Written by Teagan Reinert1* and Karen L. Bacon1
1 Botany & Plant Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, National University of Ireland, Galway; * corresponding author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the main aims of creating online databases of herbarium images (or any data set) is to increase the ease of access for researchers, educators, and other users who may want to obtain data from the specimens without having to physically travel to an herbarium. Online herbarium databases have become particularly useful during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when many herbaria are not allowing or greatly reducing the amount of in-person visitation.
For many herbaria, online databases are still being constructed and ease of access and use can vary significantly between collections. Additionally, while a database may list a certain number of specimens held by the herbarium, it can often be the case that only a subset of these specimens are actually imaged and available to view online. Some herbarium databases are better than others in actually allowing the user to narrow down their search to get the data they are looking for. The databases range in ease of use from ‘very easy’ to ‘usable but frustrating’. Any databases that are too difficult to use often dissuade researchers from using the digital resources available on that database.
Desired Database Features
Databases that are ‘usable but frustrating’ often return results that aren’t relevant, have long loading times, have consistently low-quality images, or just don’t work. Some websites do require a bit of a learning curve for researchers, but then relevant specimens can be missed at the beginning of research. Personal preference and the type of research being done has an impact on the following statements, but these recommendations hopefully can make it universally easier for all those who use herbarium databases.
Search parameters on the websites are especially important on online databases. Often the websites have a Keyword search bar and also an Advanced Search under a separate tab, which always makes narrowing down search results easier depending on what is in the Advanced Search tab. A sort by date feature (RBGE’s herbarium) or search by date range (the Smithsonian’s herbarium) is always useful and is particularly important for studies that factor in time. Users should also be able to specify if they are looking for cultivated species, uncultivated, or both. Specifying that only entries with images are desired as search results is also a feature the web designs of the databasing sites should have.
Website design is a sizable part in the ease of the database’s use. The easiest databases to use have basic specimen information visible without having to click into a specimen, for example NYBG’s Virtual Herbarium and RBG Edinburgh’s herbarium database. The basic data should include full species name, collection dates, location, collector, and whether the specimen was cultivated in a garden or wild-collected. Having to open multiple windows or tabs can become confusing quickly and reduces usability of the database.
Databases that are most desirable to use will include as many specimens as possible from as many herbaria as possible with high-quality and free-to-use/creative commons type licenced images. Good quality images are important for data collection, especially with species that have scaled leaf formations or have small leaves. If image quality is poor, some researchers may not be able to use the images. If different image sizes are also available, that should be made very clear on the specimen’s citation or landing page as not everyone requires extremely large images to gather data. It is also helpful if the image file saves or is downloaded as the specimen’s name or barcode, to prevent confusion between images, though this is not necessary.
Finally, how the image or specimen data should be cited should be stated very clearly on the website either on its own easily accessed and clearly labelled page, or on the specimen’s landing page. Often, the databases are under creative commons usage (e.g. the Smithsonian’s herbarium) or specifically state that images can be used for research or education as long as a profit is not being made but that information can sometimes be hidden in Frequently Asked Questions or on the bottom of a page that isn’t entirely relevant. If the specimen is not available to be used in scientific research or there is a fee from the herbarium for the use of the image, that information should be obvious to the user. The citation link for the specimens should also be advertised on their data pages.
Digitised herbaria are a vital and important resource for researchers now and in the future. To aid in accessing and utilising the wealth of data available on these databases, the websites must be easy to use and have signposts on specimen information and image use.