Why Don’t You Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer! The Digitization Process for a Historic Herbarium

Today’s blog entry by Jessie Peragine, Natural History Curatorial Assistant at The Charleston Museum.

The Charleston Museum’s first naturalist collection to digitize for the Historic Southern Naturalists Project is the Lewis Reeves Gibbes (1810 – 1894) Collection. A math and natural history professor at the College of Charleston, Gibbes had an interest in botany and marine algae, accumulating an active collection over fifty years. He had a particular interest in advancing the natural sciences in his home state of [Charleston,] South Carolina and had a very active role in the Elliott Society of Natural History in Charleston. One publication from 1835, Catalogue of the Phoenogamous Plants of Columbia, S.C., and Its Vicinity, listed around 775 species of plants. Most of his plant specimens were collected from South Carolina and most algae came specifically from the Charleston area.

The Historic Southern Naturalist Project will include the digitizing of Gibbes’s personal herbarium specimens and documents that were donated to the Charleston Museum. The endless possibilities of today’s technology are actively being used by museums to preserve yesterday’s breakthrough scientific work. If Gibbes were here today and someone explained what a digital photograph and the internet was, it would most likely boggle his mind. But once he saw his herbarium (collection of dried plant specimens) preserved in this way for the world to see he would surely be enthusiastic and happy to know that new generations will continue to learn from what he taught and loved in his time.

In order to get the Gibbes herbarium digitized, we had to create metadata and photographs for each pressed specimen. We needed accurate numbers attributed to L. R. Gibbes’s herbarium, so I searched our worksheets, catalog cards, and cataloging software, PastPerfect – Network Version 5.0E2. Personally, I like collecting data and doing research, so this part was interesting to me #nerdlife. Each specimen was entered or updated in PastPerfect to then be converted into an excel sheet of metadata. The metadata is basically a detailed compilation of particular stats for each specimen. Being that this collection is so old and plant names keep changing, research was done to ensure that all the taxonomic names were up to date. Fun facts on some of the plants were learned along the way; well, at least I thought they were neat.

Screenshot of computer desktop featuring PastPerfect software and internet browser window.
All the windows! Collecting data and doing research can be a messy process.

After data is completed, we go up to the museum’s storeroom to locate each specimen for photographing. All our plant specimens are over 100 years old and much care is taken in the handling of each plant sheet so we wear gloves. Each plant was dried, pressed and attached to a herbarium sheet with an identification label. Our herbarium is located in our temperature-controlled storeroom in individual cabinets made specifically for housing herbarium sheets. These cabinets are controlled environments made to keep out pests, dust, and light, which can all become major problems for an herbarium. Sometimes mold or insects have gotten to a specimen, especially very old ones, and they need to be handled very carefully. Unwanted black mold, as in it wasn’t collected for the herbarium but got there on its own, can be particularly bad for specimens and can be deadly to humans, (quick, turn the sheet and don’t breathe!). Gloves, not just a sciencey fashion statement, are always used to protect the curator as well as the plants from possible cross contamination between specimen sheets. Preservation is always the number one concern, so if a specimen has deteriorating paper or came lose, it was carefully transferred to a new herbarium sheet to prolong the specimens usefulness to the collection. OK, I said preservation is number one, then I guess organization is almost a tie for me. Each specimen is stored in a folder with [20] other plants. The plants are cataloged in numerical order [according to the museum’s catalog number system] within a folder for their respective taxonomic Family, and each folder is then cataloged in alphabetical order. In specific situations such as a historic collection like L. R. Gibbes, they are kept and organized separately from the general museum herbarium. This makes locating specific collections much easier for curators, such as this collection which has around 150 plant specimens.

Lighting setup featuring nikon camera on stand and lit umbrella light with herbarium specimen sat on the table.
We weren’t able to use the lightbox, so we had to come up with something new!

Once all the specimens have been located, we removed one folder at a time and handled one specimen at a time. A lightbox or light stand is set-up along with a white surface and background for each sheet to be placed upon. LED lights are used instead of traditional lightbulbs which have UV rays that can damage the pigmentation of the photosensitive material. Unfortunately, our lightbox was a little too compact for what we needed and the hole for taking photos through would get in the way of the camera lens, causing a blurred, rounded edge. To fix this, we resorted to using a soft white photography umbrella lighting kit to photograph each specimen on a white background which worked much better. A scale bar is placed into the top of the frame for each photo which allows us to see the size of each plant. We have been using a fancy and heavy, D610 Nikon camera that Matt programmed to save each photo as a RAW file and a JPEG file. The RAW file is used for metadata and the JPEG for the Southern Naturalist Project website image and our museum’s catalog in PastPerfect. Once uploaded into the computer we touch-up each photograph with the freeware GIMP 2. And when all our photos look good we upload them along with the metadata to a share site for the McKissick team to finalize the digitization of each specimen into the Historic Southern Naturalist website. For a sort of sneak-peek, The Charleston Museum also has an online catalog for digitized specimens which is located on the museum’s main website.

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About McKissick Museum

Established in 1976, we're located at the heart of the historic Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina's campus. Our collections date back to 1801 and provide insight into the history of the university and the community, culture, and environment of the American South. free and Open to the public Monday - Friday, 8:30am to 5pm, and Saturdays, 11am to 3pm, McKissick has a diverse schedule of exhibitions and programs. McKissick Museum is accredited by the American Association of Museums, operating within their guidelines for the proper care and safekeeping of these historical artifacts.

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