13 Dec 2023

Digitising a herbarium – my experience so far    

El James

You may have heard the exciting news that the Botanic Garden has been awarded a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to digitise our collection of pressed plants. You can read an introduction to the project here:

As part of this project, a new Science Engagement Officer post has been made available until June 2026 and this role was offered as a secondment career development opportunity to current Garden staff. Having worked within the Horticulture Department for the past four years and being a photography graduate, how could I resist applying when the role involves taking pictures of plants!

A big chunk of this project is focusing (pun intended) on the digitisation of our collection to make it fully accessible online, for all to see. We definitely don’t want to be keeping it to ourselves any longer! As time goes on, we’ll be able to share some stories from the many glorious specimens we have here, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a little glimpse into how our digitisation setup is going, including the trials and errors.

What does a digitisation station look like?

This is our setup so far – a copy stand with adjustable LED lights to ensure an even spread of light across the specimen that lays flat on the stand. The camera is mounted above, looking straight down (bird’s-eye view) at the specimen.

The camera is directly plugged into the computer so that all the camera controls can be operated from the computer itself. This is incredibly handy as you’d need to be very tall to get to the camera, but also because it helps control ‘camera shake’ which can cause the specimens to be out of focus – an important consideration when we want as much detail as possible.

I’ve been doing many test runs with different lighting situations, trying to work with the ambient light of the room and at different times of the day. Thanks to great advice from Carmarthen Cameras, we bought a new lens and LED light which has really transformed the process. I’m now at a point where I am happy with the detail of the images – all the label information is clear and we can get started with the workflow!

Here are a few images showing the evolution from when we first started to process the images to where we are now:

Figure 1:  This is the first picture taken with the setup before adding anything else to it.

Figure 2:  One of the newer specimens – this was trialling different light angles and a less bulky specimen.

Figure 2:  An image taken recently with the new lens, new light and the use of the image software Adobe Lightroom, kindly provided by the marketing team, to calibrate the white balance. Much better!

This is just the technical side of the imaging, but there is a lot more to do! There’ll be plenty of transcribing – entering the label information from each specimen into a database to go alongside the digital images. Dr Laura Jones, Science Officer, has figured out how to use specimen barcodes to automatically name the image files and link this to the correct transcribed data on our database. We will also be carrying out archival curation to conserve the collection for decades to come. I’m really enjoying it all so far and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future.

In the meantime, if you have any queries about the project, please feel free to email me: Elinor.james@gardenofwales.org.uk