Opening Up Herbaria: Citizen Science

2 Notes from Nature

Notes from Nature website with herbarium transcription projects

It’s almost 10 years since I first read about citizen science in an article by Amy Mayer (2010) on amateur naturalists recording phenology information.  I tucked the idea away as interesting, since I taught nonscientists and saw this as a possible way to engage them in observation.  Today, with citizen science being a buzzword in the natural history collection community, it’s difficult to image that it could have been a novel idea in the recent past (Flannery, 2016).  Mayer writes that the term was probably first used by Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology for projects tracking bird populations.  Ornithology has a strong tradition of respecting and using amateur expertise, but now this approach has spread much more broadly.

At the last iDigBio research conference, there were many references to the use of iNaturalist data in studies on phenology and species distribution.  iNaturalist is a robust platform that allows participants—and anyone can become a participant by registering—to record their observations.  Many use their cell phones or other mobile devices to provide images as well as identification and location information.  There are now so many individuals entering data that researchers can have confidence in this information.  In order to build community, participants can create local groups and share findings in a new form of the natural history societies that were common at the end of the 19th century (Barber, 1980).  In fact, there is an aspiration that iNaturalist and other such sites can lead to a new flowering of natural history, with appreciation for biodiversity and its conservation as central to this trend.  The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has organized a number of these projects.

Another major digital tool that also deals with natural history data and relates directly to herbaria is Notes from Nature, a segment of Zooinverse, which describes itself as “People Powered Research” and hosts projects in many scientific areas.  Notes from Nature is a platform where users can participate in projects to, for example, digitize the information on specimen labels.  On the website there are links to assignments from a variety of different institutions; these can involve anything from insects to salamanders to plants.  In fact, the preponderance of these tasks deal with plants and with transcribing specimen labels.  Right now there are projects listed about plants from the Southeast, California, and Florida.  New York Botanical Garden and Missouri Botanical Garden both have global projects, with NYBG’s focus on historical records.  Just think, anyone anywhere can look at beautiful specimens and transcribe them, thus aiding science and satisfying an urge to know more.  Many herbarium curators have noted that their projects are often completed quickly.  Notes from Nature and comparable sites like the Australian DigiVol have mechanisms for checking the data so the information that’s actually uploaded to portals such the Australasian Virtual Herbarium for Australian and New Zealand herbaria, CCH for California herbaria, and SERNEC for southeastern US herbaria are accurate.

There are also many other ways to get involved in digital endeavors.  The Smithsonian Institution has a transcription center that provides access to tasks dealing with several of their collections, including the field notes of scientists affiliated with the National Museum of Natural History.  The Field Notes Project, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), has been going on for a number of years.  Its results are now available through BHL, which also has other citizen science projects including ones dealing with annotating the thousands of images available through BHL and its Flickr site.  The latter is a wonderful place to visually wander when in need of inspiration or of an aesthetic lift.

I have emphasized sites in the United States, but Citizen Science is a global phenomenon.  The British have herbaria@home and the French, Les Herbonautes.  Besides transcription efforts, there are many environmental monitoring projects, including ones in Japan to measure the continuing radiation effects of the reactor damage at Fukushima after the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 (Irwin, 2018).  In Belgium there has been a collaboration to monitor air quality; about 20,000 people signed on, each paying ten Euros to do so.  The logic for this is that participants would be more committed to sending data if they have an economic stake.  The ubiquity of cell phones makes it possible for even those in less developed nations to become involved, and researchers are encouraging participation in a number of agricultural as well as biodiversity initiatives.  Some worry about the validity of the data and what if anything can be extrapolated from it.  However, the citizen science model, as it is refined, could provide a wealth of important information for science in the future, while also building a more science-engaged public.

Many types of citizen science are sources of free labor for natural history collections.  The large number of senior citizens around at the moment contributes one important pool, and young people doing service projects and internships represent another.  I should also note that such projects compose a small portion of the Citizen Science landscape that also encompasses special interest groups involved in environmental issues and conservation.  Others deal with medical issues.  Broadly, Citizen Science is about members of the public wanting to be involved in scientific issues in order to understand them better and to have their voices heard.  As a citizen scientist transcribing specimens at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, I can attest to it being a great way to become part of the natural history enterprise.


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Flannery, M. (2016). Citizen science helps botany flourish. Plant Science Bulletin, 62(1), 10–15.

Irwin, A. (2018). Citizen science comes of Age. Nature, 562, 480–482.

Mayer, A. (2010). Phenology and citizen science. BioScience, 60(3), 172–175.

