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ANHC Steps Up to Continue Arkansas Herbarium Digitization Project

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Wednesday, January 29, 2020
by Diana Soteropoulos

In 2018, the ANHC began participating in the Arkansas Herbarium Digitization (AHD) project, part of the larger project “Advancing Digitization in Biological Collections” funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for all United States herbaria. Now, the ANHC has taken on a new role with Botanist Diana Soteropoulos serving as the AHD coordinator.

An herbarium is a library or museum of preserved plant specimens used for scientific study. Instead of books on shelves or plants in pots, plants in an herbarium have been dug up or cut, pressed flat, and dried. They are stored systematically in a temperature and humidity controlled room. Digitization involves taking high-resolution digital photographs of each specimen in the herbarium, entering all of the data from the specimen labels into a database, and linking the data with the images by scanning a unique barcode sticker on each specimen.

By funding two mobile imaging stations, shared among the eight herbaria in Arkansas, the NSF grant helped Arkansas’ herbaria and the SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC) to work toward the goal of digitizing all plant specimens in the southeastern U.S. SERNEC is a consortium of 223 herbaria in 14 southeastern states. The ANHC is a member of SERNEC.

In the summer and fall of 2018, the ANHC had use of one of the NSF-funded mobile imaging stations and during that time, volunteers and ANHC botanists were able to digitize the entire ANHC collection of more than 12,000 plant specimens (the number of specimens has since increased). The ANHC was the only institution in Arkansas at the time to have label data entered for every specimen.

Access to the information stored in the SERNEC online data portal has allowed the ANHC to revolutionize its ability to document the flora of Arkansas. Numerous Arkansas state records, the first documented occurrences of particular species in Arkansas, have been found through SERNEC, as well as new locations for plants of conservation concern. Species new to science (newly described) have had descriptions advanced more rapidly based on having data available on SERNEC. Data obtained from SERNEC is also used to help guide natural resource management and targeting of conservation efforts by the ANHC and its partners. The mobile imaging station, funded by the NSF project, was an invaluable tool in creating the digital files for this portal.

Knowing that the ANHC’s access to the mobile imaging station was limited, the ANHC had already begun the process of acquiring its own permanent station (see Building the Imaging Station) to continue its digitization efforts. As the ANHC prepared to ensure the future of its digitization efforts, the NSF project ended. The Arkansas digitization effort was left without a coordinator, placing the sustainability of the effort in jeopardy. Luckily, the ANHC and its recent hire, Botanist Diana Soteropoulos, were able to save the day.

Fortuitously, Diana had previously worked as the collections manager at Arkansas State University, where Travis Marsico, the NSF grant coordinator for the Arkansas SERNEC project, was her supervisor. In this position, Diana learned about the herbarium digitization process and gained hands-on experience with it. Not only was Diana able to help advise the ANHC as it built its own permanent imaging station, she was also able to take on the role of AHD coordinator in December 2019 and continue the statewide herbarium digitization effort.

With new tools available on the internet and the creation of herbarium imaging stations, herbaria around the world have been taking images of their specimens and uploading them to online portals. From these portals, the information on herbarium specimen labels can be directly databased into the portal by professionals or trained staff. Alternatively, herbarium specimen labels can be transcribed by citizen scientists through the Notes from Nature (NfN) online platform. (See The Digitization Revolution: New Discoveries From Old Collections)

Specimen labels on NfN are each transcribed by three different citizen scientists. Before the entered data is sent back to the herbaria, the data are cleaned with a computer algorithm. A consensus sequence is produced to show agreement among the transcribers, and the percent agreement provided in the returned data. As part of the AHD coordinator position, Diana manages the Plants of Arkansas project on NfN and reviews the consensus sequences for herbarium records. Diana verifies any data with less than 90 percent agreement by checking the specimen label data from the specimen image.

After data review, Diana uploads the databased records to the online data portal SERNEC and links them to the corresponding specimen images. A completely digitized herbarium specimen has a specimen image and all the details on the specimen label databased in searchable fields.

After completing initial training, the ANHC’s permanent imaging station can be used by herbaria staff and students from other collections as needed. Recently, the ANHC herbarium staff hosted colleagues from Hendrix College at the ANHC offices. The Hendrix guests were able to take photos of approximately 500 specimens from their herbarium on the ANHC’s equipment. The Hendrix College Herbarium is the smallest collection in Arkansas with just over 6,000 specimens. Despite this small size, it houses important collections from central Arkansas.

The recent specimen images, taken by Hendrix College senior Sierra Hubbard, include specimens that were skipped during the initial NSF imaging project and recently mounted specimens from a backlog. Sierra has worked closely with Hendrix College Herbarium Curator and Assistant Professor of Biology Adam Schneider, who entered data from the specimen labels in the SERNEC portal.

Photos: Top - ANHC botanist and Arkansas Herbarium Digitization Coordinator Diana Soteropoulos reviews recent ANHC specimen images and the SERNEC portal for the ANHC collection. Photo by Brent Baker.

Middle - Hendrix College Assistant Professor of Biology and Herbarium Curator Adam Schneider entering data from herbarium specimens into the SERNEC data portal. Photo by Diana Soteropoulos.

Bottom - Hendrix College senior Sierra Hubbard snaps an image of an herbarium specimen on the new ANHC imaging station. Photo by Diana Soteropoulos.

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