Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cataloging the Herbaria of Europe

At OpenScientist we often think of Citizen Science as a recent phenomenon.  The web-based nature of many projects reinforces this notion...after all, it helps bring many people together and supports the "crowdsourcing" necessary for many projects to succeed.  But much of today's knowledge comes from previous generations of amateurs and collectors investigating the world on their own.  Their legacy exists not just in their discoveries, but in the collections themselves that live on and still have secrets to tell.

A prime example of this can be found in the Herbarium Collections scattered in museums across England.  The island has a wonderful tradition of citizen science dating back hundreds of years, with many wealthy gentlemen collecting botanical specimens for their private use.  All were tagged, sorted, and kept secure in collections that have passed down from generation to generation.  The information and samples are still available, but the cataloging is not.  So we need to help transfer these collections to the digital age where scientists can take further advantage of this historical treasure trove.  And that's where the Herbaria United team and the Herbaria@Home project come in.

This is a Transcription-type citizen science project for entering collector, collection date, and geographic data for the botanical samples scanned by the participating museums.  You don't need to identify the plants...this first step has already been done by the project staff.  But it's all the other data needed to fill out our knowledge about each piece.  Making the project even simpler is the series of drop-down options for each of the data fields.  So even if you have trouble reading the Victorian-era handwriting, you just need to get close and find the closest from those already entered by other users.  All this means that...

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Read all about the project on the Herbaria@Home web page and click on Herbaria@Home: Register.
  2. Watch the Introductory Videos and read the Tutorial Documentation for explanations on what the project aims to accomplish and the nitty-gritty of how to participate.
  3. Click on "My Sheets" to bring up five specimens to catalog.  You can also search for specimens by species if you have an interest in a particular plant type. 
  4. Click on one of you sheets and enter the requested data in the form fields.  Move the image around and zoom in on the collection tags to find all the necessary information.
  5. If you get stuck, note that writing is illegible and flag it for other users to help with.  The sheet will stay in your queue for cataloging while you move on to other items.  Once a fellow user finds the answer just go back to the previous sheet and record the answer.
That's all there is to it!  This will keep the information alive and available for new uses, such as understanding the increase/decrease of certain plants over time.  If you want to do even more though, Herbaria United can help you too.  Just pull up the data collected from users like you, or from other related data sets, and perform your own research.

But nothing can happen until this data has been digitized.  So help both past and future citizen scientists by signing up.  You'll be glad you did.