab in a public library—in 2015 and has continued to provide rich STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programming at his branch and throughout the SDPL system, including a number of citizen science initiatives. At a Bio Lab event in early 2017, Briley struck up a conversation with a patron who worked with a local DNA barcode campaign, the San Diego Barcode of Life. He told Briley about his nonprofit’s work with the LifeScanner project—an international citizen science effort led by the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Project at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph, Ont. LifeScanner provides bug collection kits at a reasonable cost, allowing nonscientists to collect specimens where they live and contribute to a global DNA barcoding database, and provides a browsable platform, enabling users to access information for species worldwide. "It just seemed like an obvious thing for the library to do," Briley told LJ. San Diego is considered to be the most biodiverse county in the continental United States, he explained. “It's on all these migratory routes for one thing, and on the other hand it's got lots of different ecosystems in it…. We have mountains. We have deserts. And we have the ocean.... So consequently there's a lot of different species here.” While cataloging the larger species is relatively straightforward, said Briley, there are simply not enough scientists in the field to collect and catalog all of the region’s insect life. “This is why it's a great opportunity for citizen science.”


With buy-in from the library and some financial support from the Canadian Consulate in San Diego to help defray shipping costs, Briley purchased 1,000 collection kits from iBOL, which were distributed throughout SDPL’s 36 facilities. Catalog of Life became the centerpiece of SDPL’s Spring into STEAM programming series. Patrons checked them out as they would any other material, for a period of three weeks; holds were not allowed. The barcoded kits contained four specimen vials of nontoxic ethanol-based preservation fluid, a pair of plastic tweezers, collection instructions, a plastic biohazard bag, a voucher card with the kit number, and a padded mailing envelope. Briley barcoded each vial using the library’s ILS. Collectors were free to explore and gather insects—including spiders, mites, flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes, centipedes, and slugs—in any open space, although the FAQ advised them not to collect in state or national parks without permission. Instructions also noted, “Please exercise caution and commonsense around stinging and biting insects. Use the provided tweezers. Although this is an urban area, please be aware of rattlesnakes.” Like other checked-out material, kits were then to be returned to the library—but not, the FAQ requested, in the book drop. (Although, noted Briley, the vials are fairly indestructible: “It's plastic, it's designed to be shipped. It's hard to break—you [have to] thump it with a hammer to break it.")

LifeScanner app

Participants were invited to register their kits online or via a free iPhone app. They could then take and submit a photo of each specimen, list where they found it, and offer their best guess as to what it was. Additional information, such as “found under a rock,” could be entered in an optional notes field. Collectors scanned the QR codes on their collection kit to record GPS coordinates and the date. While online registration was not required, the app or website let users review their results online once the samples’ DNA was recorded—including whether their sample was unique to the database. "It’s very easy, very user friendly," said Briley. Alternately, users could fill out a form with their specimen information at the library. Briley sent the returned vials back to Canada in batches via FedEx. Once the university receives the specimens, scientists take a small sample of tissue to extract its DNA, isolate the segment to be barcoded, replicate it using a process called PCR amplification, and sequence it using a unique series of the letters CATG, which stand for the nucleic acids that comprise DNA—cytosine, adenine, thymine, and guanine. Once the barcode sequence is complete, it is entered in the Barcode of Life Data Systems database, a searchable repository of DNA barcodes.


Enthusiasm for the project was high, with both adults and kids participating. SDPL distributed all 1,000 kits—some twice, if they came back empty—and patrons returned nearly 1,500 samples. Of those, 304 were barcoded—41 of which were new species, “in the sense,” Briley noted, “that they don't have the DNA barcodes [in the database].” Barcodes are compared to existing entries in the database, and any as yet uncharted sequences “go to a taxonomist [who can] figure…out whether this is a new species unknown to mankind or something that we know what it is but…just didn't have its DNA barcode before."

LifeScanner kit with specimens

SDPL patrons collected their bugs mainly within San Diego county, but also from locations ranging from coastal California to New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New York, and even Puerto Rico, where a specimen of Tipula—a genus of crane fly—was gathered. The program was augmented by a series of bioliteracy talks and workshops held at multiple SDPL locations. According to iBOL, the SDPL project is their largest citizen science DNA barcoding collaboration to date. "People were very interested in this project,” Briley told LJ. “The interesting thing from my point of view is, we often think, ‘What can [the library] provide our patrons in terms of information? What have we got on our shelves that we can give people?’ This is kind of turning the whole paradigm on its head.’” “The San Diego Public Library is excited to offer our patrons the opportunity to become citizen scientists and contribute to the understanding of the diversity of insect life in our region,” said SDPL director Misty Jones in a statement. “The outstanding participation in our Catalog of Life project and the attendance at our Spring into STEAM hands-on events show that our communities are looking for more programming focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.” Briley hopes to find funding partners to continue the project. In the meantime, he has a number of other bioliteracy programs in the works. The La Jolla/Riford branch hosted the annual Citizen Science Expo in 2017, bringing together representatives from more than 20 citizen science projects and a Wikipedia editathon held by the Network of Women in Science. The 2018 Citizen Science Expo will be held at La Jolla/Riford on April 14. SDPL is currently taking part in the City Nature Challenge: San Diego County, which calls on participants worldwide to join iNaturalist, an online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists, to share and log observations of the natural world. The library has partnered with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and California Academy of Sciences, along with the department of Parks and Recreation, for what Briley calls a “bio blitz” event over the weekend of April 27–30 to see what city can record the most species—any living thing counts (last year Houston won). SDPL will hold iNaturalist trainings throughout April. Briley also encourages other libraries to get involved with the LifeScanner project. “You can do it on a small scale,” he told LJ. “Say you've only got a few hundred dollars—you just get whatever that buys you, a hundred kits or something, and off you go."
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