How to arrange a new Herbarium

Jim Croft jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Wed Jan 30 07:26:14 CST 2002

> In this part of the world, we now have a lot of people who have learned
> about grasses using completely artificial keys, and arrangement of taxa
> in floras and herbaria (the arrangement being alphabetical).

A pet peeve of mine are Floras arranged to what was considered to be a
systematic arrangement at the time... in in the field (and in the
herbarium) you can not easily flick to family/genus/species without
going to an index first. For curatorial and identification work the
Ferns of Queensland, for example, is a joy to use, the Flora of
Australia is a pain.  Which is why I lookd forward to the day when
Floras are available as on-line databases, viewable in any order you

Of course this would not be a problem if there was an obvious system
that systematists could agree on and stabilize... :)

> I honestly believe we do students, and ourselves, a great disservice by
> using the alphabet. We deny students the opportunity of what I call free
> learning - picking up information about perceived relationships
> incidentally to working on something else.

There is no right answer in how to arrange an herbarium in the absence
of serious consideration of the intent of the collection and how it is
to be used.  And also its size and the resources available to maintain

The result is always an ugly compromise. The world is full of herbaria,
some famous, large and proud, arranged 'systematically' with
juxtapositions of families and genera that bear absolutely no
resemblance to comtemporary taxonomic opinion.  Some require almost a
much resorting as if we had decided to reshuffle the alphabet.  Changing
an accepted classification or taxon name has an impact on where you
you file specimens in both alphabetic and systematic arrangements.  The
alphabetic system is self indexing and you do not need to maintain lists
telling users wher to find things.

Many (most?) herbaria restrict their systematic arrangement to the level
of family and above arranging genera and species alphabetically,
accepting that it is not too much work to maintain this.  Some use
systematic arrangements at genus and even species level while a
particular group is under intensive research/use/study by a local
expert but this renders the collection extremely difficult to use by
people not imtimately familiar with the taxa.

For practical purposes in a working reference collection (as opposed to
a strictly research collection), especially where the higher systematic
is in a state of flux, if may be pragmatic to dispense with the family
arrangement altogether, arranging things alphabetically under genus. I
have resisted the temptation to do this with our pteridophytes, but our
curator of cryptogams is doing it with the mosses and liverworts in what
is probably the lagest collection of these plants in the southern
hemisphere. The argument is that the increased ease of day to day use
justifies the the time to establish and maintain the arrangement.

The flowering plant collection on the other hand is arranged according
to an antiquated alphabetical arrangement and the curators do not want
to change it, largely because they know where things are and for fear
on the large and unsatisfying task of shuffling specimens through the
shelves when a new family arrangement comes into play.

In contrast to both of these, our public reference herbarium is arranged
alphabetically by family, genus, species because this is what general
users wanting tho check things can handle.  They would probably prefer it
arranged alphabetically by genus but we figure they really ought to know
about the notion of families and like genera in families.

In reality, most (all?) herbaria do not stop everything and leap into
action as soon as a new arrangement hits the market, even if the
evidence is compelling. They just stagger along maintaining lists and
pointers until someone finds the situation unbearable and thows a tantrum.

This has become a bit of a ramble... and as mentioned in the beginning,
there is no right answer.  Decide on your audience and the purpose of
your herbarium, and then decide on the overheads in relation to what your
available ressources will allow.

And don't forget - this is a no-win game... :)


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