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  IMLS Grant # LL 90145

The Plant Information Center
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

October 1, 1999 – September 30, 2000 (combined report)

The Plant Information Center is a partnership of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the UNC Herbarium, the UNC School of Information and Library Science, the McDougle Middle School, and the Orange County Public Library. The current phase is funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (October 1999 to September 2001).

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 objectives include:

1) Demonstrate a successful cooperation between the university, the public school system, and the public library;
2) Create and test an interactive Plant Information Center for the general public, libraries, and public schools;

3) Develop educational experiences using primary research materials from the herbarium for 6th grade students;

4) 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.

Project partners are working together to meet these objectives and to incorporate PIC into Middle School curriculum activities that involve plant identification and larger questions about man’s relationship to the natural world.  PIC’s long-term goals include making museum specimens and expert knowledge more widely available through the World Wide Web and promoting the flow of scientific information to researchers, amateur botanists, students (elementary through higher education), and other scientific communities interested in botanical science.

Project goals and objectives are being met in accordance with the timeline outlined in the Gantt chart listed in our proposal with some deviation due to student hiring and academic scheduling.  Accomplishments to date are listed below.

At the core of PIC is a relational database created to link specimens and metadata.  The database was created fall 2000.  The database structure includes fifteen major entities that identify specimen nomenclature, link specimens to the classification authority (organization or individual), identify the specimen collection locale, document taxonomic changes in plant classification, and record digital processing information pertinent to archival images of each specimen.  The database permits a user to query using a variety of criteria, such as collector name, specimen genus, common name, locale where specimen was collected and so forth.  The database also links to White Cards, additional information about each species and the USDA database (see http://dbserv.ils.unc.edu/projects/botnet/asp/plantsearch.asp).

The database currently contains 500 images representing 50 taxa of gymnosperms (pines, spruces, firs, cedars, cypress) found in the Southeast.  The Project team is currently pulling specimens for native North Carolina angiosperms (approximately 275 taxa including oaks, maples, beech, dogwood).  Approximately 1/3 of the total amount of specimens has been pulled.  Most species require 2-3 specimens to capture fine detail about leave, flower and fruit structures. Once the specimens are pulled, they are imaged at 1497x1160 resolution and archived as TIFF files.  We are archiving on CDs (each file is saved on 2 different CDs).  Each image is displayed on the web as a JPEG file with a thumbnail.  After imaging, specimen data for each specimen is entered into the ACCESS database.

Once the database was created, preliminary evaluation began summer 2000.  A survey was sent out to the Advisory Board in July 2000 to review the BOTNET searchable database.  Out of the 25 surveys sent, we only received 9 responses.  Many faculty members were out of town during the summer months.  Instead of compiling the data, comments and suggestions were reviewed and changes were made to the search tool as deemed necessary.

The system for capturing images of herbarium specimens in the UNC Herbarium employs a ProgRes 3012 digital camera (Kontron Elektronik GmbH) mounted on a Bogen System 800 copy stand.  To capture good images, the camera and lighting had to be calibrated correctly.  The camera, or Piezo, calibration causes the camera to make minute adjustments to the devices that control its light sensors in order to minimize certain types of distortion in captured images.  The computer monitor was calibrated as well as the settings within Photoshop, so that the images taken are sharp and accurate.  We originally had a problem adjusting the Photoshop gamma settings.  The video card in our Dell computer was bad, so we had to replace it.  A digital photography expert, one of our Advisory Board members, helped us get on track.

An advisory board was created in February 2000.  The advisory board consists of 31 members.  Fifteen of the advisory board members represent local teachers, botanist, librarians, technical experts, and gardeners.   The Plant Information Center Staff is also included.  The group met in February to discuss how each member can help with the project.  Small groups were created; each group was asked to answer questions that would help us make decisions throughout the year.  Since then, we have called upon advisory board members individually for help and consultation (i.e., digital photographer, botanists, education specialists).  An electronic discussion board (listserv) was also created to discuss issues and to update members about our progress.

Our original plan was to hold a 2-week workshop summer 2000 with the local Middle School teachers (4 teachers total).  We met for a one-day intensive workshop to begin design of lesson plans for our website.  The teachers plan to continue lesson plan design throughout the year and want to meet Summer 2001.

