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Virtual Herbarium: USU Botanist Leads Effort to Provide Digital Access

Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012

USU herbarium director Mary Barkworth

Mary Barkworth, director of USU's Intermountain Herbarium, demonstrates steps in preparing a plant specimen for the herbarium’s collection. Barkworth is among scientists working to create the U.S. Virtual Herbarium Online.

USU herberium director Mary Barkworth with a class

During a class, Barkworth, second from right, answers students' questions about vegetation on campus.

Centuries of naturalists have collected and documented the diversity of life on Earth. The fruits of their labors lay tucked away in specimen collections throughout the globe, where many of these treasures have become inaccessible or unknown — until now. Using developments of the digital age, a mass effort is underway to digitize these collections and unlock their vast research potential.

Utah State University botanist Mary Barkworth is front and center in this endeavor. Barkworth, who serves as director of the university’s Intermountain Herbarium, is among coordinators of an ambitious project to digitize all specimens in herbaria throughout the United States and make those specimens accessible through a single portal known as “U.S. Virtual Herbarium Online.”

With colleague Zack Murrell of Appalachian State University, she describes this venture in an article featured in the special July 2012 issue of the journal ZooKeys entitled “No Specimen Left Behind: Mass Digitization of Natural History Collections.”  

“The virtual herbarium project reflects increased interest in making resources available online and it’s a tremendous research tool,” Barkworth says.

More than 600 herbaria exist in the United States, housing collections ranging in size from less than 10,000 specimens to more than seven million. Currently, herbaria are working in 11 regional groups to make their specimens available online but Barkworth explains the ultimate goal is to enable all the regional networks to coalesce into a single resource via USVH.

USU’s Intermountain Herbarium is part of the Intermountain Region, which includes more than 30 herbaria in Nevada and Utah. The regional site currently provides access to more than 2.5 million specimens.

Bringing the information together is just one step in the effort, Barkworth says.

“You must make it easy to access, as well,” she says.

She is assisted in her efforts by Curtis Dyreson, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Computer Science, and Ed Gilbert of Arizona State University, who developed SYMBIOTA, a library of Web tools for making natural history collections available online.

Preparing information for online sharing requires better, more consistent documentation of data, Barkworth says.

“The network database includes images of plants and fungi, not just of specimens, but living organisms as well — the original and corpse — along with georeference data,” she says. “Using a standard system is a way to ensure future collections are better documented. This makes the data more valuable.”

Having comprehensive data at the touch of a keyboard will revolutionize research by saving researchers significant time and enabling them to conduct analyses that were previously impossible, Barkworth says. Rather than searching through libraries and traveling to distant sites to compare plant specimens, investigators can find answers with the click of a mouse. The ability to compare specimens collected at specific sites over decades of time will aid scientists in understanding climate change and other ecological developments.

“Plants tell you a great deal about the environment, because they can’t run away,” Barkworth says.

Related links:

Contact: Mary Barkworth, 435-797-1584,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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