Written by Claire Smith, volunteer at the University of Reading Herbarium.
I don’t imagine that there’s an abundance of field work taking place during the unprecedented pandemic situation that we find ourselves in at the moment. However, if there was one piece of advice that I could offer to anybody taking down field notes, it would be to develop neat handwriting! Either that, or to transcribe your notes into digital form as soon as possible. Otherwise, some poor soul – who may not even be a botanist – may find themselves, a mere thirty-three years after your expedition, staring at a page of unfamiliar place names or Latin plant names, with confusion.
That said, would anybody care to take a guess at what’s been happening with the Cyclamen Society collection during lockdown? Yes, I’m taking the opportunity to get to grips with as much of the data entry as I possibly can. As with so many other collections around the world, volunteers haven’t been into the Herbarium since the middle of March. This means that our usual tasks of mounting and photographing the collected cyclamen specimens are out of bounds. Aside from the physical though, there is always plenty of digital work to do.
Because the collections date back to 1987, the majority of the field notes came to us as either photocopies or scans of the original documents. They’re all hand written, which means that we can’t use OCR technology to digitise the text. As a result, the only way to get the field notes into digital format is to transcribe them by hand. Very early on we set up a template spreadsheet, so we can be certain that we’re collecting the same information from each set of field notes. Having correct and accurate data is a vital component of the study of any collection, and its management is important for allowing researchers to access that information. Damaged or illegible notes can mean that the data carefully collected in the field becomes unusable.
My primary task at the current stage of the project is to check, check, and check again that the data I’m putting into the spreadsheets is as accurate as possible. Locations and plant names are verified and proofread, and I might contact the original collector if I need to clarify any details about a particular trip.
Once completed, these spreadsheets form the basis for two data streams of output – the labels for the specimen sheets, and the entries into the catalogue database. Each mounted sheet is stamped with a unique number that identifies it as belonging to the University of Reading Herbarium. These numbers are included in the spreadsheets, which links together the physical specimens and their collection data. My final task in the Herbarium, a couple of days before the lockdown, was to enter as many of these unique identifiers into the spreadsheets as possible, to make sure that I had plenty of information to work on from home.
Once each spreadsheet is complete, the specimen labels can then be created using a mail merge function. This allows us to use the spreadsheets to generate all of the labels for a given field trip at the same time. As well as containing written information about each specimen from the field notes, the labels also include a barcode and a QR code. This system was devised by Poppy Taylor and Maisie Martin, undergraduate students of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. When these codes are scanned, once all the information is uploaded, they can provide access to data from the catalogue in addition to the information given on the labels.
As soon as we’re able to work on campus again, our priorities will be twofold: print and mount all of the labels that I’ve been able to generate while in lockdown; and upload all of the information to the University’s catalogue database. Because the data management is such a time-consuming process, the lockdown has actually given me an unexpected opportunity to catch up with the already-mounted specimens. By the time we’re able to get back to whatever’s going to pass for “normal”, we will at least have made some excellent progress on the Cyclamen Society collection.