ITS and Iowa State Library Build Nest for Ornithological Records

The Avian Archives of Iowa Online (avIAn), a web portal with more than 10,000 ornithological records, celebrated its launch this summer following the collaborative efforts of the Iowa State University Library and Information Technology Services (ITS). 

Believed to be the largest online collection of ornithological records in Iowa, the avIAn project was designed to publicly share documents from notable Iowa ornithologists and other primary source materials about birding in Iowa. The project was funded by the Digitizing Hidden Collections grant through the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

“Hosting this archival material online is useful for a variety of applications,” said Digital Project Coordinator and Co-Principal Investigator for the project Erin Anderson. “Visitors to the avIAn portal can use the records for scientific and historical research. The portal is particularly useful for anyone interested in the history of citizen science and conservation in Iowa, or even as a resource in K-12 classrooms to study primary sources.”

Iowa State Library staff applied for the Digitizing Hidden Collections grant in 2016, and upon receiving the grant later that year, formed a partnership with ITS to create the feather-friendly database. The grant itself funded the labor to digitize and upload archival materials, and ITS was tasked with building the database to house them.  

During the first phase of the project, library team members communicated their vision of how the database would ideally function to members of ITS’ Web Development Team, who produced and fine-tuned the data templates needed. The team also constructed the front-end interface for searching and accessing archival material and the back-end administrative interface for entering and maintaining data. 

“The front-end design work is often the biggest component of our web development efforts, but for this project, it was the back-end infrastructure,” said ITS Information Systems Leader Jeff Sorensen. “The library had a large physical collection dating all the way back to 1895, and we had to create a solution for how it could all be managed.” 

To accommodate the complex needs of the project, the ITS team built cross-referencing capabilities, an export feature, and an interactive map into the database. When a user visits the avIAn web portal, they have the option to categorically browse and search by place, person, bird, or document, or use the general search bar on the home page. The avIAn logo that greets site visitors was also crafted by ITS.

“For this project, we stepped outside our normal role,” Sorensen said. “Normally we create things that are internal. Here, the real audience is people around the world interested in this collection.” 

Phase two of the avIAn project involved library staff selecting, digitizing, and uploading the vast collection. At the core of avIAn are records from the Iowa Ornithologists' Union (IOU), whose own origins go back to 1923 when they began promoting the study, protection, and documentation of birds in Iowa. 

Now complete, the avIAn portal offers easy access to searchable information for anyone interested in birding in Iowa, thanks to the combined efforts of 30 total team members.

“The next steps are to get the word out there that avIAn exists, and to encourage people on and off campus to explore the portal and see for themselves the incredible knowledge it offers,” Anderson said.