HerbScans Streamline the Use and Preservation of “Flat Plants” at the National Herbarium of Canada

For the past few months, we’ve been getting to know (and love!) our new HerbScans— fabulous inverted, large-format scanners—here at the National Herbarium of Canada. They represent a new step toward our goal of capturing and archiving high-resolution images of all our plant specimens, and serving them online to everyone who cares to take a look.

As a start, we’re scanning our 600 000+ vascular plants and macroalgae—the biggest, flattest, lowest-hanging fruit in our botany collection—in hopes that imaging technology will advance sufficiently in the meantime to address our need to efficiently capture microscopic details of our 500 000 tiny, 3D lichens, mosses and microalgae.

Two specimen images.

Enlargements of these specimen images—one collected by our current botany research team (river beauty, or Chamerion latifolium, at left), and one collected almost 100 years ago (alpine arnica, a.k.a. Arnica angustifolium, at right)—are on display in the Flora of the Canadian Arctic exhibition at the museum’s exhibition building in Ottawa. Collecting and sharing specimens are what the National Herbarium, and the museum’s research initiative, the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska, are all about. Image: Paul Sokoloff / Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

The public can already see the stunning resolution of our scans by looking at the large-format prints currently on display at the museum in Flora of the Canadian Arctic. Visitors sometimes can’t help touching the pictures of the plants’ delicate flowers and intricate root systems to make sure they aren’t real!

Why else are specimen images SO fantastic?

A woman stands at an open cabinet containing herbarium sheets.

Tera Shewchenko, a University of Ottawa co-op student, searches herbarium cabinets for specimens from York Factory to be scanned for a researcher in Manitoba. The digital image will save travel and shipping costs that would have been incurred by a visit to the collection or the shipping of a specimen loan—not to mention the reduction of risks to the specimens. Image: Canadian Museum of Nature

1. They reduce the risk. Handling specimens and sharing them by sending them through the mail exposes priceless treasures to risk. It’s worth the risk when it’s necessary, but with images, it’s necessary less often.

2. They are convenient. We can look at many different subsets of specimens without having to open cabinets or find the space to lay them out.

3. Machines like them too. We can use optical character recognition to extract information from the labels for analysis, which could accelerate our effort to database specimen information in the future.

4. You tell us. Digital images allow people all over the world to explore our collection for themselves. Our specimens are routinely accessed by scientists, students, historians, artists and enthusiasts, through visits to the collection or specimen loans. Each has his or her own reasons to be grateful for the chance to share the stories these specimens tell. When our growing database goes live online later this year, it will be like flinging the herbarium door open to the whole world. We’d love to hear about what you find here to fascinate you.

So once we have an image of a specimen, will we still need the specimen? You bet!

1. You can’t extract DNA from an image. Relatively recently in the more-than-400-year history of herbaria, technology was developed that allows us to extract DNA from herbarium specimens, in order to explore the history and nature of plant life. Who knows what technology will develop next?

2. Some features can’t be seen in the image. Researchers still rely on microscopes, chemical reactions, cross-sections, and other tests in order to answer many of their questions. Plus, an image shows only one side of the specimen—what if someone wants to check the other side?

3. Specimens change through time. Over the years, specimens are sub-sampled, annotated and/or restored. A single snapshot can’t capture the dynamic nature and appreciating value of botanical specimens.

4. Nothing trumps concrete evidence. There are moments when all of us (but especially scientists) can’t settle for someone’s word for it. Besides—a picture of a specimen collected by Hudson’s Bay Company adventurers is handy for sharing, but thrilling opportunities to spend time with the real thing will always be a museum specialty.

A woman places a herbarium sheet in a scanner.

Herbarium technical assistant Laura Smyk arranges a specimen—approximately her 3300th since joining the scanning team—under the inverted HerbScan scanner. Image: Canadian Museum of Nature

Our HerbScans hum away every day, with staff and wonderful museum volunteers—bolstered for the summer by spectacular students—at the controls. For now, we’re prioritizing specimens required for our Arctic Flora project and for specimen loans: when better to grab an image of a specimen than when you’re about to let it out of your sight for a few years?

The same growing team also works to properly archive and serve images on the Internet by copying basic information (for example: species name, province of collection, collection date…) from the specimen labels into our database. With enough time and teamwork, we’ll image what 250 years of collecting generated before the existence of scanners and databases, and still keep our stride in building, preserving and sharing the magnificent resources of National Herbarium as we roll on into the future.

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9 Responses to HerbScans Streamline the Use and Preservation of “Flat Plants” at the National Herbarium of Canada

  1. Thanks for the interesting update on your scanning project. I came across this while doing some research for a school tour to the George Pegg Botanic Garden in Alberta. George Pegg submitted specimens to the Canadian National Herbarium in the 1960s. I’m excited about how your project may help us look into the national collection.

    • Jennifer Doubt says:

      Thanks for saying hi, and for entrusting these nice specimens to the care of the National Herbarium. We (along with all who draw on the collection!) are grateful for the specimens contributed from all across Canada – especially for those, like George Pegg’s, that have compelling recorded stories of exploration, discovery and contribution to augment their tremendous scientific value. Best wishes for successful fall events and planning for next season!!

  2. Pingback: Our Collections Online: Opening Up Canadian Museum of Nature Collection data to the World | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  3. Mohamed Hatim says:

    I’m really impressed with what you did, congratulations for this great project. I was searching the internet for the best scanners for making herbarium sheets photos. I really like what you did in this project. I’m working on a similar thing in my college herbarium and I’ll be glad if you suggest good scanners for making such a thing and what would be the best setup to do so?
    Thank you in advance for your response 🙂

    • nature says:

      Hi Mohamed, here’s a link for the specs recommended by JStor plant science http://about.jstor.org/sites/default/files/misc/HerbScan.pdf

      We use the herbscan units, ordered from Andrew McRobb (herbscan@mac.com)

      Prior to purchasing the herbscans (which were pricey), we used essentially the same scanner in a traditional upright configuration, which required that we invert the specimens on the scanner window. The images were good, but it was bad for the specimens and also resulted in more debris and scratches on the window.

      • Mohamed Hatim says:

        Many thanks for the response, I appreciate it. The specs you’re using are of high quality indeed. I’ll try to find my way to get these specs. Thanks again 🙂

      • Andrew McRobb says:

        Hi Mohamed,
        I just came across your interest on the Herbscan. I invented this machine 15 years ago and they are now all over the World. The machine produces very high quality images at 600dpi the on screen image is 6x life size. It’s possible to scan a full A3 sheet at 1600dpi and details at 2400dpi this gives about 16x and 24x over life size images.
        Let me know if you need any more information.
        Andrew McRobb

  4. nature says:

    Hi Mohamed, thanks for your kind words. Your question has been submitted and an answer will be posted as soon as possible.

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