Digital Collections

The Botany Libraries are involved in a variety of scanning projects. Some of the most recent can be found below. Please contact us with any access or publication inquiries.

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The United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)

The United States Exploring Expedition was the first government authorized naval expedition for scientific observation and an important step in the growth of science in the United States. Six ships sailed from Virginia under the command U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) to explore and survey the southern seas including the Polar Regions. The expedition is also referred to as the “U.S. Ex. Ex.” or the “Wilkes Expedition.”


The Botany Libraries U.S. Exploring Expedition material was scanned as part of the Harvard University Open Collections Project. The project, called Expeditions & Discoveries, was made possible with the generous support of the Arcadia Fund.


Edward Palmer Collecting Trips to Mexico and the Southern United States, 1853–1910

Edward Palmer (1829–1911) made botanical, zoological, and archaeological collections in the southwestern United States and Mexico. Palmer collected over 100,000 specimens and discovered approximately 1,000 new species. He also visited local markets to procure plants and study their uses in local cultures, and his documentation of plant uses helped found modern ethnobotany. Palmer joined C. C. Parry’s 1878 expedition to Mexico, where he explored burial mounds and collected plants. He returned repeatedly to Mexico, making botanical and ethnological collections in Durango, San Luis Potosi, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas.

While Palmer sent his specimens to major research institutions for analysis, many of his specimens lacked appropriate data about location and time of collection. Important information has survived in his field notes.


The Botany Libraries' Edward Palmer material was scanned as part of the Harvard University Open Collections Project. The project, called Expeditions & Discoveries, was made possible with the generous support of the Arcadia Fund.


Archives and Specimens from the Boston Metropolitan Park Flora

In 1894 the Metropolitan Park Commission in Boston, Mass., commissioned the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot to survey of the plants of the woodland reservations. The firm appointed Warren H. Manning to lead a team of volunteers in consultation with local botanists to accomplish the work. The results were compiled, edited, and published by Walter Deane in 1896 under the title, Flora of the Blue Hills, Middlesex Fells, Stony Brook and Beaver Brook reservations, of the Metropolitan Park Commission, Massachusetts. Another outcome of the successful amateur-professional collaboration was the founding of the New England Botanical Club (NEBC) in 1896.  


This collection presents the historic materials from various collections associated with Walter Deane’s Metropolitan Park census and includes nearly 2,000 specimens, 40,000 pages of manuscript material, and published books, articles, and maps. Funds to digitize the collection were generously provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2010-2014).


Collection of Botanists' Autographs, circa 1740-1895

 Dr. Asa Gray began this collection of autographs during his first visit to Europe in 1839. He received many as gifts from Adrien de Jussieu, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, and other friends. He made large additions on his later visits to Europe, especially in 1869 through the generosity of Vincenzo de Cesati of Naples. Many were added from his personal correspondents.

 In 1890 Isabella Batchelder James gave her valuable collection that included autographs of early American botanists and their correspondents to be incorporated with Dr. Gray's collection.  Mrs. James’s collection was rich in portraits and complimented the many engravings that Dr. Gray obtained during his visits to Europe. Mrs. Gray later added a large collection of photographs of botanists. Mrs. Gray arranged and mounted the autographs, adding birth and death dates, the position, the distinguishing work, and the plant names for each. She also noted the record number of those books found in Pritzel's Thesaurus, the locations of collections,  and whether the botanist had contributed to Torrey and Gray's in the Flora of North America.

She restricted the collection to those made by Dr. Gray and Mrs. James. But where Dr. Gray had portraits and no autographs she tried to supply the autographs. She also added a few of the early collectors in America and those connected with the Herbarium since Dr. Gray's death.


There are 877 individuals represented from the mid-1600’s through the early 20th century. Highlights include letters penned by Erasmus (1731-1802), Charles (1809-1882), and Francis (1848-1925) Darwin. In addition to notable naturalists, the collection includes letters by Benjamin Franklin (London, 26 June 1774) and Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1808). Funds to digitize the collection were generously provided by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences through the Harvard College Library in 2013.  


