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David Ratledge 


Supporting Citizen Science through Libraries

David Ratledge

If you are not already familiar with citizen science, it is a crowdsourcing approach to the collection, interpretation, and analysis of research data for scientific projects via large, diverse, and geographically dispersed groups of individuals that donate time, energy, ability, resources--or some of each--to the effort. Some projects require a little training before participating, but there are many that require little to none. A few examples of citizen science projects include:

  • SETI@home - Donate idle computing time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • Galaxy Zoo - Classify photographs of galaxies according to shape to help determine how galaxies form.
  • Spiders in Your World – Use a smartphone camera to photograph spiders wherever you are and submit them online. This contributes to a better understanding of what kinds of spiders live in which climates and helps track their distribution over time.
  • NanoDoc – Play an online game that helps identify new and improved strategies for attacking cancer with nanotechnology.

Citizen science provides a wonderful opportunity for motivated individuals with a strong interest in science and a desire to contribute to do so in productive and important ways. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for libraries to contribute through the support of their citizen scientist users. Does your library have staff with a science background? If so,  perhaps they could take on a leadership role promoting and educating library users about citizen science, helping them identify and get involved with research projects, and serving as an information resource specifically geared toward citizen science projects. Does your library have (or is planning to have) a makerspace? If yes, then incorporate citizen science projects. Many should be a great fit and will provide your makerspace with greater diversity and broader appeal.

One potential barrier to participating in citizen science is lack of access to needed technology or equipment. Libraries are ideally positioned to help overcome this for their users. At a minimum, citizen science typically requires access to a reasonably good computer connected to the Internet. This is how projects are joined, existing research data is accessed and worked with, or other project-related tasks are completed. Libraries already provide Internet-connected computer access to their users as a matter of routine, so allowing and encouraging their use for citizen science work whenever possible is a great way for libraries to get involved.

Libraries--within budgetary limits--can take this even further by making a variety of other types of technology and equipment available for checkout by citizen scientists collecting and reporting on research data from the field. Some possible examples include GPS units, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, tablets or laptops, digital video and still cameras, weather instruments, and so on. The list of useful items is potentially limitless. Additionally, I expect that plenty of library users not working on citizen science projects will also take advantage of this type of technology and equipment being available for checkout. It is a win for everyone to improve library services in general while helping advance science at the same time.

For additional information about citizen science please see the following:

Citizen Science Alliance


Citizen Science - Scientific American


Zooniverse – Real Science Online


David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Infrastructure at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at 




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