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Plant Record Keeping in 2003

Volume 3 - June 2003

Wyse Jackson, Diane.

Plant Record Keeping in 2003 may be a misleading title – in so far as it implies that record keeping methodology may have changed dramatically in the last few years. The objectives of plant record keeping will never change. The living collections in botanic gardens need to be correctly identified and documented to serve the needs of their users for:

  • reference (e.g. plant identification, providing plant material from their collections for pharmaceutical screening, education);
  • research (e.g. taxonomy, ethnobotany, horticulture and conservation biology);
  • breeding programmes used to stock plants maintained in botanic gardens;
  • conservation collections (long-term backup collections of wild plants in cultivation);
  • population reinforcement and reintroduction in species recovery programmes.

What has changed is the method of keeping records and the ways they can be used as users of plant records become more familiar with computers and computer graphics, the internet and web search engines. No longer do gardens just want to record the plants in cultivation and possibly produce an Index Seminum every year. In 2003, electronic plant records are used:

  • to produce labels for identification and interpretation;
  • with images attached so that plant recognition and identification is easier and makes the necessary task of plant stocktaking more accurate than just searching out the accession tag and ticking the continued existence of a plant off on a spread sheet;
  • for managing the collections; maintenance schedules alert curators of necessary work and work programmes can be adjusted accordingly;
  • for plant mapping in the garden;
  • to produce reports of plant groups in cultivation e.g. conservation plants; taxonomic and geographic groups or those of economic use;
  • contribute to larger datasets for analysis.

Botanic Garden Databases

Advances are achieved if plant records are held on a relational database where specific fields or files of data may be linked to any other field or file of data which means the information held in the system can be sorted in many ways.

Individual botanic garden needs are widely different because each garden has a different purpose; the idea of a standard plant record keeping database programme will never be an option available to the botanic garden community.

Wealthier institutions can choose bespoke packages which are tailor-made for their requirements.

Another solution for institutions that do not have the financial resources to purchase or develop ‘bespoke’ Plant Record solutions are data module programmes such as BG-BASE (supplied by Kerry Walter, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, U.K. and Mike O’Neal, Holden Arboretum, Ohio, U.S.A. Data module programmes can address the diversity of institutions - but the actual data fields allowed within these modules will not be detailed enough for one institution yet too complex for the requirements of another institution.

A third option is a universal package such as BG-Recorder (BGCI) based on Microsoft Access which needs to be adapted by the institution (see following article in this issue). It is very important for institutions to have a means of not having to reinvent the electronic plant record keeping wheel, but yet have a method of tweaking the programme to allow for their unique requirements. The solution tries to be universal, and in many cases answers the majority of an organisation’s requirements, but because it has not been developed for each individual institution, it is marginally inferior to a bespoke database management system, that has been successfully debugged over time.

Any computer programme will only be a success if it meets the requirements of the user. Data entry takes commitment and cannot be done successfully if it is just an extra chore that is done when there is a bit of spare time. Without adequate input, the data reports or outputs will not have any value to the user or the institution, and the whole process will soon be ‘sidelined’ and not given the priority that record keeping requires.

The needs of an organisation will change and an electronic record keeping programme has to allow for adaptations and amendments. These updates must be affordable, and should be seen as an ongoing expense that becomes part of the organisation’s projected yearly running costs.

Beyond the Institution

There are examples of members of the botanic garden community joining together to agree on the collective requirements of the group – the Colombian and the Dutch Botanic Garden Networks are good models of collective agreement on an information system.

Criteria for the national information management strategy of the National Network of Botanic Gardens of Colombia

  • a minimum set of basic information* to be held common by all the botanic gardens;
  • additional information, related to the mission and the unique identity of each botanic garden, will be freely available between gardens;
  • information which directly relates to the goals and to the management of a particular garden.

*The minimum amount of information about the living collections will be documented under the identification number of the collection. This will consist of the taxonomic identification (family, genus, species and common names), collection date and the information about the origin (country, primary division, secondary division locality, coordinates and habitat) and uses.

Some institutions are required to move part or most of the plant records from the local ‘institutional’ level to a more public domain, such as the website.

Institutions that have become familiar with relational databases, electronic mail and HTML type documents will now have to embrace XML type file forms and web-based data basing languages such as PHP (Hypertext pre-processor), ASP (Active Service Pages) and CGI (Common Gateway Interface). They will be used for sharing data over larger networks, whether that be an intranet or the internet.

The benefits of the internet can be used to complement a database. For example, hyperlinks can be incorporated in data results to associated websites or other information.

Online databases, by definition are not constrained by location. Data can be updated by multiple users across geographical regions.

With the growth of broadband - internet connection information online will become more visually appealing. Depending on the type of data that is shown in a database it can be made to look very different from a standard access worksheet. Graphics and even dynamic media files such as video clips or sound files can be streamed to a desktop. Innovative database designers who intend to display their data to a large public, potentially non-academic audience should make use of the internet’s capabilities. By doing so the data becomes more engaging, and appealing to a wider non-technical audience – important if we are talking about awareness for plant conservation.

For example, (the online store) is basically a database with a search function. Amazon’s attractive graphics with the functionality that predicts the kinds of products that you would like to see based upon your buying habits, and the ability to incorporate feedback on products giving a personal review really make it a joy to use. Anyone creating a database online should look to sites like this for inspiration and ideas; a great deal can be achieved.

One of the benefits of data published online is that it is available to anyone with net access and an interest in the subject matter. However anyone deciding to do this should be mindful of data security and the potential threat from hackers.

Because of the internet - loose institutional alliances may be formed on an ad hoc basis, to yield statistics and projections from temporary data that will be merged easily and quickly to be quantified and/or qualified with the subsequent results rapidly produced and published. However individual institutions will always have to feel that they are in control of their own data, willing to share it when they are in agreement with the projected aims of the consortium, but equally able to retrieve or delete their data if required. This may be because they feel that their viewpoint is not being considered or that, their data is not being sufficiently valued or is being used for purposes which have not been agreed.

Information systems have allowed us to analyse data in unprecedented quantity. In order to feed this data requirement and see a global picture – individual institutions, networks and alliances will have to find an easy and acceptable way of sharing our datasets. Our plant record keeping systems will have to cope with this data demand, without too much user intervention and time. By the same reasoning, the record keeping systems will have to add, amend, update and delete their own records in the global datasets in an automated way, keeping direct user invention down to a minimum.

This is the future of record keeping, for every global entity not just botanic garden plant records. This is what our future electronic programs should be dealing with, and where our money will have to be spent in our projected budgets.

In conclusion, it can only be assumed that Plant Recording and its tools will be rapidly evolving in the immediate future. It is very difficult to project the exact costs that will be involved, but it would be wise to proceed cautiously with the information technology budget, always allowing for that little extra for new development that was not foreseen at the start of any projection. Nothing developed or purchased at this point will ever embrace the complete global picture and adjustments will always have to be catered for as hardware and software evolves.