Digital Humanities: Many Approaches

Specimen of Pinus virginiana collected by John Clayton, Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

I wrote in the first post in this series, Digital Humanities is a broad term that describes many different kinds of projects.  In this post, I will look at a few that are germane to the botanical world but not specific to it.  One just getting underway is The Sloane Lab: Looking Back to Build Future Shared CollectionsHans Sloane has cropped up in many of my posts because he had one of the foremost plant collections of the pre-Linnaean era, and most importantly, it is still extant today at the Natural History Museum, London.  Sloane’s specimens from his time in Jamaica have been digitized, as have other portions of the collection including specimens of John Clayton from Virginia, Paul Hermann from Sri Lanka, and George Clifford from his garden of exotics in the Netherlands.  But there are many other important collections that have yet to be digitized or extensively studied.  In addition, there are Sloane’s correspondence and other manuscripts in the British Library, art and anthropological objects he owned in the British Museum, and Sloane items in several other British institutions involved in this project.

Digitizing more of these resources will be a major boost to research on Sloane, a pivotal figure in British science and culture.  His roles as a chronicler of the British colony in Jamaica and owner of enslaved persons who worked on his Jamaican sugar plantation make him important in the effort to decolonize British cultural collections.  The Sloane lab is just one of five projects funded by the British Arts and Humanities Council for five years, with an emphasis on new ways to connect institutions, areas of knowledge, and communities within Britain.  This is the digital humanities writ large, and it will be exciting to view the results, open to all of us online.

A very different project, but also very ambitious, has been going on for several years and has matured to the point that many of its fruits are available, while others continue to develop.  This is the Making and Knowing Project founded in 2014 by the historian of science Pamela Smith of Columbia University.  In her research Smith has (2003) argued for the importance of craft in early modern science.  This work led her to investigate precisely how crafts like metal casting and preparing pigments for paints were done.  She fashioned projects where her students attempted to reproduce close to original conditions in order to recreate tools and materials early modern artists and scientists used.  One major result of this work is a massive website, Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France.  It was built around a translation of a 16th-century French manuscript composed of handwritten entries on medicine, life casting, painting, dying, metal working, printing, and more.  In addition to the translation alongside a digital copy of the manuscript, are over 100 essays on various aspects of the document, including reports on attempts to reproduce the methods it describes.  A recent review of the site by Lan A. Li (2021) of Rice University notes its many strengths, including a “restrained” technological design.  In other words, it doesn’t have a great many bells and whistles so it will not be difficult to maintain and is likely to remain available.  This is something I can appreciate as a number of my favorite digital humanities sites have disappeared due to complex data architecture that didn’t age well. 

Smith’s work has been influential in the education not only of historians but artists, particularly those interested in the intersection between these fields.  This approach is now used in many institutions and one of my favorite examples is the work of a young historian and artist, Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen, who is researching 17th century flower painting by making pigments and then using them to create plant illustrations.  She writes that she used painting as a way to relax from her research, and slowly it became part of her work.  She has even taught online classes in creating pigments from plant material. 

While I am not ready to dive into this world, I can see both its attraction and its value.  Grinding pigments and mixing in other ingredients is not trivial work.  There is a reason few artists do this today.  However, there is still a reason to attempt it, just as there is in mounting your own specimens.  That quiet work allows time for thinking, and for looking at the material aspect of science and craft in a new way.  Here I am purposely mixing art and science.  Both involve close observation, and one of Smith’s key ideas is that early modern craft workers, including painters, were such close observers of nature that this translated into their art.  It was this art, naturalistic plants by artists like Albrecht Dürer, that led to closer observation by botanists and the artists who worked for them.  There is some evidence that Hans Weiditz, the artist of Otto Brunfels’s 1532 herbal, may have been trained by one of Dürer’s students.  This is a beautiful example of one aim of digital humanities projects:  to make such cross fertilization more obvious in the hope of creating new examples of it.


Li, L. A. (2021). Crafting Digital Histories of Science: A Review and Tour of Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. Isis, 112(3), 586–589.

Smith, P. H. (2003). The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.


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


The Harvard Library’s Botanical Illustrations website.

