University and Jepson Herbaria's One Millionth Record Tells Our Past, Showcases Our Future

July 20, 2023

The University and Jepson Herbaria ( is located at the ground level of the Valley Life Sciences building on the UC Berkeley campus, adjacent to both the VLSB library as well as the infamous, towering T. Rex skeleton. As an undergraduate Berkeley senior soon to graduate this spring, I had never noticed this museum, despite having numerous classes in the same building. After visiting with various university staff at the start of the semester, I am grateful to know about the incredible work that goes on at the herbaria and the invaluable plant collections they house.

The Herbaria houses a diverse collection of plant specimens ranging from vascular plants and conifers to algae, fungi, mosses, and lichens – some 2.5 million specimens in all. At the end of last year, in the imaging room of UC/JEPS, the museum reached a significant milestone: it added the one millionth record to its digital collection.

One million is a remarkable number, and digitizing that many records has taken a long time. The initiative started in the 1990's, with the advent of computerized museum databases. The process of imaging was implemented in the 2010’s. Now, these materials are available to the public in online portals, allowing people from all over the world to access this information for their own research and enjoyment. It is a record of life that supports research, conservation efforts, classroom studies, other herbaria, individual botanists, and the general public, worldwide.

The process of recording specimens requires a few necessary steps. First, a barcode number is created and the barcode label is affixed to the specimen sheet. The barcode number is the ID number unique to each specimen in the collection. (For older specimens with an accession number already stamped onto the sheet, the barcode matches that accession number.) The sheet is then photographed with a digital camera mounted in a light box so that the image is in focus and well-lit. A color separation guide and ruler are included in the frame to serve as references for color quality and scale. Meanwhile, a record is created in the museum’s digital database, documenting the information contained on the sheet – the specimen number, the taxonomic details of the specimen, where and when and by whom it was collected. Finally, the image is uploaded and connected to the record. 

Working in groups and shifts, students and staff have digitized as many as 800-1000 specimens per day – an amazing diversity of plants. Their efforts have unleashed a scientific record, enabling researchers to study evolution, distribution, and diversification. Digitization also protects the specimens themselves since they can be studied without physical interaction. 


Jason Alexander, Biodiversity Informatics Manager for the Herbaria, oversees the collection database. Alexander also sits at the hub of a series of portals that inciude specimens from the UC/JEPS collection and enable the sharing of data across a network of botanical partners. One of these, CCH1 (, managed by the Consortium of California Herbaria, contains biodiversity data about California vascular plants from collections worldwide. It serves as a gateway for the study of our state’s native plants from anywhere in the world. Alexander has been instrumental in rebuilding the CCH1 portal, which he cites as his favorite experience with the herbaria to date. Although he misses field research and identifying rare plants, he enjoys the challenge of recreating old technology – and building from scratch, when necessary – so that researchers can access quality data on California plant specimens. 

Gabrielle Rosa, a Curatorial Associate, shares her favorite experience working in the Herbaria: “I have the ability to work with historical specimens from some of the most famous people and have even seen novelty specimens from Darwin. I can see what they collected and when. I get an idea of how the world used to be and what the world could be, how biodiversity may happen. Specimens have been curated in a way that can be seen for years ahead. They’re like living fossils.” 

For Brent Mishler, Director of the University and Jepson Herbaria, the beauty of Herbaria includes the possibility of what can be done for the Earth in the future. DNA and seeds from the specimens are preserved in the case of catastrophic events and restoration efforts. “There are so many discoveries and diversity in specimens that you come across,” explains Mishler. “From multiple regions, you can get a feel for those environments, especially regions that are now totally destroyed.” 

With this milestone passed, the herbaria can turn to recording the next one million specimens. As Director Mishler recognizes, the knowledge embodied in the collections hold scientific significance for coming generations of research. With every newly digitized specimen, UC/JEPS is not only granting us access to our past, but showcasing the implications for our future.

This work has been facilitated by Research IT’s CollectionSpace service. CollectionSpace provides the database and the methods for adding and updating records and images. CSpace Support, particularly John Lowe, recently retired Tech Lead for Discovery at Research, Teaching, and Learning (“RTL”), has worked closely with UC/JEPS staff to enhance the imaging and cataloging workflows, create bulk uploading processes, and, recently, to archive the high-quality camera originals in the UC3 Merritt Repository.