Digitisation of the University of Sheffield Herbarium

Kane Dibb, Digitisation and Communications Assistant at the Alfred Denny Museum, takes us through their work in digitising the University of Sheffield Herbarium.

A fern leaf from the herbarium digitisation

To view the digitised specimens and gain more information about the project, head over to the herbarium page on the Alfred Denny website.

For further information on the project please contact Kane Dibb, Digitisation and Communications Assistant, Alfred Denny Museum.

Image credits: © University of Sheffield Herbarium. CC0 

History of the University of Sheffield Herbarium

The University of Sheffield Herbarium, looked after by the School of Biosciences, is a collection of around 12,000 dried plant samples which span 170 years of floral history from the British Isles and more, with our earliest specimens collected in 1853. It houses a diversity of specimens including mosses, fungi, lichen and the more commonly recognised flowering plants and trees from the UK, Scandinavian countries and even swathes of Africa and America. 

Herbaria are collections of dried plants, often mounted on paper with their genus and species name noted alongside information pertaining to their collection such as location, date and who collected them. 

They are invaluable research assets, acting  both as a bank of historical knowledge for researching past plant life, the impacts of climate change, molecular analysis and ethnobotanical studies highlighting the relationship between people and plants, among many other topics. As well as providing a store for current modern botanical research since plants collected in the field for analysis must be retained for follow up research and peer review if necessary. 

The use of digital catalogues

To increase accessibility, and aid in remote research, many herbaria now have developed digital catalogues which can be used virtually to access various species of plants and their associated information (also known as metadata) e.g. collection location and date. Between 2018- 2023 Rosa Dunkley, a Plant Science PhD student  took on the role of Voluntary Herbarium Curator and reopened the University Herbarium. During her work cleaning and repairing the specimens, she created a digital catalogue for the herbarium, in which she inputted ~5000 of the specimens and their associated information – forming a reliable database to be used in research and managing specimen loans. 

A number of herbaria are now undertaking digitisation projects to add images of the specimens to their digital catalogues in an effort to increase the opportunity for remote research and digital analysis of samples. In 2023 a project was set up between the School of Bioscience and the University of Sheffield Library to digitisation of a portion of the University specimens with the aim to develop a procedure on digitising the Herbarium with in-house equipment, so larger-scale projects can be undertaken in future. 

About the team

Kane Dibb, the Digitisation and Communications intern at the Alfred Denny Museum developed a step-by-step procedure on how to digitise the specimens within the University Library Digitisation Suite. They worked with Emily Piepgrass, a Zoology BSc undergraduate, to trial the procedure with a portion of Miss Comber’s collection from around the Yorkshire and Humber area. Over the months of April and May they successfully barcoded, then imaged 71 herbarium sheets using a camera and copystand. Barcoding links the specimen with its image and associated metadata – making it easier to locate the correct specimen within the digital catalogue.

Herbarium Display in Western Bank Library

Further information about the Herbarium digitisation project and some of the specimens are on display in Western Bank Library's Main Hall on Level 5 from 20th June until 20th August.

Three films are shown which take you through the origin of plant hunting – the process of collecting plant specimens from the wild, plants in Victorian culture, the rise of herbaria to store specimens for botanical study, and finally an overview of the Comber family who have provided a number of specimens to the University of Sheffield Herbaria, and all have ties to botany.

You can watch the films here

Herbarium display
One of the Herbarium displays in Western Bank Library Main Hall

You will need a visitor pass from the welcome desk to access level 5 if you do not have a Ucard. 

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Email: library@sheffield.ac.uk

Phone: +44 114 222 7200

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