PIC maintains a public website for students and visitors: http://www.ibiblio.org/pic/, and a work and documentation website for project staff: http://ils.unc.edu/daniel/PIC/PIC.html).  The public website was developed using the tools and components available to date (October 2000).  It was created in Dreamweaver using frames. Several tools are still in the development stage (glossary, dichotomous key, Ask the Expert tool, and Contributory Module—see table below).  As these tools are refined and tested, they will be made web accessible.  We felt it important to post information along the way (recommended by the McDougle Middle School teachers).  Also, recommendations from the usability test (see below) will be incorporated into design and functionality to create a site friendly to students and professionals.

Project Website
When complete, the Plant Information Center will have seven main components incorporated into the PIC website (http://www.ibiblio.org/pic). Descriptions of each component are found in the following table.

Component Description
1. Tree Identification Keys:   PIC provides access to a collection of web-based dichotomous and polyclave plant keys that guide plant identification.   A simple dichotomous key (including pictures) is under development for the native trees of North Carolina. An example of what we are trying to accomplish can be found at URL:  http://www.treelink.org/whattree/index.htm

2. BOTNET:  BOTNET (Botanical Information Network), a virtual herbarium, is ongoing and provides a major research base for PIC. BOTNET was initially constructed with funds from the University of North Carolina’s Technology Development Program.

3. BOTNET searchable database: The database was developed in Microsoft ACCESS. It permits a user to query using a variety of criteria, such as collector name, specimen genus, common name, etc. Working with database forms, data-imputers transcribe specimen metadata from digitized copies of the original specimen labels.  Imputers are assisted by drop down menus and the UNC Herbarium Code Book (2000). ).  The creation of Active Server Pages permits the database to be accessed from the World Wide Web platform.  Searching activities are supported by a series of Standard Query Language (SQL) constructed queries, which can easily be enhanced, modified, or developed as needed (completed).

4. Glossary : The glossary is a list if botanical terms with links to illustrations to help understand botanical terms.  We already have an extensive list of terms, but need to add illustrations (under construction)

5. Frequently Asked Questions:  PIC recognizes the usefulness of FAQs and has created an electronic bulletin board that has derived its content from question/answer logs documenting patron inquiries at the North Carolina Botanical Garden Library (NCBGL).The metadata model for this component is a PIC-specific schema comprised of three elements:  general topic, question, and answer.  This schema, while simpler than the other schemas used in PIC because of the small number of elements, is very powerful because it supports knowledge discovery for visitors.  FAQs are organic and will continue to derive contents from the NCBGL logs and correspondence gathered via the "Ask the Expert” application that is discussed directly below.

6. Ask the Expert:  The "Ask the Expert" application facilitates communication between PIC users and botanical experts.  This component, currently under development, will be stored in an ACCESS database that is enhanced via JAVA programming.  A web-based form will permit users to submit botanical queries, which will be distributed to and answered by NCBG staff.  The PIC-specific schema designed for this component is comprised of metadata elements commonly found in correspondence and includes to, carbon copy (CC), subject, date, time, and reply to (when appropriate).  Some of these metadata elements will be author generated (e.g., subject), while others will be automatically supplied at the time the message is created and sent (e.g., date and time).  Access to this information will be provided via SQL, and it will be incorporated into the FAQs when appropriate.  The long-term plan is to link this application to the FAQs so that queries are first searched against the FAQs for an immediate answer before being distributed to NCBG staff.

7. Interactive Contributory Module (Botanical Pride): The Interactive Contributory Module will be designed so that PIC users can submit additional resources to a community store.  This module is under construction and consists of an HTML form, an Extensible Markup Language (XML) Document Type Definition (DTD) for a metadata schema, and an XML database. The HTML form permits the contributor to upload the resource with accompanying metadata.  The metadata schema used in this project is based on the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set (http://purl.org/dc), an international and interdisciplinary schema designed to facilitate resource discovery of electronic resources on the World Wide Web.  Once uploaded through the HTML form, a CGI (Common Gateway Interface) script processes the metadata and the resource for inclusion in the XML structured database.    This module will allow teachers to build lesson plans by integrating specimens from PIC's central database and resources from the XML database (under construction).

