Arboretum History, Maps Going Digital

Grid Map

Arboretum grid map, before.

Since it opened in 1934, the Washington Park Arboretum has hosted thousands of plant collections and species, each with a meticulously kept record and history. Until recently, many of those details from 1934 through the 1980s—when the database became digital—have been preserved solely on paper, scribbled on grid maps or filed in countless handwritten notes.

This past August, though, the University of Washington Botanic Gardens (UWBG) received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to begin digitizing those records and create an interactive Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map for the entire park. In the end, planners and visitors will be able to go online and pinpoint specific plants and collections within the arboretum, and access all sorts of historical details—a prospect that has everyone at UWBG and the arboretum buzzing.

“People will be able to find an area in the Arboretum, then zoom down and see which plants are there,” says Tracy Mehlin, project manager and information technology librarian at the Center for Urban Horticulture. “It will be really fascinating and educational to have all of that history linked to the plant records, and accessible online to everyone.”

Grid Map

Arboretum grid map, after.

One of the first tasks of the project was to begin surveying and verifying the geospatial coordinates of the 230-acre park, which decades ago was originally divided into 595 grid squares, each 100 feet by 100 feet. When those grid markers and coordinates are confirmed, they will be used to create a map that supports the geo-referenced database. Two- and three-person teams of students and staff have already been out surveying for the past couple months.

It’s a multi-tiered project, and Mehlin has been working closely with other partners at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS).

Sarah Reichard, director of UWBG, is the principal investigator on the grant along with Soo-Hyung Kim, a professor of plant ecophysiology. Jim Lutz, a research scientist and engineer with the College of the Environment, has been helping coordinate the student survey crews and GIS mapping, and David Campbell is working on the searchable database and Web interface. Others involved are helping with various projects, including digitizing the existing maps, as well as handwritten notes and histories attached to each of the park’s 10,000 accessions (plants specifically added and catalogued as part of the arboretum’s collections).When completed, the searchable database will be a boon for environmental research and park management. It will also expand interpretative opportunities for visitors.

“The really fun part of it starts when it’s done,” says Reichard. “The idea is that eventually you’d be able to get the coordinates of a particular collection, like our magnolias, and locate them on your cell phone or GPS unit. We can start putting together virtual tours, and visitors can go from plant to plant.”

The grant covers two years and is expected to run through August 2014. By then, anyone with a Web-connected device will have unprecedented access to most of the living collections—barring a few rare species—at the arboretum. And for the rest, you’ll just have to come out and explore the park on foot!

Images courtesy of Tracy Mehlin.

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