Herbology for Librarians: UWO’s SLA Herbarium Tour
Harry Potter references aside (and there were many), herbology is not something I know much about. So I was excited to attend SLA Student Chapter’s tour of Western University’s Herbarium.
Sandra Mackin guided us through a brief introduction to her job and the role of a Herbarium. What is a Herbarium, you ask? Basically it is part museum and part library with its own classification system based on plant taxonomy. The information in this library is in the form of dried plants, or specimens, which have been pressed and glued (with special glue) to archival paper for posterity. These specimens are used for plant identification and study, mostly by biologists.
Here’s a sample of the flower Passion Everlasting, also known as Helichrysumsanguineum.
If you like binomial nomenclature,then this will interest you! I have a background in Latin so I was very interested in the classification system they use. Like most people who work in herbaria, Sandra has a background in biology and she can tell you the Latin name for a specimen just by looking at it. Now that is a party trick that I would like to have!
The Herbarium receives donations of specimens from private collectors, other herbariums, and academics. They also collect some of the specimens themselves. One of the most unusual—and fun! — roles of herbaria staff is that you may need to go hunting for specimens or spend time in your work day picking local plants to add to the collection.
They also do public outreach, especially having students of all ages come to experience biodiversity. Their specimens can also be used in teaching to illustrate plant taxonomies or species evolution.
For us library students, their historic collection of plant and specimen ephemera was of most interest. Their oldest specimen is from 1840 and personal donations have included many original drawings, illustrations, and lithographs of different plant and flower species in Ontario and beyond.
This is their oldest specimen; It was pressed in 1840!
Since the Herbarium is so unique and is a relatively small operation, they face many challenges. Chief among them is ensuring the safety of their collection from damage; hard to do in an older building. They are also working to begin digitizing their collection, which is made more difficult since many of their items are 3-dimensional and fragile.
Ultimately, their work is invaluable in recording local and international plant and fungal species for the future and interest in the affects of global warming and concern for biodiversity have been increasing interest in this field. Herbaria are definitely unique collections with library and archives crossover appeal.
Thanks to Megan Siu and Sandra for this opportunity! Volunteer opportunities at the Herbarium for MLIS students will be available this fall, check back for more opportunities in September.
Christine Pinkney is originally from Calgary, Alberta, and started the MLIS program through online courses via the University of Alberta's School of Library and Information Studies. She is now working to finish off her degree at the University of Western Ontario as an aspiring information professional in many different types of librarianship.