History and Herbaria Online


Online Herbarium of West Virginia Wesleyan University

Over the past 15 years vast digitization projects have made the internet a researcher’s paradise, a paradise in two dimensions. Because book pages are relatively flat, as are paintings, these were among the first resources to become richly available online. Pressed plant specimens are also susceptible to flatbed scanning, and many herbarium projects, particularly at smaller institutions, were taken on using librarian equipment and staff. This meant that botany had a leg up on geology and zoology in natural history digitization, though these fields are catching up, at least as far as taking photographs or scans of specimens, though 3-D imaging lags behind.

Making all these resources available on the web in an functional form is a further challenge, especially because “useable” can mean very different things, from simply broadly accessible to linked to other types of related resources so that users in a variety of fields can benefit from them. What I want to discuss in this and the next few posts is what this means for digital herbaria. While in their present form they are useable by botanists and ecologists studying everything from taxonomy to environmental change, they may be almost invisible to other potential users, including artists searching for inspiration, historians investigating our relationship with nature in the past, economists, sociologists, and pharmacists.

As Roderic Page (2016) notes, taxonomists themselves could greatly benefit from linking library and herbarium resources. It would be ideal to be able to click on the reference for the original paper on a species from its type specimen record. Often both are available electronically, and in some cases they have been linked, as in JSTOR Global Plants, where images of over two million type specimens are online, linked to related information in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), Tropicos plant information website, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and journals housed in JSTOR. However, JSTOR lies behind a paywall, even though individual items may also be available on separate free websites. Even when economics isn’t involved, there are obstacles. The Smithsonian’s Field Book Project has put hundreds of notebooks kept by Smithsonian scientists online through BHL. Many have not only been photographed, but transcribed. Obviously, there are many plant species mentioned in some of these notebooks, but BHL doesn’t have links to herbarium specimens. There are some portals that do connect various types of information. For example, the EOL provides access to visual as well as textual resources for species. These often include original research articles, photographs, herbarium specimens, and even botanical illustrations. The Plant List also links to many resources (EOL, BHL, GenBank, etc.) but these must be accessed one at a time, and there is no guarantee that there will be useful information in any particular resource.

In the cases I’ve been discussing so far, the resources being connected are primarily scientific. Even here, there are many herbaria, especially smaller ones, that have unique and valuable collections, but for these institutions, just digitizing the information on the sheets, let alone imaging them, is a massive task that involves equipment, sophisticated software, expertise, and a great deal of labor. Launching a website to provide access to this data, when it is entered, is yet another challenge, and a great accomplishment when it’s achieved. To give one example, West Virginia Wesleyan University (WVWU) has an active herbarium with 25,000+ specimens. It is used in teaching and is available to researchers both at the University and elsewhere. Katharine Gregg, now professor emeritus of botany, applied for an NSF grant with a consortium of West Virginia and Appalachian institutions to digitize their collections. While the grant wasn’t funded, it spurred Gregg to apply for a smaller state grant to fund a similar project for WVWU. The grant from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Division of Science and Research won approval, and the university was able to buy the necessary equipment and then funded student workers to begin digitization and imaging. Now more than half the collection is online through the university library’s website. This collection is valuable for a number of reasons including the richness of its local plant collection, and WVWU’s experiences paved the way for the digitization of other West Virginia herbaria. Thanks to iDigBio, the NSF-funded project to make data and images of millions of biological specimens available on the web, WVWU’s specimens are now freely accessible to researchers and the general public.

However, I would like to argue that this is just the first step in the creation of a rich, multidisciplinary resource including historical and anthropological materials. My vision is quite ambitious, and perhaps even grandiose, but I think it will come and will indicate a new stage in the development of the internet. Before I get to that, however, I would like to investigate in my next post a number of projects that are leading in that direction. They vary in emphasis, aim, and scope, but all deal with linking resources from different disciplines in often novel ways.

Page, R. (2016). Surfacing the deep data of taxonomy. ZooKeys, 550, 247–260. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.550.9293.