IU Herbarium goes digital


Applying glue to a dried and pressed plant specimen.
Specimen mounting requires archival quality glue and 'old school' sensibility of what constitutes a good herbarium specimen. Photo by Emily Sterneman

The IU Herbarium was established in 1885 as a research museum that now holds over 150,000 dried, pressed plant specimens mounted on large sheets of acid-free paper with attached labels that record the original collection information, any subsequent taxonomic changes, and indicators of additional research done with particular specimens. Half of the specimens were collected by Charles Deam, who wrote the Flora of Indiana in 1940, and the rest were collected by IU faculty and graduate student researchers during the past 130 years.

In the past, specimens were sent on loan from one herbarium to another, or botanists would make extended visits to herbaria in order to study the specimens and record the collection information, which would then be synthesized in published floras or research articles. Technological advancements in computing and digital photography now allow us to unlock this vast storehouse of information and make it publicly available in ways that are useful to scientists, students, and the general public.

Associate Curator Paul Rothrock and Director Eric Knox of the IU Herbarium have already completed the first three years of a five-year project designed to complete the IU Herbarium Digitization Project in advance of IU’s Bicentennial Celebration.

Rapid advances in plant molecular systematics have resulted in many taxonomic changes as researchers determine precise relationships among species in the great ‘tree of life.’ During the previous centuries, botanists had developed a good classification scheme of species in genera, genera in families, families in orders, etc., as part of the taxonomic system developed by the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. This general understanding, however, was depicted more as the great ‘cactus of life’ because the fine details of relationships could not be determined.

The final stage

When all the label information is entered into the database, we will turn our attention to the final stage, which involves estimating the geographic coordinates of the site where each specimen was collected so that the information can be used in map-based applications. Botanists today routinely carry a geographic positioning system (GPS) unit in the field so that they can record the GPS data on the specimen label. Previously, the only option was to provide a written description of the site (e.g., 10 miles north of Bloomington on State Road 37), and there is an online locator system (GEOLocate) that accepts written descriptions and provides estimated coordinates; however, this work needs to be done carefully with a clear sense of place and time. In Charlie Deam’s day, 10 miles north of Bloomington would have been on the two-lane road that is now called Old State Road 37, not the 4-lane divided highway that comes to mind today (and which will eventually be renamed Interstate 69).