From Plant Press, Vol. 21, No. 2, April 2018.
By Laurence J. Dorr
As much as I enjoy writing, I know I would never make it as a newspaper columnist. I have trouble meeting deadlines. I wait for inspiration or for a clever hook. Then the words flow relatively easily through a dozen or more drafts. If neither inspiration nor metaphorical fishing tackle save me, then I struggle. I have written a fair number of these columns, some confessional and others sermon-like. A few I knowingly structured as telegraphed messages: I laid out what I planned to do as chair to make a select few employees understand what I wanted to accomplish. I have discarded almost as many drafts of this column as I have completed. I have an extensive folder of scrunched up and discarded word processing documents, the electronic equivalent of paper balls tossed toward the trash can.
The activities of the department are something that I have not devoted much time to describing in these columns. For this, I am perhaps remiss. We have been busy the last few years and we have devoted enormous resources (planning, staff time, and money) to improving the U.S. National Herbarium. I hope the results are beginning to be visible. To begin with, there has been a physical overhaul of the herbarium. We converted our four compactor-bays from electrical to mechanical assist controls. We have gone from endless malfunctions to almost none, and some of us are getting more exercise in the bargain. We have added over 200 new herbarium cabinets, many of them replacements for older substandard wooden cabinets and yet others constructed to address the needs of special collections such as our bulky bamboos. These new cases permit some expansion but more importantly allow decompression of sections of the herbarium where specimens now are too tightly packed. Our goal is to remove and replace all of the substandard cabinetry in the herbarium. We also have mostly decluttered our common space although we still have far too much Botany material stored in the attic. (Yes, there is an attic in the Natural History building).
With generous financial support from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO), Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), and from the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) we have digitized more than 1.5 million herbarium specimens, including not only capturing images but also transcribing label data. We have accomplished this while continuing to operate the herbarium as normal. In other words, we have been able to do this without closing sections of the collection. It is difficult to convey to those who only visit us electronically the enormous behind-the-scenes preparation involved in our digitization project, but it exists and one of the less obvious benefits of digitization is that we are improving the physical curation of the entire collection.