Archive for October, 2017

Herbarium? I Barely Know Him

-By Marly Saunders

Over this past summer, I did research in the W&M Herbarium every day through a green fee grant to develop protocols for digitizing our vast collection of plant specimens.

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If you’ve never heard of an herbarium, you’re not alone. I’ve described herbariums to my friends and family as something like a library for dead plant specimens. Every specimen is painstakingly pressed, dried, labelled, carefully organized by taxon, and maintained in the herbarium. Herbaria may not be glamorous, but they play a crucial role in behind-the-scenes botanical research that can be applied to fields from agriculture to biotechnology to genetics. Universities, botanical gardens, and other institutions all around the world all have herbariums ranging in size from a couple thousand specimens to many millions. William & Mary has a mid-sized herbarium located in ISC 2, with more than 81,000 different plant specimens- and more are added every day. We have the most comprehensive collection of American southeast coastal plain plants, especially of taxa like Cyperaceae (the sedges). Beth Chambers, the curator of our herbarium, has been working on recording and geolocating every plant specimen in the collection into our online database so that the data can never be lost and each specimen can be located and used for research or education with ease.

Up until now, however, the herbarium has had no visual record of the specimens. Delicate plants would be shipped far distances to other institutions for researchers to see our specimens and their label data. Over the course of this summer I bought equipment, created an imaging station, and developed protocols for digitization of every plant specimen. After meeting with digitization experts at the University of Mary Washington, the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, doing extensive research, and testing the system by trial-and-error, I developed a protocol that generally follows the best practices of other institutions like ours but within the constraints of our unique herbarium needs, budget, and time allowances.

This fall, with the aid of these best practices, new equipment, and a team of dedicated volunteers, we are beginning the process of digitization and of putting the images online for access by researchers, students, educators, and the public. I would strongly recommend any aspiring undergraduate plants nerds to check out the herbarium, learn from Beth, and maybe even start volunteering with the digitization project!

October 22nd, 2017


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