Listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I began my day transcribing data from herbarium-specimen labels. The melodies and the early morning light mixed, and I entered the zone, my fingers typing rhythmically with the music. Staff at the Harvard University Herbaria transitioned to working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16. In the early weeks of this new routine, I was transcribing detailed data from specimens collected in Wyoming—locations like Devils Tower and Yellowstone—but instead of handling the physical specimens, I was working from images on my screen.
This current work has been very different from the normal day-to-day curatorial activities at the Herbaria. Researchers, who we would normally be assisting, have been unable to visit the collections. Our team, likewise, was initially unable to be on-site for routine activities like processing incoming and outgoing shipments of loans, gifts, and exchanges. We could not mount new specimens or file them into the collection; nor could we update specimens with new taxonomic determinations. We have even discouraged other institutions from sending materials given potential shipping and handling delays. Before this began, however, our team was busy with a long-term effort to share images and data from our collections online, and this meant we could use the same images to continue digitization projects remotely as well.
Over the past 170 years, the Herbaria have amassed more than five million specimens, making our collections one of the largest in the world. Given the scale, specimens have been digitized on a project-by-project basis. About one-quarter of our total holdings have been digitized to date. I like to think of imaging and transcription of specimen labels as “publishing” unfinished symphonies composed by botanists. Without digitization, their collections are often hidden in the Herbaria, requiring either in-person visits or potentially risky shipments of specimen loans. Among the Wyoming specimens, for instance, I enjoyed databasing those collected by Reed Rollins, a Harvard professor and longtime director of the Gray Herbarium. Many of his extensive collections of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) were redetermined by his student Ihsan Al-Shehbaz, who followed Rollins as the world’s foremost taxonomist of this family. Now digitized, their collaborative work has become available for study by a new generation of researchers.
Before the pandemic, our curatorial team was in the middle of three collaborative digitization projects funded by the National Science Foundation and coordinated through the Thematic Collection Network. One focuses on the Southern Rockies. The second focuses on the vascular flora of the South Central United States, particularly Texas and Oklahoma. The third is called Endless Forms (or Plants on Edge) and focuses on fifteen families of rare and endangered plants with unique morphological adaptations, including orchids (Orchidaceae), cacti (Cactaceae), and sedums (Crassulaceae). Combined, these projects include about 470,000 specimens.
Our director of collections Michaela Schmull and the director of informatics Jonathan Kennedy have orchestrated our curatorial team’s digitization efforts so that, rather than pulling collections piecemeal by individual states (states are filed alphabetically for each species), all vascular plants from the United States and Canada were added to the queue. This expansion (another 1.6 million specimens) is part of the Herbaria’s effort to digitize the entire collection.
When the closures began, I had been photographing Lupinus in the legume family (Fabaceae), and recently, I had photographed specimens of a few other families with great diversity in the Rockies, including the mustards (Brassicaceae) and saxifrages (Saxifragaceae).
Now, working from our homes as a team, the thirteen of us curatorial assistants had the opportunity to loop back and record detailed data from specimens we had already photographed. This data entry allows the specimens to be searchable using details like the collector’s name and collection date. Our team completed transcription from available images from project-related states (about 66,670 specimens) after the first couple of months of the pandemic. This could have taken three times longer if not for our work-from-home efforts. Next, we moved onto other states and provinces not part of the projects.
For this second phase, I selected New York. I was born in Rochester, and when I was just a kid, I carried Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America on hikes with my dad, who was an avid, knowledgeable amateur botanist. He took my brothers and me to regional parks and to the Adirondack Mountains. In my college years, I explored the Hudson River Valley and Long Island Sound, and my graduate research on the ecology of forest-understory herbs and ferns brought me back to the Adirondacks. Transcribing specimen labels for this familiar flora allowed me, in some sense, to revisit these ecosystems.
