First Monday

The Plant Information Center

The Plant Information Center is a partnership of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Unviersity of North Carolina (UNC) Herbarium, UNC School of Information and Library Science, McDougle Middle School, and Orange County Public Library. The intent of the Project is to connect the research community and the general public (including school children) to make greater use of primary research material and to nurture the public interest and enthusiasm in the study of trees, plants, and natural history. Four specific objectives include: 1) successful cooperation between the various institutions; 2) the development of an interactive Plant Information Center with a Web-based portal; 3) the development of lesson plans using primary research materials from the herbarium for 6th grade students; and, 4) a test of the usefulness of digital images of herbarium specimens for plant identification and for inspiring the public with the aims and methods of botanical science.

Figure 1: The Plant Information Center (PIC) home page

The Plant Information Center (PIC), an IMLS-funded project, is a collaborative partnership among five organizations (see Figure 2): The School of Information and Library Science and Herbarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC); North Carolina Botanical Garden; McDougle Middle School; and the Carrboro Public Library.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden is an independent state-supported entity. McDougle Middle School is a public school with grades 6-8 and a part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. The Carrboro Public Library branch of the Orange County Public Library shares space in McDougle School with the school library media center in an on-going partnership.

Figure 2: Partners in the Plant Information Center

The intent of the Project is to connect the research community and the general public (including school children) so that primary research materials owned by the University can be made available to these new audiences and that expert knowledge may also be shared. The Project is also driven by the desire to nurture the interest and enthusiasm of these audiences in the study of trees, plants, and natural history. We believe our Project will help people observe nature more closely and more knowledgeably so that they will be led to protect our natural heritage.

We will realize this vision through sharing the resources of the UNC Herbarium in a virtual way over the Internet. A herbarium is a museum collection of plant specimens with associated label and research data. Herbaria are the fundamental documentation of plant diversity. The UNC Herbarium, founded in 1908, includes over 600,000 labeled museum specimens of plants, algae, fungi, and fossils. It is the largest collection in the southeastern United States and specializes in the collection of plants of this region. Figure 3 is one example of an herbarium specimen.

Figure 3: An online herbarium specimen from the Plant Information Center

Figure 4 is an example of the longleaf pine (Pinus pallustris), the state tree of North Carolina. Many consider it the most valuable tree of all the southern pines because of the quality of its wood products. It is also considered the most aesthetically pleasing with its 18-inch needles and its majestic height of 80 to 100 feet. It is extremely resistant to insects. In earliest times an estimated 60 million acres of longleaf pine existed; it flourished all over southeast U.S. This ecosystem was maintained by repeated fires induced by lightning or Native American fires. Today only three million acres survive, in part because of land clearing but also due to fire suppression, as frequent fires are important in the reproduction cycle of the tree. With existing technologies to control wildfires, the longleaf is making a comeback and with it the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker whose habitat is the longleaf pine.

Figure 4: The longleaf pine, Pinus pallustris, in its natural setting.

We have four specific objectives for the Plant Information Center (PIC) Project. The first is to demonstrate a successful cooperation between the University, the public school system, and the public library. Cooperation appears to be mutually beneficial, an important attribute as it is surely the best basis for sustaining effort over time. The Herbarium has both specimens and the deep botanical knowledge of its staff; the Botanical Garden provides breadth of botanical expertise and supports four themes: plant diversity, human dependence on plant diversity, the need for conservation, and the critical role of research in botanical gardens to increase the human quality of life. It has a strong educational mission. Both the Herbarium and the Botanical Garden target the same audiences that PIC hopes to serve.

The School of Information and Library Science, currently ranked first in its class by the U.S. News and World Report, brings technical expertise in information access, retrieval and use, and neophyte enthusiasm for the Project as an opportunity to apply developing technology and applications to a digital library project. The McDougle Middle School has eager sixth grade science students and a group of science teachers who know how to create lesson plans to connect the students with this primary resource material. The sixth grade science curriculum in North Carolina emphasizes the patterns of natural systems and has as one of its goals, the investigation of the ecosystem and how organisms interact with each other through coexistence, cooperation, and competition. The planned curricular project involves a study of local and introduced plants, their growth patterns, and survival needs. An identification component makes the Project concrete and can culminate in learning how to create museum-quality herbarium specimens that may become a part of the UNC collection.

The Carrboro Branch of the Orange County Public Library, housed in the same space as the McDougle School Library Media Center, brings the public library's enduring interest in providing new service offerings to its public. One large segment of the community includes avid gardeners and natural history enthusiasts. The Library has an extensive print collection supporting this interest and its collection will be extended through this Project. The librarians' reference expertise will integrate the print collections with the Web-based material for the general public.

How shall we measure success for our collaborative objective? Well, if we're all still speaking at the end and the PIC site is being accessed and used, we have a good measure of success. We will track the frequency and content of the team members' interactions.

