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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2014


The Ants Go Marching: Interns' and Librarians' Roles in a Global Collaboration

Dorothy Barr
Ernst Mayr Library -- Museum of Comparative Zoology
Harvard University
Cambridge Massachusetts


AntWiki was created "to provide a wealth of information on the world's ants." The wiki gathers contributions from ant experts worldwide and makes the information accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Part of AntWiki began as the Global Ant Project, GAP, an online bibliography designed to bring together the work of ant taxonomists past and present, with brief biographies and also pictures of each scientist whenever available. This paper describes how five Simmons College Graduate School of Library & Information Science (GSLIS) students worked on GAP and AntWiki, finding and collecting PDFs of articles; posting online those that are out of copyright; searching for and uploading portraits of taxonomists; and creating a page on Antwiki on Human Culture and Ants. The project thus became a collaboration of researchers, librarians and library students to further the world's knowledge of ants, the "little creatures that run the world" in E.O. Wilson's words (Upton 1995).


With the current astronomical expansion of information across all disciplines, the importance of preserving and organizing biological literature, especially taxonomic, geographical and behavioral studies, can scarcely be overstated. Today the Internet has revolutionized the ways in which information can be collected and disseminated, and in particular has made it easy to create online bibliographies that are dynamic and easy to keep updated.

There are thousands of identified species of ants worldwide, and a long history of information (especially taxonomic) about them in the literature. This paper briefly discusses the evolution of Antwiki, a web site created "to provide a wealth of information on the world's ants" (Antwiki 2014), and describes the roles played by library school interns in contributing to it.

Why Ants?

Ants first appear in the fossil record around 100 million years ago (Lapolla, Dlussky, & Perrichot 2013) and today they are among the most successful and ubiquitous creatures on earth (Hölldobler & Wilson 1994). They are often the first insects that children notice, as they watch a tiny ant carrying a huge crumb over seemingly insurmountable obstacles to bring it back to the colony. Then there are the stories and videos, fictional and actual, of swarms of ants overwhelming and devouring other organisms, including humans (e.g., Stephenson 1938; Douglas 1954; Mooallem 2013). Ants are also notable for their social structure. E.O. Wilson has argued that the only truly eusocial organisms on earth are ants, termites, a few crustaceans, naked mole rats, and humans. He notes that all are characterized by living in large groups; division of labor; establishing homes that are defended and from which the inhabitants go out to forage; and intergenerational social organizations (Wilson 2012).

Ants can bite, sting, or squirt; a few species, such as the red imported fire ant, may be directly harmful to humans. Some can be economically important when their activities ruin crops or damage buildings. But other ant species can also be helpful by turning over soil, recycling organic material, defending plants, helping spread seeds, killing crop pests, and in various other ways (Hölldobler & Wilson 1994).

Ants have complex relationships with other organisms as well as with their environments. The diversity of their behaviors is little short of astounding. Leafcutter ants create fungus gardens (Hölldobler & Wilson 2011). Some ants make slaves of other animals (Delattre et al. 2012). Some species "keep" insects such as aphids as livestock (Stadler & Dixon 2005). Others defend plants from other creatures that would eat them; ants on some species of African acacia trees provide an excellent example (Visitacao 2011). Ants are a food source for some animals such as anteaters; others use them for various purposes. For example, some birds, especially corvids, are known to roll in anthills to get the ants to bite them; presumably the formic acid produced can kill parasites (Savage 2005). Other birds such as blue jays pick up individual ants to comb through their feathers to induce the ants to discharge their acid prior to eating them (Eisner & Aneshanesley 2008). Ants are also useful subjects for studies on collective decision-making (Arganda, Perez-Escudero, & de Polavieja 2012; Stroeymeyt, Franks, & Giurfa 2011). They are even models for team sports (Passos, Araujo, & Davids 2013).

