History and Herbaria: Digital Humanities Projects


Reconstructing Sloane Website

In the previous post, I discussed the digitization of herbarium specimens. Now I want to jump to what may seem an unrelated topic: the digital humanities, a field that seems to defy precise definition. Most simply, it’s the use of computer technology in the humanities and may involve anything from digitizing texts and doing computerized textual analyses to linking various studies of a historical period across several disciplines such as philosophy, history, and art. One large-scale endeavor is Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University project presenting the correspondence of some of the great minds of that republic, including Condorcet, Franklin, Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo. These are separate projects, but each is available within the Republic of Letters portal. Not only is there correspondence, but also a variety of graphic displays of how these figures related to a host of others with whom they corresponded, including, for example, a map of where Franklin’s correspondents lived. In other words, there is visual support for the idea that these individuals did indeed inhabit a wide-ranging republic united through letters. A rich example of what digital humanities can achieve, the site also links to publications that have grown out of the various projects.

Since all fields are ultimately interrelated, it’s not surprising that some of these websites have scientific content. For example, there is Reconstructing Sloane coordinated by the botanist Charlie Jarvis of the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). It required collaboration among that institution, the British Museum (BM), and the British Library (BL), all of which grew out of Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) massive collections, with the library and natural history museum eventually developing individual identities at separate locations. This is one reason why collaboration is so important. For a particular plant species, there may be specimens at NHM, manuscripts at the BL, and illustrations at the NHM, BM, or BL. In his massive study of the Sloane Herbarium, J. E. Dandy (1958) noted the difficulty of trying to identify handwriting on herbarium labels because the related letters and other manuscripts were in the BL and the specimens in NHM; both were too valuable to leave their home institutions. In the age before easy photocopying, this was hardly a trivial issue.

But for many projects, collections are much farther afield. Specimens alone may be spread over several herbaria. Add to this field notebooks, letters, and articles in long out-of-date publications, and the task becomes ever more daunting. However, as with science itself, it is often a good tactic to begin with a relatively simple system to work out technical difficulties; once a foundation has been laid larger and more complex projects can follow. The British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a prolific author, letter writer, and collector so digitizing his letters and specimens was hardly a simple task. However, it was doable because most of the material was housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he had served as director. A similar project was undertaken at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where the German botanist George Engelmann (1809-1884) had been adviser to the garden’s founder Henry Shaw. This site links not only to correspondence and other papers, but to herbarium specimens and printed references as well. Another successful project involves the work of Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) who was director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta. This website includes his correspondence, specimens, and plant illustrations he commissioned from Indian artists. For a particular genus, material in all these categories can be found with one search. This site could serve as a useful model for other web portals linking various kinds of collections.

Exploring the back ends—the software and coding—involved in such projects, leads to an appreciation for how difficult they are to pull off. I am hardly in a position to discuss this topic, but I know enough to realize the massiveness of such endeavors and their expense. First, scanning or photographing materials is labor intensive, as is inputting the metadata that makes the images scientifically valuable and also searchable. A horde of volunteers seems an appealing solution, but someone has to organize them and control the quality of their work. Then there is the software platform for the data so there is enough metadata for each item that it can be linked to a variety of other items in multiple ways. To create something that works well for a particular project requires extensive coding for customization, even if the basic software is “out of the box.” Software and coding are two large-budget items, no matter how simple the project, and to do such an undertaking well is not “simple” at all. The disheartening thing is that any solution will probably look dated and unwieldy ten years from now.

In early digitization efforts, just scanning items seemed to be a great step forward, and many treasures became available online as a result. Two of my favorites are the Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) botanical notebooks, Historia Plantarum, in the library of the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg University in Germany. These are two PDFs of about 500 and 350 pages each, with each page a gem—a watercolor of one or more plants with notations by Gessner and a number of others. The PDF format means that while the images are available, they are not searchable. There is a massive reference work on the notebooks that has thumbnail-sized images of all the pages and enlargements of some (Zoller, Steinmann & Schmid, 1972). The explanatory text, in German, is rich, both giving the text that accompanies each image and also providing commentary on them. It would be an amazing resource if all this were available online in a searchable format. But there is not a great deal of interest in this from the botanical community because the work is pre-Linnaean by over 150 years, therefore the names are not relevant to accepted plant binomials. However, the information that is noted including uses of the plants, where they were collected, and by whom is a great historical resource.

Such a project could provide an excellent model for what the digital humanities could achieve. It’s value to art history alone would be immeasurable. Gessner’s work dates from the Northern European Renaissance and suggests the attention to naturalistic detail that was evident in the high art of the period. These images are also of value to historians of science because they tell a great deal about what a botanist of that time valued in terms of information about plants. Not only is the plant as a whole realistically pictured, but there are also enlargements of seeds, flowers, and fruits. While the emphasis on flower structure is not as great as it would become from Linnaeus’s time onward, it’s obvious that seeds were greatly valued as were the differences among those from various species. Just the use of magnification is interesting for its time. While Gessner is my dream endeavor, there are many project that have already been realized that deserve note. I’ll describe several in my next post.

Dandy, J. E. (1958). The Sloane Herbarium. London: British Museum.

Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia Plantarum. Dietikon-Zürich: Urs Graf-Verlag.

One thought on “History and Herbaria: Digital Humanities Projects

  1. Pingback: Twitter Activity on Thursday 09 February 2017 – Botanics Stories

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