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.
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?
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.
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.