There are over 8,800 known species of ants worldwide, and with many more that have not been described. Keeping track of them -- name changes, discoveries of new species and relationships between them -- has never been easy. Originally, taxonomic records were occasionally gathered into print bibliographies, such as Dalla Torre's multivolume work (1892-1902). For over 90 years after that, however, such collections were either regional or local (e.g., Wheeler 1935). In 1995 Barry Bolton published a compendium of all taxonomic decisions for ants worldwide (Bolton & Fisher 2011). This publication was followed in 1996 by A Bibliography of Ant Systematics (Ward, Bolton, Shattuck, & Brown 1996). In 2003 Bolton produced Synopsis of the Formicidae and Catalogue of Ants of the World. All of these were printed.

With the increasing use of molecular methods and high-tech imaging, ant taxonomy has become even more complex. New species are being discovered and established ones are being split, combined, renamed or placed in different groups. The Internet offers dynamic methods of keeping track of the ever-changing information and at the same time making it widely available, eliminating the need for paper bibliographies.

One of the first online bibliographies of ant literature was the brainchild of Steve Shattuck, Philip Ward and Barry Bolton in the mid-2000s. In May 2008, a meeting was held to formally plan for an online listing of the all the ant taxonomic literature arranged by author. The Bolton bibliography was imported and the Global Ant Project -- GAP -- was underway. A second meeting in November 2009 pulled together more ant biologists to collaborate on the project. By 2011, 982 taxonomists were listed, with brief biographies, portraits of them if possible, and lists of their publications with links to PDFs when available.

Along the way it became apparent that a more dynamic way of maintaining the site was necessary and in November 2010 Steve Shattuck of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) demonstrated wiki software that he had been exploring. The plan was to go beyond taxonomy and create species pages for all the ants of the world. In 2012 Antwiki was formally launched and GAP was incorporated completely into it.

Antwiki (Figure 1) envisions a home page for every ant species that will include text, data, and images that will be available to anyone interested (Antwiki 2014). The About page emphasizes the global scope of the project, the openness of the formats, the use of images and graphics (free to use but copyright remains with the owner), etc.

Figure 1. Antwiki home page.

In 2011, the author had been working with ant researchers at Harvard for some months on GAP, the original project (see Figure 2 for a sample page), but it had been growing rapidly. GAP was also becoming increasingly popular; by 2011 it was receiving around 300,000 hits from all over the world and from almost every country (190 of ~193 at the time). The need to find and scan literally hundreds of articles was clearly beyond what one librarian with many other duties could handle.

Figure 2. Sample page from GAP.

Enter the Interns (aka the "Anterns")

In spring 2011, the Simmons Graduate School of Library & Information Science (GSLIS) inaugurated a class based around internships, LIS 501. A prerequisite was that students had completed all their requirements, so that they were nearing the ends of their programs. The internship was described as a "significant hands-on learning component designed to give the students experience in the information environment." Interns were placed with sponsoring librarians from around the area and in a wide variety of positions. Some went to public libraries, some to corporate, and some to academia; there were also interns in non-traditional positions. The class was so successful that in the academic year 2013-14 a required capstone course was initiated in which students could choose to do internships or write theses; it is expected that most will probably choose internships.

The only requirements for the internship were familiarity with the Internet and with basic technologies. Experience with scanning, use of software such as Adobe, or sophisticated database searching skills were desirable but not necessary as long as the student was interested in learning. Subject knowledge was not required and, in fact, none of the interns had science backgrounds. Communication and writing skills were important for this position as the intern was part of a team effort and also needed to be able to write for the wiki.

The first intern to come to the EML arrived in summer 2011 to work on GAP. It was a learning experience for all concerned as we worked to figure out the best approach to the task of finding and scanning obscure articles. We decided to go in order from the beginning of the alphabet by last names of the taxonomists, but very quickly the issue of copyright arose.

