For the past few months, I have been a part of the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ effort to digitize their botany collection. This consists of mounting specimens from the backlog, cataloging the information about each specimen into Arctos, labeling the specimens, scanning them, and finally, integrating them into the collection. This process takes a lot of time and has been underway since 2020 thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). But why are we doing this? Is it really worth all the time, effort, and money?
There are many reasons why digitizing – the process of creating a digital representation of the physical item – the botany collection is important. One reason is that it makes it easier to know what is in the collection when the information is put into an easily searchable database. Before this effort began, many specimens were still in their original pressing papers in boxes of which the contents were unclear. Once each specimen is fully processed and integrated into the larger collection, storage information is entered into its corresponding record in Arctos so that it can be easily found in the future. Through the online collections management system, Arctos, that the Academy uses, researchers and the public also have access to information in the collection that was previously inaccessible.
The herbarium collection contains specimens that date back as far as 1832. Digitizing this collection provides crucial information about the variety of plant species and where they were historically found. The Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are programs through the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that both aim to restore and conserve environmentally sensitive land that was previously used for agriculture (USDA, n.d.). Integrating specimen data from collections like the Academy’s into restoration assessments can improve efforts such as those through the WRE and CRP by providing information about the composition of historic habitats, ensuring reintroduction and restoration projects are more complete and successful.
Local botanist Gerould Wilhelm used herbarium collections, including the Academy’s, in the updated edition of his book, “Flora of the Chicago Region”, to identify native plant species, their habitats, and where they were found. Wilhelm had prior knowledge of the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ collection and came in once a week for two years to gather the necessary information for his book. By digitizing the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ collection, the information within is made more readily available to researchers world-wide who may not already know of the museum’s collection and cannot come to Chicago to peruse the collection in person.
Another way that data on the historical presence of plants can be used is in documentation of plant migration. Plants and animals migrate in very different ways. While animals are able to crawl, slither, swim, or fly to new areas, plants are rooted in the soil and unable to move from their spot. Instead, plants migrate from one generation to the next through seed dispersal. Since plant migration takes generations, it is important to know where plant species have historically been found. Scientists have observed that plants are slowly moving to higher altitudes and closer to the poles due to the effects of climate change (Cross 2023, Trefil 1998).
The effect of climate change on plant phenology (the seasonal cycles of plant life) is another way that digitized botany collections have been used. As climate change moves spring conditions earlier and fall conditions later, the flowering and fruiting cycles of local plant species are changing. While ongoing observations can collect data in the present for phenological studies, scientific collections are crucial to compiling data on the historical patterns of these cycles. The historic data in scientific collections are made more easily available to researchers through digitization (Willis et al., 2017, Davis et al., 2015, Robbirt er al., 2011).
Finally, we just do not know the extent to which digitizing our collection will benefit research. There are so many ways that historic collections can be used for future research that has yet to be conceived of. By digitally preserving our collection, we not only ensure that it is accessible to future researchers worldwide but that, even as time slowly degrades the physical specimens, the images and digitized data of the specimen will be available for generations.
Digitizing a collection and providing data and images online makes this information widely available. Historically, if a researcher were interested in obtaining information about specimens in a museum collection or studying a specimen, they would have to travel to those museums, incurring costs and dedicating considerable time. By providing online access to the collection, the museum facilitates broad access for individuals around the world. Digitizing collections also helps protect the physical specimen from damage. By making a digital image of the specimen available, more people are able to see the specimen without the specimen itself being touched. This helps the museum achieve its mandates for long-term preservation of the collection.
Botany Collection Intern
Charles G. Willis, Edith Law, Alex C. Williams, Brian F. Franzone, Rebecca Bernardos, Lian Bruno, Claire Hopkins, Christian Schorn, Ella Weber, Daniel S. Park, & Charles C. Davis. (2017). CrowdCurio: an online crowdsourcing platform to facilitate climate change studies using herbarium specimens. The New Phytologist, 215(1), 479–488. https://www.jstor.org/stable/90010664
Cross, D. T. (2023, February 9). Scientists are seeking to understand how plants migrate in the face of climate change. Sustainability Times. Retrieved April 14, 2023, from https://www.sustainability-times.com/environmental-protection/scientists-are-seeking-to-understand-how-plants-migrate-in-the-face-of-climate-change/
Davis, C. C., Willis, C. G., Connolly, B., Kelly, C., & Ellison, A. M. (2015). Herbarium records are reliable sources of phenological change driven by climate and provide novel insights into species’ phenological cueing mechanisms. American journal of botany, 102(10), 1599–1609. https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.1500237
Robbirt, K.M., Davy, A.J., Hutchings, M.J. and Roberts, D.L. (2011), Validation of biological collections as a source of phenological data for use in climate change studies: a case study with the orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Journal of Ecology, 99: 235-241. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2745.2010.01727.x
Trefil, J. (1998, September). When plants migrate. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved April 14, 2023, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-plants-migrate-156905950/
USDA. (n.d.). About the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Farm Service Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved April 14, 2023, from https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/