History and Herbaria: Dream Digital Projects


Nathaniel Wallich Website

In the last post, I discussed portals presenting historical plant collections and related correspondence. Now I want to describe my dreams of future projects. Think of how exciting it would be to map all of the Hooker’s correspondence as well as those of George Bentham, Asa Gray, and John Torrey. The intricacy of such a network would be an amazing display and would, I suspect, reveal previously unexplored connections. Ronald McColl, a librarian, has created network maps of correspondents for the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington (1782-186), and it reveals a rather impressive set of botanical notables including not only Englemann, Gray, and Torrey, but also Jacob Agardh in Sweden, William Hooker, and Alphonse Pyramus de Candolle in Geneva. While Darlington is hardly a major figure in American botany, these diagrams reveal just how broad his network was, and his letter books indicate how hard he worked to develop it—offering to send specimens and publications in return for the same. McColl’s work suggests what can be done to present botany and history digitally.

Europeana is a massive portal that links science and humanities collections in museums and libraries throughout Europe, so searching for example for “iris” can yield links to art, as well as to scientific information on the species, reminding users about the connections among disciplines that many searches reveal. The Digital Library of America may one day provide some of the same power. However, my dream portals would be more circumscribed. For example, Linnaeus’s specimens at the Linnaean Society and other locations linked to the analysis of Linnaean type specimens in Jarvis’s Out of Chaos (2007) Some of the types are illustrations, so they would also be available. And while I am dreaming I’d like to be able to follow that trail to what has happened to these names up to the present day.

The thousands of images created by local artists during the Spanish Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada (1783-1816) headed by José Celestino Mutis are available on a website hosted by the Real Jardín de Botánico in Madrid, but it would be interesting to see how these illustrations are tied to information about the species portrayed. The botany behind the expedition is complex and involves botanists not only in South America and Spain, but in Switzerland and the United States as well. This is an example of an endeavor that would be difficult for more than technological reasons.

I would also love to see work building on the Lewis and Clark material that is already online, thanks to the work of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS) in Philadelphia, which holds an impressive collection of these specimens. In addition, James Reveal and his colleagues have made a great deal of information about the expedition available on the web, including photographs of the plants. If more botanical illustrations of the same species as well as the current literature on them, from for example, the Flora of North America, could be added, the visual, historical, and scientific value of the site would indeed be powerful. The same goes for the John Bartram specimens in the NHM, and in a more unlikely place, the Sutro Library in San Francisco, which holds the 16-volume herbarium of Lord Robert Petre, one of Bartram’s patrons. Several of the volumes contain Bartram plants, some with short notes he added to describe where he found the specimen or why he considered it of interest. At the moment, the Sutro material hasn’t been digitized, but it would be valuable addition to what is available electronically about John Bartram, his travels, his collections, and his economic dealings with British botanists and horticulturalists. If this were tied to images and transcripts of his correspondence with the primary British patron and fellow Quaker, Peter Collinson (1694-1768), and to the art and writings produced by his son, William Bartram (1739-1823), the portal would make a major contribution to American history as well as to botanical history.

It is not only figures of the rather distant past who could benefit from such internet attention. NYBG has created a portal, the Barneby Digital Monograph and Specimen Catalog, with links to both the material the garden’s botanist Rupert Barneby wrote on legumes and to relevant specimens. This is obviously of taxonomic importance, but it also contains important information on how plant science was done in the mid-20th century that can be studied alongside books such as Douglas Crase’s (2004) biography of Barneby and his partner, Dwight Ripley. It serves as a model for other such projects. But what concerns me is the difficulty of meshing resources that have been put online in different formats. The Barneby material was primarily from NYBG, and much of it was digitized for this project, but I again return to the problem of standardization in the handling of digitization. Things are definitely moving in this direction, but it is a laboriously process and that’s why theoretical and technical work in bioinformatics is so important to the future of digital information. It will be interesting to see how things evolve over the next few years. Right now, the emphasis within the natural history collection community is primarily on the scientific value of its collections, but hopefully the viewpoint will become more inclusive. I myself am involved in a project that brings scientists, historians, educators, and literary scholars together with garden enthusiasts to create a portal that will be of interest to all these constituencies. More will be forthcoming on this as the project gets underway later this year.

Brunfels, O. (1530). Herbarum Vivae Eicones. Strassburg, HRE: J. Schott.

de Koning, J., van Uffelen, G., Zemanek, A., & Zemanek, B. (Eds.). (2008). Drawn After Nature: The Complete Botanical Watercolours of the 16th-Century Libri Picturati. Zeist, the Netherlands: KNNV Publishing.

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Sloane, H. (1707). Natural History of Jamaica (Vol. I). London, UK: British Museum.

Sloane, H. (1725). Natural History of Jamaica (Vol. II). London, UK: British Museum.

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