Much as we librarians want to make information widely and freely available, we also don't want to break the law or abet our patrons in doing so. After researching the subject of copyright with the first couple of interns and consulting with the entomologists, we compromised. As a result there is a disclaimer on Antwiki's Sandbox/Help page stating that "[t]here is no explicit permission granted for anyone to use Antwiki content elsewhere, for any purpose, unless that information or media is explicitly marked with an appropriate permission/copyright."

Although they used various databases, the one the interns used most was the Thomson-Reuters Web of Knowledge (WoK). Harvard's version includes the Web of Science; BIOSIS; CAB Abstracts; Zoological Record; and MEDLINE. These can be searched individually or all at once, and learning the intricacies requires persistence. The students often had to check citations that they could not easily resolve by double-checking in WoK. This was because many of the citations given had been drawn from sources such as citing articles that may not have been correct or complete. Further, many desired articles were in obscure, defunct and/or foreign journals. Often just deciphering them required a great deal of detective work. Abbreviations were also an issue, one that was aggravated by inconsistency, so that tracking down the correct titles of journals was frequently a challenge. The interns developed lists that they shared with their successors, and they learned to use various resources such as the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers to disambiguate some of the older items.

Although the EML has added many online resources in recent years, much of the collection is older, with many items catalogued under obsolete systems. There are also a large number of reprints on the shelves as single items. Many of the items needed for the Antwiki project were available in the library, but finding them was often a challenge. All the interns responded extremely well and even relished the hunts.

The interns also learned to use the library's BookEye IV scanner and to edit the scans as needed using Adobe Pro software. Three of them also learned the lending process in OCLC to request particularly obscure articles from other institutions via Interlibrary Loan. These are also skills that will be useful to the interns in their future careers.

Of the five interns, the first four worked primarily on GAP, which was arranged alphabetically by taxonomist. They tracked down obscure citations, scanned and uploaded articles, searched widely for missing portraits, etc. GAP then became part of AntWiki which, in addition to listing the taxonomists and their publications, includes species accounts, behavior, distribution with maps and also a section on Human Culture and Ants. Since the scientists who are the drivers of AntWiki are concerned with actual research on ants, this was not an area of particular interest to them. As a result, the fifth intern was brought in to concentrate on that section, which is important in making the appeal of the site as broad as possible. The intern searched various databases both in paper and online and found an astonishing amount of material. She created sections on: Books & Literature, with sortable tables for fiction, non-fiction, children's books, comic books and graphic novels (see Figure 3); quotations & proverbs; and poetry; Movies & Television; Music; Art; Photography; Games and Humor; and Food.

Figure 3. Screenshot of one section of Antwiki's "Human Culture & Ants" page.


GAP and Antwiki provided an ideal opportunity for library-faculty-researcher collaboration, and incorporating interns proved to be a win-win situation. The interns contributed to the project by:

All these tasks have been invaluable to the project, and could not have been done by the librarian alone. In fact, the interns' work resulted in the majority of citations in GAP and Antwiki having links to PDFs; the librarian continues to provide PDFs as requested but the bulk of that work has been done and the Antwiki internship has finished. The ant biologists around the world will carry on with Antwiki, with help as needed from librarians.

The interns, in turn, benefitted by gaining experience working in a major research university, learning new skills, and being part of a worldwide effort to make information about ants both available and findable not only to researchers but to anyone interested. And many people are interested; in its first two years Antwiki received over 3 million hits, and it is currently running about 4 million hits per year. The Anterns can be proud of their contributions.


All the interns worked hard and even put in time beyond the required hours. In order of their appearance in the EML they are: Chorong Lee; Kristin Parker; Christopher Glass; Marie Hviding; and Katherine Bartolomea. Antwiki at Harvard is steered by Dr. Gary Alpert, now officially retired but still with an office on campus and working on Antwiki and ant research around the world. Dr. David Lubertazzi and Stefan Cover of Harvard's Entomology Department were also immensely helpful and they, Dr. Alpert and other staff members made the interns feel welcome and important, as indeed they were.


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