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Collaboration Leads to Transcription Workshops in Northwest Arkansas

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

Diana Soteropoulos, junior botanist at the ANHC, and Jennifer Ogle, Arkansas Native Seed Program Coordinator and new collections manager at the University of Arkansas Herbarium (UARK) recently collaborated to host transcription workshops in northwest Arkansas.

Jennifer posted about the collaborative event on Facebook and received more than 100 responses. Given the limited seating available in the computer lab, the event was expanded to three consecutive workshops: two at the Old Main computer lab at the UARK and one at Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC).

At each event, Diana presented a brief history about herbaria in Arkansas, described an herbarium specimen, explained the importance of the data on specimen labels, defined the steps in herbarium digitization, provided examples about what the ANHC has learned through having herbarium data accessible online, and showed the success of building a citizen science community to transcribe herbarium specimen labels. Next, she demonstrated how to use the online citizen science platform, Notes from Nature (NfN). For the remainder of the workshop, participants created accounts on NfN and transcribed herbarium specimen labels, with Diana and Jennifer available to answer questions.

Even after transcribing thousands of herbarium specimen labels, new formats, phrases, and questions still arise. There is no standard format for how data are presented on specimen labels, and standard database fields were not developed until the 1990s. Given the variety of formats and handwritten labels, computers cannot be trained to reliably transcribe and parse data fields from specimen labels, thus transcription of herbarium specimen labels heavily relies on people.

In order to show volunteers the steps to follow during transcription, the examples in the demonstration used a simple format from the 1930s to the 1950s that is similar to the transcription fields required in today’s NfN database. The project randomly assigns labels for transcription, so many of the workshop’s participants saw a variety of different labels when they started transcribing, including handwritten cursive labels from the 19th century. These older specimens prove particularly challenging as the ink fades over time, the paper discolors, and the standard forms for cursive letters have changed. On these labels, limited fields were added to the specimen sheet with a stamp and many had faded, including the collector name.

Other volunteers worked with newer labels, many from the 21st century. These labels often include extensive details about the locality and habitat where the specimen was collected. Through the workshop, participants learned to identify strings of text as location, habitat, or both, how to parse and transcribe these fields into the online database platform, and how to ask researchers questions about individual specimens through the built-in discussion forum.

Transcription workshops provide participants with a deeper appreciation for how the specimen data are used for research and conservation, an opportunity to learn about the process of transcription with group discussions, and a sense of community with the Plants of Arkansas online project.

While group event discussions elucidate some mysteries and can provide a fun environment to learn transcription, the online platform NfN is available to anyone, anywhere with a computer and internet connection. If you are interested in natural history collections and transcribing herbarium specimen labels, please visit the Plants of Arkansas project.

The NfN website has tutorials available for reference. More information and a “how to transcribe” guide are available upon request from Diana Soteropoulos, who can be reached at [email protected].



Photos: Top right - Northwest Arkansas Notes from Nature workshop participants study herbarium specimen labels for transcription. Photo by Jennifer Ogle.

Top left - Diana Soteropoulos presenting about the history of herbarium specimens in Arkansas at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Photo by Jennifer Ogle.

First middle image - A standard specimen label from the 1930s to 1950s in Arkansas. It contains limited fields in which the plant collector added information about the specimen, such as locality, county, and habitat.

Second middle image - This specimen label was handwritten in 1887 with a fountain pen and limited fields were added to the specimen sheet with a stamp. These fields, faded on the left side of this label, including the collector name, proved particularly problematic. After sleuthing, the collector was determined to be “Rhodes, Harvey.” Handwriting on old labels fades and can be challenging to read, especially since standard forms of some letters have changed over time.

Third middle image - This is a modern specimen label, which contains more information than historic labels. However, the freeform of text requires the transcriber to parse individual elements of the label to fit the database fields. Here, the third sentence, “Rich, mesic woods…” contains both habitat and location information.

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