Our second objective is to create and test an interactive Plant Information Center for the general public, libraries, and public schools. The starting point for the PIC Project was an ongoing effort to create a virtual herbarium of plants of the southeastern U.S. We call the parent project BOTNET, short for Botanical Network. Through it, we have begun to capture images of gymnosperm specimens and have about 100 images of 50 different species. We have some other material online as well, such as a table of nomenclature linked to both contemporary and historical keys for identification. We are in the process of creating a more sophisticated database to be able to retrieve plant, specimen, collector, and label information in a variety of different ways.

The BOTNET Project is being developed with the research and professional community in mind. We decided that this material could also form the basis of a Plant Information Center for non-experts as well. We particularly wanted to provide scientifically-based information to school children and to amateur naturalists and gardeners. Thus was the PIC born.

We conceive a Web-based portal that will link to a wealth of primary and secondary resource material and also support direct interaction between novices and experts - all in the service of fostering respect and love of the natural world.

Some of our ideas about PIC are that it will include:

  1. a search and retrieval feature for plant identification and information
  2. a browsable collection of plant herbarium images perhaps supplemented by scanned images of these plants in their natural settings
  3. a simplified key or glossary of useful terms to enable more sophisticated plant identification
  4. an opportunity to "Ask an Expert" plant and gardening questions through a Web connection to the Botanical Garden
  5. a posted list of Frequently Asked Questions
  6. lesson plans for a plant collection and identification project
  7. postings of exemplary herbarium specimens prepared by sixth grade students
  8. links to other Web sites that we judge to be relevant and of high quality
  9. annotated bibliographies of selected print material
  10. e-mail capability for feedback and suggestions plus a discussion forum.

Other ideas include a featured Plant of the Month, a botanical treasure hunt, a chat room, local distribution maps, and a feature on endangered plants. We might take a leaf from the birders who performed a "Great Backyard Bird Count" and do periodic backyard plant surveys. We will use existing nature trails and develop a student project to study and label the plants along the trail. We may experiment with various multimedia for the Web site, such as some time lapse photography on a video clip, audio or video clips featuring experts interacting with children, video tours of natural history areas and the like. Of course, we have to be mindful of resources and not over-promise and under-deliver.

Our third objective is to develop educational experiences using primary research materials from the herbarium for sixth grade students. We will be holding a curriculum workshop for McDougle science teachers and the school librarian this summer. Existing lesson plans will be studied, expert advice sought, and varying activities for students to accommodate different learning styles and interest will be developed. If all goes well, the model curriculum will be implemented in a semester-long project involving the collection, pressing and mounting of museum-quality specimens culminating in a public display of the projects in the school/public library and recognition of the best ones. A select few will be digitized and displayed on the Web site and possibly accessioned as specimens in the University Herbarium.

If the school curriculum project is successful, the lesson plans will be submitted for state and national distribution to LEARN-NC, (Learners' and Educators' Assistance and Resource Network of North Carolina) and to GEM (Gateway to Educational Material), a project of the U.S. Department of Education.

The fourth objective is to test the usefulness of digital images of herbarium specimens for plant identification and for inspiring the public and public school children with the aims and methods of professional botanical science. To make our Project successful as a prototype for similar projects, to make it possible to expand this model to other sites, or to include other capabilities, we must demonstrate that our idea of using primary resource digital herbarium images will be useful to sixth graders and to the general public. We will collect some global measures of use and satisfaction and some particular measures relative to response speed, perceptions of accuracy and comprehensiveness, reliability and validity. We will test the interface, its navigational design, vocabulary, and indexing (metadata effectiveness).

More than this, we are interested in ascertaining whether and how well the PIC can inspire the public and school children with the values that professional botanists hold and the methods they use. To do this, we will include some attitude change objectives and measures in the curriculum we will be assisting the science teachers in designing this summer. We also plan some participant observation with consenting adults to ascertain which features are the most helpful and which the most puzzling.

The PIC Project will promote the flow of scientific information to groups interested in botanical science and will provide a learning tool for public school students. Through research in image access and metadata effectiveness, PIC will contribute knowledge of Web-based learning tools to the museum and library communities.

About the Authors

Dr. Evelyn Daniel, former dean of the School of Information and Library Science, and Dr. Peter White, director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, are co-principal investigators for the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded Plant Information Center Project. Drs. Daniel and White have collaborated on other digital botanical projects. Dr. Jane Greenberg has expertise in the analysis and use of metadata. She is responsible for the database and its structure of links to accommodate the needs of the non-researcher audience. Dr. James Massey is the Director of the UNC Herbarium.

Editorial history

Paper received 1 May 2000; accepted 10 May 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Plant Information Center by Evelyn Daniel, Peter White, Jane Greenberg, and James Massey
First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June 2000),