Putting the Economic Botany Collection online
Updating the existing database
Unlike many other collections, we didn't have to start cataloguing from scratch. We are fortunate in that the Collection was databased in the mid-1980s, when the 70,000 specimens were moved from the original museum buildings into a purpose-built store.
Cataloguing in the Economic Botany Collection in the 1980s. Note the 'microcomputer' - now a museum piece in its own right.
However, access to the database has been either via a rather clunky internal interface, or Kew's externally available electronic Plant Information Centre (ePIC) which only allows searches by botanical name. Researchers have had to email me to ask what we have, and I've had to send back long lists of specimens for people to look through.
The old 'Red Pepper' interface of the 1990s. We still use it to manage the Collection, but most searches are quicker and easier with the new web interface.
Moving from old to new
In 2011 Chris Hopkins, a sharp-eyed programmer in Kew's IT department, realised that the database could easily be put online using similar programming carried out for other Kew databases. In fact, it proved to be not quite so easy. One hurdle was that the Collection uses Dick Brummitt's well-known botanical classification, published in 1992. However, Kew's Herbarium (in common with many others) has recently switched to the DNA-based APG classification, with major changes to some plant families. The database now matches genera to both family schemes, so that it is compatible with the other Kew databases. It's also been possible to enhance the search process using standardised terms such as use and geographical area, which were not easy to use before.
How to search the database
We've created two ways of searching. The simple interface, above, searches all the text in the database. It works well for collector surnames, botanical names (family, genus, species) and country names. There's also an advanced search screen, which allows the use of standardised terms for use, plant part, geography and specimen type (e.g. wood, archaeology). By combining search terms, sophisticated searches can be done. Detailed results can be downloaded as text and spreadsheet files.
The database now covers 85,000 specimens. We have digital images for about 2000, and these have been placed online as part of the database. For the first time, it's easy to find out if a specimen photograph is available, a facility that will be popular with publishers as well as researchers.
A good thing?
There's been lots of debate about museum databases (for example, on the Museum Computing Group email list, and this useful review by Barbara Lejeune). Some have argued that databases should not go online until they are perfected. Instead, we have decided to make the database available now, and to tidy up the data as time allows, on the grounds that something that is good (but not perfect) and available is better than something that is not available. The impact of online databases on enquiries has also been much debated. My hope is that more researchers will find material of interest in the collection via the database. That may well translate into more emails and visits, but researchers can do the searches themselves, and will have a much better idea of what they want to see.
Only a few ethnobotanical collections are online. Apart from Kew, I'm only aware of the Field Museum, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, and the Edward Palmer Collections at the Smithsonian. Let's hope that more go online soon, raising the exciting possibility of a single search interface for them all.
- Mark -