I was all for the advancement of botanical knowledge when I first learned about crowdsourcing at a Virginia Native Plant Society meeting a few years ago. I heard Angela Weeks, head of the Ted Bradley Herbarium and a professor at George Mason University (VA), speak about how digitizing historical records could benefit science by creating accessible data.
One could trace global warming patterns as species moved northward and up mountains, or infer distribution patterns of native versus invasive species. So I signed on to various herbaria, eventually washing up on the digital shores of the mid-Atlantic and the collections in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
At first the task seemed dry and rather mindless. Copy the collector, the date, the site, the habitat, select “Pending Review” and click Save. However, I soon began noticing patterns and making connections in the data I was transcribing.
In Staten Island records, the specimens of American Chestnut gradually disappeared in early 1900, evidence of the species’ sad decline. I came upon so many New Jersey records found in the Pine Barrens that I began to wonder about that distinct area. At a used book sale, I bought an old paperback called The Pine Barrens by John McPhee (1968) and read with interest about the special geography, cranberry bogs, bootleggers, scrubby woods, woodsmen, and war heroes who came from there.
I especially love the very old records; the oldest ones I have seen were collected in 1810. As I occasionally paused to look up a collector, I noticed unfamiliar names.
There’s the sad story of H.H. Eaton, who corresponded with John Torrey in the 1830s, and whose father founded New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824. H.H. Eaton had gone to his father’s school and began his first job as a botany professor in Kentucky, but died suddenly in 1832 of “brain hemorrhage” at the age of 23.
There also are women included in the collections of the early 1800s, though often only as a “Mrs” paired with a male collector. Notable exceptions include one of botany’s “founding mothers,” Dr. Ida A. Keller, who began a study of biology in Philadelphia in 1886 when women were not granted degrees at the University of Pennsylvania.
She returned to her native Germany to earn a PhD and then came back to teach for 30 years at the Philadelphia High School for Girls. In the 1890s she became a member of numerous scientific societies that previously had not accepted women. A true pioneer in the field, she is represented by over 3,500 specimens in the Academy’s herbarium.
Other women such as Ruth T. Wellman and C.A. Boice also are well represented in these early records. On many of her meticulously hand-written records, C.A. (Carrie Ann) embellished each letter with curvy tails. Some records set my mind wandering.
Nailing It Down
I have deciphered probable place names and checked them against the other data given. I have begun to recognize likely collectors given their spidery handwriting.
Google searches like, “Towns starting with H in Allegheny County PA” can help pin down some of the less legible labels. Other labels contain place names that are no longer standard, sending me on a brief detour to check on geographical records and the old place names: Near Hans Jenson farm, Nanjemoy County, Old Navy Yard, the list goes on. When all else fails, I mark the specimen as needing expert attention and move on to the next puzzle.
In the last three or four years of data entry, I have come to love the time each day when I sit with the radio in the background, a cup of tea or a glass of wine beside me, and start transcribing. It’s easy now to do 50 records an hour.
Occasionally, I enjoy dipping into a collector biography or obituary or checking out a specimen collection site for a bit more information. I also often translate the Latin name into the common name just in case I might remember it better that way, amateur that I am.
Another reward is to see my stats on the Crowdsourcing Scoreboard mounting up to the low five-figures, from 11,000 to over 40,000.
There are almost 100,000 plant specimens from the mid-Atlantic in the Academy’s database, each representing a little piece of America’s botanical history. If you are looking for a productive and interesting way to pass the time during the current pandemic, I hope you will consider joining me on the transcription team.
If you are interested in participating in the Academy’s herbarium crowdsourcing project, please contact Academy Botany Collection Manager Jordan Teisher, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Susan Hepler, an ardent gardener who would have majored in Botany if she hadn’t first discovered Children’s Literature. She lives in Alexandria, Va.
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