7 September 2017

Revealing the treasures of Kew’s Herbarium to a digital world

Kew's Herbarium has around 7 million preserved plants from around the globe - you can help us reveal them to the world.

By Ellie Graves

Herbarium specimen, RBG Kew/Steve Lancefield

Kew's Herbarium - 7 million preserved plants critical for science

The Herbarium at Kew comprises millions of dried and preserved plant specimens which possess crucial information for scientific research. Our ongoing goal is to open up our doors and cabinets by giving virtual access to all of our collections.

Kew Herbarium currently houses around 7 million preserved botanical specimens that provide information and evidence of plants world-wide, where they grow and plant diversity. The collection represents around 98% of all genera of plants worldwide and has been curated over the past 150 years, making it one of the largest and most important herbarium collections in the world. The information held is essential for scientific research into biodiversity, conservation, sustainable development and evolutionary relationships. Every plant specimen is housed within cupboards though, meaning that the information is far from the reach of anyone who is unable to visit the Herbarium in person. However, through online digitisation, we are able to reveal images of the specimen and information about it to anyone who requires it, such as scientists, artists and historians, no matter where they live in the world.

Bringing science in the Herbarium to the world

At present, only approximately 13% of Kew’s specimens are available online via Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue but this is set to change. Every hour, on one camera alone, up to 200 specimen sheets are imaged. These images are then uploaded onto crowdsourcing “expeditions” which are put up online. This enables volunteers world-wide to access the information which is currently locked away within our Herbarium cupboards and transcribe it. The result is a complete dataset corresponding with the images via barcode which, when uploaded onto Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue, will be available for retrieval with a simple online search.

To increase awareness of the Herbarium and our crowdsourcing projects, we recently manned a stall at the Kew Science Festival. Young, budding scientists were able to gain an insight into the behind-the-scenes world of the Herbarium by mounting and imaging their own botanical specimens. It was widely popular with over 700 specimen sheets created and digitised.

Kew is taking part in WeDigBio a worldwide event involving volunteers from all over the world transcribing natural history collections. WeDigBio or Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections is an annual 4 day event running this year from the 19–22 October 2017. Institutions will be linking up with each other and holding Onsite transcription events. 

If you are interested in becoming one of our crowdsourcing volunteers, please visit our volunteering page for more information on how to get involved. All it requires is a computer and a keen eye and you would be helping scientists globally to answer questions about the history of genera such as Nigella, also known as Love-in-a-Mist, Oryza which includes the major food crop rice, as well as Syzygium, which includes the spice clove. Thank you and happy transcribing!