Making a future from the past: Oxford University Herbaria

Inside the Department of Plant Sciences, there is one of the world’s great scientific collections – Oxford University Herbaria. Herbaria are permanent scientific records of plant variation; fundamental tools for investigating plant evolution and teaching about plant diversity.

Worldwide, there are approximately 2,600 herbaria containing some 300 million specimens. Each specimen represents a data point locating a species in space and time. Oxford University Herbaria contains more than one million specimens collected from across the planet; some specimens are more than 400 years old.

Thousands of people have contributed specimens to the Oxford collection. Some collectors, such as Carolus Linnaeus or Charles Darwin, are very well known. Most contributors, such as Richard Spruce or Frank White, are unknown outside of botany. 

Scientifically, types are among the most important specimens in a herbarium; Oxford University Herbaria contains approximately 40,000 types. Detailed comparisons among type specimens is essential when describing new species.

In 1990,three Australian biologists asked a provocative question about herbaria: 'what would be lost if label data were recorded, a careful selection of sheets kept and the rest pulped?' Three decades on, technology means herbarium curators can answer that herbarium specimens are irreplaceable international cultural assets with enormous research and teaching value across many disciplines.

Herbaria are central to conserving plant diversity in the face of major, urgent environmental change. Collections provide scientists with the raw data and evidence to demonstrate issues addressed by policymakers and provide baseline data against which the outcomes of policies can be measured. 

Developments in information technology have meant the potential of data contained in herbaria has become visible to many researchers and those data have become accessible. Software such as BRAHMS, developed in the Department of Plant Sciences, is now used by herbaria worldwide for the management, analysis and display of plant diversity data.Creating an on-line digital resource for the Herbaria is essential to ensure data are made available to anyone who needs it. Currently about 15% of Oxford’s specimens are available on-line. The challenge is to make the remaining 85% available in a timely fashion.

My job is to ensure researchers have access to the specimens and data they need to create new knowledge without compromising the research potential of the collection for tomorrow's researchers. After all, when Augustus Lippi collected specimens in early eighteenth-century Egypt he could not have imagined that one day his specimens would be used to calibrate carbon-14 dating models investigating chronologies of ancient pharaohs. 


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