The Plant Humanities Lab

Figure adapted from the Biodiversity Collections Network’s 2019 report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I’m interested in herbaria writ large, that is, how they relate not only to areas of biology beyond botany, but to the arts and humanities.  That’s why I’ve delved a bit into the field of digital humanities and how it might enrich the herbarium world.  From what I can gather the term digital humanities covers a lot of territory, but all related in some way to harnessing digital technology.  This can range from textual analyses such as tracing the frequency of use of a term in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to creating an online archive that brings together all her poems.  There’s also a great deal of work on developing new tools for visualizing social networks, linking different types of information, and creating new forms of communication.

In many cases, the humanities are doing much the same thing that the natural history community is doing:  using digital tools to not only make resources available online but to provide tools to use these resources in powerful and creative ways.  The problem is that the two are working in separate spheres and approaching similar issues in different ways, suggesting that the two cultures of C.P. Snow (1959) survive into the 21st century.  Snow (1905-1980) was a physical chemist and novelist; functioning successfully in the two spheres allowed him to appreciate what divided them.  Since he wrote, a great deal of work termed “interdisciplinary” has attempted to bridge the divide that Snow saw as dangerous, with each side unable to appreciate the other’s perspective.  Yet the problem remains.

My pet example is one that I’ve brought up here before.  What is coming to be called the Digital Extended Specimen is the vision that eventually a natural history specimen can be linked to many other types of information including species’ genome sequences, ecological data, field notes, field images, phylogenies, etc. (see figure above).   The focus in these conversations is on various scientific databases linking to each other.  This is a massive job and one that is just beginning.  But what I would like to see, even at this early stage—particularly at this early stage—is to make the job more massive by building history and art collections into the infrastructure.  Now is the time to do it, when frameworks on both sides are still being developed and haven’t yet become so complex that adaptation becomes almost impossible.  The FAIR principles for scientific data management could also apply in the other areas, making digital objects:  Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. 

While I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of two realms unable to talk to each other, there are some wonderful projects that do link science and the humanities in interesting ways.  In the botanical world, perhaps the most notable at the moment is the Plant Humanities Lab, a joint project of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and JSTOR Labs.  This grew out of what could only be termed a summit at the library that included botanists, historians, librarians, and technology experts.  They outlined a series of different approaches to linking botanical, historical, and cultural resources (see video).  This was just a set of ideas, and over the next few years the library and JSTOR developed a plan and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Plant Humanities Lab. 

The lab’s first manifestation was a set of narratives on such plants as boxwoods, watermelons, agaves, and bananas.  Each gives a well-written introduction to the species and outline not only its biology but its social history as well.  The narratives, richly illustrated, often with art from the Dumbarton Oaks collection, have hyperlinks to more information on everything from species descriptions to food, gardening, and colonial exploitation of crops and medicinal plants.  They do indeed connect history, art, and science, revealing how these are inseparable from each other.  These are wonderful stories for those interested in delving deeper into particular aspects of a plant.  One thing that becomes clear is that the history of plant use by humans is a long and winding road, sometimes stretching back millennia, with many problems along the way including the difficulties of breeding plants wrested from their native soils and brought to very different climates.  Then there was the use of indigenous knowledge about plants without in anyway acknowledging it and with no benefits to those who provided it.  In addition, there are the intriguing characteristics of so many of these species.  The subjects seem to be chosen carefully to provide many paths to different kinds of information in order to attract a variety of audiences who can explore them in their own ways. 

It’s obvious when using this site that it has a sophisticated framework.  Created by JSTOR labs over several years, the wonderful thing about it is that this digital tool is open access and now available to users as Juncture in the Beta version.  It does involve some knowledge of coding and accessing needed tools from GitHub, so this will pretty much eliminate people like me from using it.  However, we can still benefit from the sites created by those who do use it, and from the continuing development of new and more sophisticated plant narratives.  One problem with Juncture is that is allows linking to so many different kinds of information that there are endless rabbit holes to fall into, but each is just another wonderful aspect of the plant world.  Also it can be used to create narratives on any subject.  JSTOR is developing it as a tool of the future for education and research.

Reference

Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

4 thoughts on “The Plant Humanities Lab

  1. Pingback: Plant Humanities and Decolonial Collections | Herbarium World

  2. Pingback: Digital Humanities: Many Approaches | Herbarium World

  3. Pingback: Plant Digital Humanities | Herbarium World

  4. Pingback: Cut Flowers and Botanical Speculations | Herbarium World

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