Databasing specimens

Herbarium specimens contain valuable information about the distribution and use of plants, and the history and practice of plant collecting.

Prior to databasing, the only way for researchers to access specimen information was to visit the collection or to request specimens on loan. By databasing our collections, this information can easily be made available to a much wider audience.

Although herbarium specimens are primarily the research tools of botanists, they can also be a valuable resource for researchers in other disciplines. The systematic arrangement of specimens within a herbarium supports their use in botanical research, but makes it difficult to extract specimens collected by a specific person, or from a particular time or place. Once databased, specimen data can be easily sorted on any criteria, which greatly facilitates their use in other areas of study. Some of the many and varied areas in which herbarium data can be used are:

  • taxonomy and systematics
  • species diversity and population analyses
  • life history and phenology studies
  • tracking invasive species
  • assessing the impact of climate change
  • conservation planning
  • anthropology and ethnobotanical research.

Databasing specimens also has significant curatorial benefits. By having specimen information available in digital format, the delicate collections can be handled less frequently, and curators can quickly appraise the collection and keep track of loans and exchange.

At the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL) over 90 per cent of our Australian collection and about 15 per cent of the foreign collection has been databased. The majority of MEL's Australian collection was databased during the Australia's Virtual Herbarium (AVH) project. The John T. Reid Charitable Trusts and the Hugh D.T. Williamson Foundation have also provided generous support for the databasing of our collections.

A project to finish databasing MEL's foreign Fabaceae collection was recently completed. In addition to the contribution from dedicated databasing projects, each year curation staff database thousands of specimens received as exchange or donations, as well as foreign specimens that are requested on loan.

The process of databasing herbarium specimens varies from the straightforward to the outright bewildering. Most recent collections are accompanied by comprehensive and legible collecting notes that can easily be transcribed into the database. Many historical specimens, on the other hand, bear very scant collecting details and require detective work to fill in the gaps.

Herbarium staff use a wide range of resources to help decipher or supplement information on collecting labels, including expedition diaries, gazetteers, maps and handwriting samples.

As well as databasing the specimens, we carry out regular quality control procedures to ensure the data has been recorded accurately, and that it conforms to data exchange standards.