Because many labels were from the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, only a fraction were typed, while many were handwritten and of various degrees of legibility. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our team has been communicating via Slack, a chatting tool that we have used for asking questions and helping one another decipher illegible handwriting on labels. I was amused by two handwritten labels for collections from Irondequoit Bay (Rochester area) and Taughannock Falls (north of Ithaca). If not for my familiarity with these places, I do not know if I could have deciphered them. We also have a very large collection of specimens from New York that were collected by Asa Gray, the first director of the Gray Herbarium, whose handwriting has always been challenging to read.
I was fascinated to see specimens collected more than one hundred years ago near my hometown and from other familiar places. In 1889, collector John Dunbar told Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum, about many hawthorns (Crataegus) near Rochester that did not match any described species. Dunbar and others—including his coworkers Calvin C. Laney, Henry T. Brown, and Berhard H. Slavin (all from the Rochester Parks Department)—collected hundreds of specimens for Sargent.
Beyond the familiar locations, some specimens included details that made these places come alive with activity. I came across a 1905 label, for instance, which noted that small boys filled their pockets with fruits from a scarlet hawthorn (Crataegus pedicellata). Others documented landscapes that were changing like the tempo of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (made popular in Fantasia). A dramatic 1907 label for another hawthorn (C. brainerdii), for instance, marked history: “Prof. Sargent you will notice that I have changed this No. as I told you my No. 2415 was blown up by the Barge Canal work,” a physician-botanist named Joseph V. Haberer wrote. Strikingly, the label recorded an instance of the widening of the Erie Canal, between 1905 and 1918, for use by large barges.
When I encounter multiple specimens from the same collector, I often look up the person’s backstory. Collections by botanists who happened to be medical doctors often catch my attention, especially since one of my sons serves as a doctor of osteopathic medicine and his brothers study pharmacy and medicine. In addition to Haberer (and Asa Gray, who trained as a physician), other medical doctors who collected specimens in New York included Henry P. Sartwell, George Thurber, Peter D. Knieskern, George G. Kennedy, and Edwin H. Eames. Their collections, too, have now been digitized for continued studies.
Starting on June 15, our team transitioned to a hybrid work model, which allowed for limited entries into the Herbaria for a set number of hours, one day per week. This required strict adherence to the university’s guidelines, safety protocols, and weekly coronavirus testing. It was a relief to be back but strange returning to a near-empty place, devoid of researchers. With this on-site day each week, I aimed to take care of essential services for the collections, in coordination with others during their allotted times at the Herbaria. I processed incoming shipments (after freezing to prevent potential insect problems), checked insect traps (each of the curatorial staff has an area to monitor), and photographed specimens as requested by botanists for their remote studies. I attached barcodes to a new set of two hundred herbarium sheets of Lupinus and photographed them for digitization from home. I finally reached Lupinus texensis, the brightly colored, bluebonnet of Texas.
The university has encouraged staff to continue working from home, so transcription will continue to keep everyone busy. During our remote work so far, from mid-March until mid-September, our team has digitized 135,333 specimens, bringing the total number of digitized North American specimens in the Herbaria to nearly one million. These data and images can be found using the search interface on the Harvard University Herbaria website. Our team also learned how to use the Geo-Locate Project’s collaborative georeferencing tool to add mapping coordinates whenever possible, starting with localities in the Southern Rockies.
Throughout the pandemic, as I’ve been working with these digital specimens, my wife, Ying, has also been working from home. She is a forest ecologist by training. In the early months, when we left the house for walks in our neighborhood and local conservation areas, we were encouraged by the sights and sounds of spring. Plants flowered and produced leaves as usual, and the seasons have continued to flow like Vivaldi’s melodies. This ceaselessness is echoed in our preserved herbarium specimens, each of which documents a particular moment from seasons past. Seasons and generations accrue. When brought together—and shared with researchers and teachers—the long-hidden symphonies, at last, resound.
Anthony Brach is a senior curatorial assistant at the Harvard University Herbaria and a research associate of the Arnold Arboretum. Previously, between 1993 and 2012, he served as an editor of the Flora of China, while based at the Harvard University Herbaria as a Missouri Botanical Garden staff member, after completing his PhD in environmental and forest biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.