Digital Circulation: A Different Experience

A reminder that specimens have depth: Pine folders at the A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In the last post, I discussed the digitization of specimen data to make it more available to researchers.  I think it’s important to state the obvious here:  digital examination of specimens is not the same as studying the specimen itself.  To begin with, it is a different phenomenological experience.  Sitting at a table or standing at counter strewn with specimens, gives a sense of being in a particular kind of environment, one with metal cases filled with plants and with the faint order of plant material.  Then there’s the physical experience of a specimen:  touching it if necessary, smelling it, viewing it from all different angles, using a hand lens or dissecting microscope.  These actions enrich observational practice and provide more information about the plant.

Though there are similarities in making an image of a book page and a specimen sheet, printed material is much flatter than a specimen.  Even though the plant material is pressed, it still has depth.  Pressed leaves aren’t completely flat, to say nothing of stems, flowers, and fruits.  Leaf surfaces slope away from veins; spines and hairs stick out from stems; flowers refuse to completely cede their dimensionality; and stems are not lines but columns that can have ridges.  There are complex textures everywhere in plant material, and some sense of that is lost in even the best photograph (Flannery, 2012). 

The argument could be made that some textural information has already been lost in pressing the specimen, and this is definitely true.  However, digitization compounds the problem.  There are new imaging techniques including reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) that give a greater sense of the depth in a specimen by integrating a large number of images.  The equipment and related software are complex, the amount of data generated massive, and the process time-consuming—all translating into unmanageable expense.  This system is now mostly employed on works of art; using it to image millions of specimens is a dream. 

Still, the images now available digitally are of high quality, and while the experience is not the same as examining a specimen in real time, it can often provide the information a researcher needs.  Particularly helpful is being able to study a number of specimens from different sources at the same time; and software is being developed to make this easier.  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) community was originally composed of those in art museums and libraries with the aim of creating better software for accessing and working with images from multiple institutions.  Those involved in natural history collections are now joining this group.  Not only can IIIF improve the way images are accessed and used, but collaboration between art and science institutions could lead to interesting new collaborations.   

Each herbarium uploads its own data and continues to be responsible for it.  In order to contribute to an aggregator like iDigBio or GBIF and have specimens circulate more broadly, data have to be in a particular format.  Curators are now aiming to make their data FAIRfindable in a variety of ways, accessible to a large audience, interoperable in platforms changing over time, and reusable into the future.  Each of these elements hides a host of problems, and to solve them will require continued investments.  Digital assets are wonderful but fragile things; they require as much curation as physical assets and in some cases more.  They have to be protected from damage and deterioration if they are to continue to circulate.  Some web interfaces are so user-friendly that it’s easy to forget the complexity of creating and maintaining them.

There are huge costs involved in digital collections and in facilitating new ways to make them useful with software to make it quicker and easier to query data.  This digital sophistication might seem counterintuitive to those who see natural history as an old-fashioned, outdated area of science.  Also counterintuitive is the idea that simple observation, looking at a specimen, can involve sophisticated technology and issues of dimensionality and phenomenology.  Observation is placed relatively low in the hierarchy of cognitive skills, yet has been recognized as a sophisticated research tool since the early modern period when botanists realized that careful observation was essential for learning about plants.  It was the only way forward in obtaining secure knowledge about a species.  What digital access allows is an entirely new level of observation, the ability to view an image without causing it any physical damage, to access many specimens of one species instantaneously, and to have colleagues in different institutions look at the same specimens in real time.  This communal aspect of digital collections is extremely important; it opens up a new form of image circulation. 

It is a paradox that in order to continue to share earth with such a diversity of organisms, we have to create an in-silico world where we experience nature not even second hand as we would in a herbarium, but removed even further onto a screen where the contact is only through the visual.  This digital world can be as fragile and easy to disrupt as an ecosystem, perhaps even more so.  It is a product of human ingenuity and must be sustained by that ingenuity if it is to survive, flourish, and circulate equitably and usefully.


Flannery, M. C. (2012). Flatter than a pancake: Why scanning herbarium sheet shouldn’t make them disappear. Spontaneous Generations: A Journal of the History and Philosophy of Science, 6(1), 225–232.

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