Website Content Development
Other information that has been collected and converted to html for our website is found below.

  • Herbarium Information:  Create a page that defines the following:  1) What is a herbarium, 2) What is the UNC herbarium, 3) The importance of natural history museums.

  • Classification:  Create a page that indicates the following:  1) What is biological classification, 2) What are natural and artificial classifications, 3) Define Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species and subcategories, 4) Report that vascular tissue, seeds, flowers and fruits are successive adaptations to land of the major groups:  Ferns, Gymnosperms, and Angiosperms.

  • Finding/Pressing a specimen:  Create a web page that explains 1) How to observe a plant- what to notice in the field, what to photograph or draw, with data sheet to print out and check off, variation in trees in the field, and 2) How to make a plant specimen-closely related to what to observe is how to make a good specimen, complete with how to fill out a label

September 29 –December 1, 2000, a science Cluster was taught by Priscilla Dennison, McDougle Middle School teacher, and Michelle Fox, PIC coordinator.  The Cluster was titled “Leaf it to me” and met every Friday afternoon.  Students were taught how to identify a specimen using books, nature walks and the PIC website.  The students assisted in our usability study.  Priscilla Dennison was the only teacher we used to test our website this year.  We hope to incorporate more schools next fall.

A usability test was completed on a group of 8 Middle School students on October 27, 2000.  The test was designed to seek answers pertaining to top-level navigation of the PIC website including:

a. Can users identify the correct tool to use for a given task?
b. How efficiently can users locate information within a tool to correctly answer the given question?

c. Can users find and interpret the site’s information to correctly answer the given question?

The test focused on how well test subjects completed twelve benchmark tasks associated with the system categories and the functions present in each.  No student answered every question during the testing duration.  It was determined that only half of the test group was able to successfully identify and/or locate the correct tool for each question, but overall most student found the correct answer.

A post-test survey was administered.  The test subjects did not find the site intuitive.  Several subjects found the BOTNET Search page confusing.  Presently, the website does not provide adequate navigational aids for returning to the home page or for moving directly to another tool.  This was due to a lack of time to finish the site before testing.  All recommendations from the study are being reviewed.

Although not part of the formal PIC architecture, the Dublin Core’s applicability for botanical documentation was explored, particularly because of the schemas goal to support resource sharing and interoperability.  The Database Administrator developed BotDC (Botanical-Dublin Core), an XML DTD, as part of an independent research project.  BotDC differs from the Dublin Core in that it includes elements specific to the identification of botanical resources, such as family, genus, and species name.  PIC would like to test the usefulness of BotDC schema for specimen documentation by botanists and herbarium staff.


  • December 18-21, 1999:  Evelyn Daniel and Peter White visited the Missouri Botanical Garden and discussed its Preserving and Digitizing Collections Images Project to see how we might collaborate in the future.

  • March 18, 2000:  Evelyn Daniel attended and presented at a conference on libraries and museums in the digital world (titled Web-wise).  The conference was sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the University of Missouri-Columbia and held in Washington D.C. from March 15-17, 2000.

  • May 10-11, 2000:  Evelyn Daniel, Jane Greenberg and Michelle Fox attended the conference titled Z39.50 in Museums: A workshop for Florida’s Collections.  Evelyn and Jane presented PIC.

  • June 12-13, 2000:  Jane Greenberg attended the NSF: Digital Libraries Initiative 2nd Meeting at Moat House Hotel, Stratford upon Avon, U.K.  She presented at the IMLS session.

  • October 30– November 4, 2000:  Jane Greenberg attended and presented at the WebNet 2000 at San Antonio, Texas (see citation below)


  • Daniel, Evelyn, Peter White, Jane Greenberg and James Massey, “The Plant Information Center,” First Monday; Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet.  Vol.5, No.6 (June 5th, 2000).

  • Greenberg, J., Daniel, E., Massey, J. and White, P.  “The Plant Information Center (PIC):  A Web-based Learning Center for Botanical Study,” WebNet 2000.

Plant Information Center
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Funding provided in part by
Institute of Museum and Library Services
Plant Information Center is produced
in conjunction with Botnet