How to arrange a new Herbarium?

Linda Rader LRADER1 at UNL.EDU
Wed Jan 30 14:55:00 CST 2002

A lot of valid arguments have been offered on both sides of the
'alphabetical vs. systematic' filing dilemma in herbaria.  I pondered this
subject to near distraction in the mid 1990's and ended up shuffling the
entire vascular plant collection (175 full-size cases) from an 'alphabetic
by family' to a 'phylogenetic by family (Cronquist system)' system.  It was
a pain.  It was well worth it.  Here are my thoughts.

1.) The Most Important Consideration: Decide who will be the *primary*
users of the collection.  Arrange the collection in a way that is logical,
intuitive and efficient for how this group thinks about plants and how they
will need to access the specimens. The strong opinions expressed on TAXACOM
are evidence that not everyone shares the same sense of what is rational
2.) Putting aside all the philosophical arguments, the herbarium is no more
than a library of plant specimens.  Ask "Can you easily find what you're
looking for?" and "How much work will it take to make adjustments and
re-arrangements down the road?"
3.) Accept that, as the collection grows, you will need to make changes in
the filing system that require at least some rearranging and
re-foldering.  Given that fact, what information should be in permanent ink
on the folders and what should be in pencil (erasable)?  Re-foldering is
expensive and even turning old folders inside out to re-label is

We chose an over-all phylogenetic family arrangement because it gives us
the flexibility to browse through related families in the same way one
browses like-subject books on the shelves of the non-fiction section of a
library.  This is a must for identifying poor or incomplete specimens that
defy the keys.  Also, after the big move, we had a change of heart and
dumped the Caesalpiniaceae and Mimosaceae back into the Fabaceae, which
took a minimum of work, because we weren't shifting a C & an M into the
F's.  They were right next door, where they would likely be in most
phylogenetic schemes, but never in an alphabetic arrangement.  If you don't
care about or need either of these features, then the alphabetical (or some
other) scheme might make better sense for you.

So, my suggestion is to think about how and by whom the collection will be
used and work from there.  As an added thought, initially there was one
staff member here who was 100% against the changes we made.  He now loves
it!  Good luck and let us know what you decide.


Linda  Rader
Collection Manager,  C.E. Bessey Herbarium (NEB)
University of Nebraska State Museum
Lincoln, Nebraska   USA
email:  LRADER1 at
voice: (402) 472-1607

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