100 Years & 9,000 Specimens: Converse’s Ravenel Collection to be Digitized
Converse College is a partial recipient of two grants totaling $2.5 million. One grant is from the National Science Foundation (NSF) while the remaining allotment is from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grants will appropriate funds to digitize both the Henry William Ravenel Collection, which is primarily owned by Converse College, and the specimens in the herbaria of South Carolina.
Converse shares the NSF grant with several other colleges and universities in South Carolina, while the NEH grant is shared with the University of South Carolina. The collective project will digitize plant collections from statewide South Carolina. This is part of a larger project to build a digital inventory of plant specimens from 13 states in the Southeast.
The grants support two different digitization projects. The NEH grant will go towards the digitization of the Ravenel Collection. Henry William Ravenel was a premier botanist in the American Southeast during the middle of the 19th century. The digitization effort includes specimens, scientific papers, and correspondences between Ravenel and botanists of his time.
The NSF grant is for the digitization of various herbaria in South Carolina. This is being coordinated by the Clemson University herbarium in addition to Converse’s role. Once the specimens have been digitized, information will be collected and added to each digital file, creating an easily searchable collection. This expansive database will simplify the fieldwork for researchers.
“Our herbarium is one of the best small college herbaria in the nation.”
Dr. Douglas Jensen, Associate Professor of Biology, and Dr. Jeffrey R. Willis, Director of Archives and Special Collections, are leading the digitalization aspect of the project. Converse students are participating in the herbarium digitization project which began this summer. Students have been trained in digitalization techniques and are responsible for scanning specimens, some more than 100 years old and entering relevant data. “In the herbarium digitization project, we can provide students to help with the project at Converse,” Dr. Jensen said. “After the initial digitization students will enter more detailed data about the specimens.”
The H. W. Ravenel Collection of Converse College is comprised of Ravenel’s letters with fellow botanists from the mid 1800’s, in addition to his substantial plant specimen collection. Henry William Ravenel(1814-1887) was one of the foremost botanists of the 1800’s. Ravenel was a dedicated collector of fungal specimens and vascular plants. His personal herbarium encompassed nearly 7,000 specimens, with his vascular plant collections housed here at Converse.
Since the early 1900’s, Converse’s own collection has been consistently growing, with the addition of interesting specimens from both faculty and students. Converse’s meticulously-curated herbarium is held in high regard in the U.S.. Dr. Jensen believes Converse’s extensive collection will stand out amongst others and be in high demand by those searching the new digital inventory.
A research project needs to be deemed a high-priority for the National Science Foundation to receive funding. Dr. Jensen echoes the critical need for this digitization project. “Preservation and documentation of biodiversity are considered to be critical among the scientific community,” Dr. Jensen said. “This type of project facilitates many other research projects related to biodiversity. Scientists can use such collections to help track changes in population sizes and movement of species over time.”
Dr. Jensen also emphasized the broader aspects of having these collections digitally accessible for both students and scientists around the world. “Herbarium specimens are essentially the raw material for studies in plant systematics, diversity, and evolution of plants,” he said. “This project makes that material accessible to more individuals for much less money than visiting the collections themselves.”
Dr. Jensen hopes future grant opportunities will provide for digitizing Converse’s fossil collection. “Our herbarium is one of the best small college herbaria in the nation,” Dr. Jensen said. “It is large, diverse, and well-kept. Because of that, the increased use of our collection, and visibility of Converse itself stands to be greater than that for many other collections.”