Opening Up Herbaria: Outreach

1 RBHE Frankenstein

“Frankenstein” specimen created at Halloween 2019 event at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

One reason I stay fascinated by herbaria is that they are changing so rapidly; there is always something new to discover, especially with the continuing digitization of collections, but there are a number of other intriguing trends as well.  Herbaria are becoming more present on social media, making it easier to find out what’s going on.  I have never gotten hooked on Facebook, but I am a devoted Twitter user, more a reader than a tweeter.  I can’t say that I follow a huge number of herbaria, but I’ve come to enjoy several run by dynamic curators; Mason Heberling (@jmheberling) at the Carnegie Natural History Museum, Jordan Metzgar (@MasseyHerbarium) at Virginia Tech, and Jessica Budke (@UTKHerbarium) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are among these.  Heberling and his coauthors have written a seminal paper tracking the changing uses of herbarium data in journal articles.  He also frequently tweets about a specimen collected “on this date” from the Carnegie Museum Herbarium’s rich collection.  Metzgar is energetic in luring students and the general public into the Massey Herbarium through a variety of activities, including making plant-related Lego models.  Budke lets her students do most of the tweeting, and they write about collecting trips and events like Tea and Scones in the herbarium as ways to lure their fellow students to a place that has become important to them.

Anyone interested in herbaria knows that most people are not, and that’s a problem.  Herbaria are by definition full of plants, so herbarium blindness is just one more aspect of plant blindness.  And herbarium blindness can lead to herbarium closures.  The curators I’ve just mentioned are aware of this, and they are using a number of tools, including Twitter and other social media platforms, to make not only the existence but the value of their collections known.  Many herbaria now have short videos telling about what a herbarium is and why theirs is particularly interesting.  They range in tone from informative to fun, and target various audiences, including children.

The idea of children running around a herbarium might make some systematists cringe, but if young visitors are engaged in activities, such experiences can be memorable and bode well for the future of botany.  In some cases, the events aren’t in the herbaria, but in other venues on site.  A number of botanical gardens and herbaria have staged Harry Potter related events, with presentations on the plants mentioned in the books.  Other activities include making herbarium specimens, from simple pasting specimens on paper for children, to adult classes on how to mount, label, and georeference specimens that could be added to a scientific collection.  Different lures attract different groups.  Sometimes, adult participants become captivated enough to volunteer as specimen mounters or digitizers.  Children might have had so much fun that they can’t wait to go back to the garden or museum.  In every case, participants know more about herbaria than they did before the event.

Craft activities are also used to spread the word about herbaria.  For Halloween, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh advertised:  “Come along this weekend & create a “Frankenstein” specimen with the RBGE herbarium team part. This event is fun crafts, then digitize your creation (+ a touch of info about our specimens & herbaria). Suitable for all ages.”  The image above is a sample of what they had in mind.  I think the “specimen” digitization is a nice feature.  Georgia Southern University’s herbarium tweeted recently that they use leftover plant material that doesn’t get mounted in paper craft projects, reminiscent of the tradition of making arrangements of pressed flowers simply for their beauty rather than as scientific specimens.  This is an old craft that can be directly related to plant knowledge.  As a useless piece of information, Grace Kelly, the actress and Princess of Monaco, made pressed flower arrangements and wrote of how much she learned about plants in pursuing this hobby (Robyns, 1980).

Traditionally, curators have given limited tours of herbaria, though these are of necessity restricted to small groups because of space constraints.  However, tours and open houses are becoming more common, and there are other forms of publicity as well.  At the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia where I volunteer, the curator Herrick Brown and the curator emeritus John Nelson lead monthly botanical tours of the “Horseshoe” the historical center of campus that boasts an array of beautiful trees and shrubs.  They also speak to conservation groups and garden clubs whose members may then follow-up by visiting the herbarium.  I have even seen John Nelson strike up a conversation with two parents visiting USC who asked for directions.  He got them geographically oriented, and then invited them to see the herbarium, after he told them what it was.  With time on their hands, they agreed, and thus John served as an ambassador for the university and for botany.  Now that’s outreach.  John Nelson is also the originator of the bumper sticker “it’s not HIS barium. . .”  Perhaps the best indication of his interest in getting out the word is that the URL for the USC herbarium is, which he was foresighted enough to acquire very early in the internet’s history.

Outreach is also related to the other topics I’m covering in this series of posts—citizen science, k-12 education, and higher education—as herbaria are involved in all of these endeavors.  The next post will be on citizen science, an exciting topic in itself, and even more so when the science deals with specimens.

Note:  I want to thank John Nelson and Herrick Brown for welcoming me into the A.C. Moore Herbarium and patiently answering my many questions.


Heberling, M., Prather, L. A., & Tonsor, S. (2019). The changing uses of herbarium data in an era of global change. BioScience, 69(10), 812–822.

Robyns, G., & Grace, P. of M. (1980). My Book of Flowers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.