How to arrange a new Herbarium

Steve Boyd Steve.Boyd at CGU.EDU
Wed Jan 30 11:57:42 CST 2002

I want to wade into the discussion on arranging herbaria,
but not without some trepidation.  Several good arguments
have been made pro and con for both alphabetical and
phylogenetic arrangements of herbaria (or natural history
collections in general).  Personally, I side with those
preferring the alphabetical approach.  While it is true that
an alphabetical arrangement doesn't provide students,
researchers, or any other clients of a collection a
perspective of the interrelatedness of taxa, it does provide
a universally understandable system to access the
collection.  No matter what phylogenetic scheme is employed
to arrange a collection, it is still a hypothetical
approximation of reality.  I think we can all safely assume
that in our lifetime, our children's', and our children's'
children's' the letter "A" will unfailingly be followed by
the letter "B" and thence by "C".  I don't care how much one
argues about the intellectual benefits which accrue from a
phylogenetic arrangement of the collection, the fundamental
function of ANY filing system is to facilitate storage and
retrieval of information.  No phylogenetic system, no matter
how "correct" is going to accomplish this task as
effectively as an alphabetical approach.

Now clearly my personal bias on a collection's arrangement
may favor the functional considerations, I think it is
instructive to note that in the large collection I curate
(over 1 million specimens), the alphabetical arrangement is
the legacy of Dr. Robert F. Thorne, one of the World's most
influential and respected students of Angiosperm phylogeny.
If there was anybody one might think would hold steadfastly
to a phylogenetic filing system it would be Bob, given his
life's work.  Nevertheless, Bob recognized early on that
considering the dynamic nature of phylogenetic
classification systems, the greatest value and utility of a
collection would be served by an alphabetical arrangement.
I think this is especially true of large collections, where
any sort of reordering of specimens quickly becomes a
Herculean task.  Therefore, my advice to anybody organizing
an herbarium collection from scratch would be to go with
some sort of alphabetical system, at least for families
within major groupings such as pteridophytes, gymnosperms,
monocots, and dicots.

Steve Boyd
Curator of the Herbarium
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
1500 N. College Ave
Claremont, CA 91711
steve.boyd at

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