This series of blogs is about connections across disciplines including the digital humanities, a broad field that’s difficult to define.  One area deals with using digital tools, such as those for textual analysis, to explore issues usually dealing with history, literature, and the social sciences.  However, historians of science are getting involved.  Katrina Maydom has traced the use of the word sassafras in British publications over time to track the acceptance of this New World plant in medicine.  I am more interested in other kinds of digital humanities tools, especially those that make images available to users.  Obviously there is a wealth of resources available, but the format varies from site to site, with some presentations much more user-friendly than others.  Among my all-time favorite manuscripts are Conrad Gessner’s two botanical notebooks for his projected book, Historia Plantarum.  They were digitized and are on the Erlangen-Nuremberg University Library website.  The viewer is straightforward to use and allows the viewer to magnify a page and feast on the details.

Suzette van Haaren wrote a blog post recently on physically distancing from manuscripts in the age of Covid-19.  She is studying the Bury Bible at the Parker Library at Cambridge University, but with the library shut down, she uses a digital facsimile to continue her work.  Fortunately, she has a very good one to view.  Movement from page to page is easy and there are several levels of magnification.  van Haaren argues that this experience of the bible is different from, but not necessarily inferior to or less intense than actually being able to see and touch it.  It is a rich experience to enlarge the page and scan across it, to linger on a particular feature without worrying about getting too close to the physical object.  Her research is on the relationship between digital and actual archival material, and she sees physical distance on the screen as different from physical absence:  “The digital facsimile is simultaneously a copy of the medieval manuscript, but also fundamentally a material object of its own. . . the facsimile exists and functions as its own object in a separate space.”  This is an interesting way to think not only about digital manuscripts but about herbarium specimens online.  We tend to consider digital specimens as handy fill-ins for the real thing, available without travel, either across town or across the world.  But like the Bury Bible, a digital specimen can be experienced in ways a physical specimen might not. 

One of the reasons the digitized bible experience is so vivid is the clarity of the image and the ability to easily magnify it.  High resolution images are at the heart of both archive and specimen imaging, but how images are served up to the viewer is equally important.  Recently, I had an opportunity to attend the virtual conference of the IIIF, the International Image Interoperability Framework, a consortium of institutions around the world working to standardize and enhance the way images are presented on the web.  Standardization of metadata and software is the key to allow for interoperability among databases and organizations.    

Elisabeth Fairman, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, told me about IIIF last year; the university was an early adapter of this framework.  In general, this is an art museum and library-based consortium, though at Yale the Peabody Museum of Natural History is participating.  The Discover Yale Digital Content site allows a user to search a number of Yale institutions, including the two I’ve just mentioned.  Typing in Quercus rubra calls up mostly herbarium specimens, but also original art from the Yale Center for British Art and rare prints from the Yale University Library.  What Yale has accomplished is also being done at other institutions.  They are constantly innovating to provide new tools, improve the user experience, and make these resources better known. 

I had learned about the IIIF conference when it was going to be held in Boston in June and had no intention of going since my interest is as a consumer not on a producer of digital assets.  But when the meeting went online—and was free to boot—I signed up.  The IIIF made a point of inviting a general audience and labeling sessions as less or more technical so a participant would pick and choose.  I especially liked a presentation on how museums use IIIF tools, of which there are several, including a viewer called Mirador, which I had heard of and used, but didn’t know its origins.  (Harvard University employs it for its Botanical Illustrations website, see above)  There was also, as a finale, a session called Fun with IIIF, a lightning round of presentations on tools created by developers.  Few would be useful to me but it definitely revealed many possibilities and was, in fact, fun to watch. 

Several natural history museums and botanical gardens are now exploring IIIF, including the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh where Roger Hyam is Biodiversity Data Systems Developer.  There is video in which he explains its advantages.  If it were used by the natural history community it could allow collections to be displayed in a variety ways across institutions.  This is an exciting prospect.  The tools being developed through IIIF would open up many possibilities, including pulling specimens from different collections and examining them side by side.  Eventually, it might also allow for linking to field notes, journals, letters, and other related materials.  Think of the possibilities!  One thing I learned from my IIIF experience is that none of this work is easy.  It requires much technical expertise, computer power, time, money, and most of all, trial and error.  But if the polish with which the conference was presented is any indication, IIIF will produce great things.