Field Notes and Plant Lists

Harvard University Herbaria are known worldwide for the rich collections of type specimens that have been collected and curated by Harvard botanists since the establishment of a University Herbarium in 1864 under the supervision of Asa Gray. Documentation associated with the collections, including field notes, diaries, correspondence, maps, and photographs, are preserved in the well-curated Herbaria archives. These primary sources often enhance and elaborate on specimen label data.

Two projects have expanded access to these collections by funding the digitization a wide array of materials.

Global Plants Initiative Field Notes Collections

The project includes the field notes of the botanical collectors Richard Alden Howard (1917-2003), Cyrus Guernsey Pringle (1838-1911), Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), and Charles Wright (1811-1885), as well as field notes that document  a series of botanical expeditions to the Gaspe Peninsula from 1904 through 1923. The Miscellaneous Plant Lists Collection documents the handwritten collection ledgers of the Gray Herbarium from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries. Noted collections include those of August Fendler, Charles Christopher Parry, Benjamin L. Robinson, Robert Allen Rolfe, and Sebastián Vidal y Soler. The number of collectors and lists in each volume ranges from one to as many as seventeen, and comprise 102 lists organized by collector, location, dates, and species.
This project was generously funded by the Mellon Foundation in 2014.

Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project

Archival materials can often be spread across a number of collections and institutions.  This project provides open access to field notes from institutions across the United States, and reunites fragmented collections through institutional collaboration. The Botany Libraries digitized over 59,500 pages of material in 577 files from noted collectors such as Henry Nicholas Bolander, Carol William Dodge, Merritt Lyndon Fernald, Edward Palmer, Roland Thaxter, and William Gilson Farlow.
This project was generously funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).



Seaweed Prints by M.A. Robinson, 1885

In the late 19th century, it was fashionable to press and mount seaweed.  The book Sea Mosses: A Collector's Guide (1881) by A. B. Hervey outlined how to properly press and mount various types of algae.

Place the seaweed in a bowl of salt water to free it from excessive sand and shells. Then the mounting paper is brought underneath the specimen so the specimen is resting on top. The drying and pressing process consists of layering the mounting papers with various types of blotting cloth and additional paper topped with weights. Most seaweed in this case will adhere to the mounting board via gelatinous materials emitted from the plant itself. In the case that the plant does not contain enough material, different types of gummed paper and adhesives are used.


It is unknown where Mary Robinson collected her seaweeds but it was likely in the waters near Cottage City (currently Oak Bluffs) on the northeastern coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Robinson lived in Foxborough, Massachusetts, which is not coastal, so the collecting was not done there. She later lived in Providence, Rhode Island, which is on the coast, so she may have collected there.

Mrs. Constance Neelon of Southern Pines, North Carolina donated the scrapbook to the Farlow Herbarium Archives in August of 2002. Mrs. Neelon's family summered on Martha's Vineyard beginning in 1932 and her husband found the scrapbook around 1950.


The Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) Herbarium

Henry David Thoreau was a naturalist who collected specimens that included hundreds of New England plants that formed his personal herbarium. Thoreau first encountered botany as student under the tutelage of Phineas Allen at Concord Academy. He continued his studies in natural history at Harvard from 1833-1837 and referred to standard references of the day like Jacob Bigelow’s Florula bostoniensi.

Thoreau first began using Latin names for plants in his Journal  in 1842. The arrival of naturalist Louis Agassiz at Harvard in 1846 and the publication of Asa Gray's Manual of Botany in 1848 influenced Thoreau's interest in botany. He apparently began collecting herbarium specimens in 1850 and continued to read, increase his field observations, and collect until his herbarium grew to about 900 specimens.

Thoreau created his herbarium primarily as a reference collection to identify plants found in the vicinity of Concord and other locations in New England. He identified most of his specimens with Latin names in pencil, but noted the collecting site on only about half of them.


Henry David Thoreau bequeathed his herbarium to the Boston Society of Natural History in 1862. The Society donated the collection to the Concord Free Public Library in 1880. It was given by the Library Trustees to the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University in 1959. 646 oversized specimens currently reside in the Archives. Funds to digitize these materials were generously provided the Mellon Foundation as part of the Global Plants Initiative in 2014.