Travelling Plants: A Collaborative Project

During 2020, the Archives team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew developed a collaboration with the University of Roehampton, the University of the Third Age (U3A), and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), to create a model for the archive sector, which uses volunteer-driven, remote methods to transcribe and research collections, making them easily shareable and accessible using TEI-XML encoding. We wanted to create ways in which TEI could be embedded in the archive sector and managed by archivists with little experience of textual encoding, or time to carry out encoding themselves. In creating this model, we would also digitise, transcribe, encode, and make accessible in BHL one of Kew’s most important, but inaccessible volumes – the Kew Record Book. For Kew, it was important that the volume would be made fully accessible, as part of our commitment to transparency around our history and involvement in colonialism.

Page 18 of the Kew Record Book with handwritten list of plants

Kew Record Book. Folio 18. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 1793-1809. Contributed in BHL from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The model we created was timely, as the COVID-19 pandemic meant many institutions could no longer accommodate volunteers on-site, and remote ways of working have persisted. The Travelling Plants project built a community and model of engaging with and developing the digital capacity of older people remotely, a sector of society that particularly felt the impact of social isolation during the pandemic. We received a grant from The National Archives to carry out this project.

We split the project into four phases: transcription, TEI-XML encoding, plant names, and project celebration.

The four phases of the project: transcription, TEI-XML, Plant names, and Project celebration at Kew.

Phases of the Travelling Plants project.

We aimed for the project to be self-supporting, delivering remote training sessions, drop-in Q&As, creating protocols, and using the cloud for sharing documents. The most successful form of support was the small working groups of volunteers that we created, empowering volunteers to help each other. Transcriptions had to be checked by another member in the group, but support went far beyond this, with the groups setting up WhatsApp groups and even meeting in the Gardens once lockdown restrictions lifted.

About the Kew Record Book

Collage of images cropped from the Kew Record Book

Excerpts from the Kew Record Book

The Kew Record Book is a unique document in the history of botany and horticulture. It records incoming and outgoing plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1793 to 1809. This was a period of intense activity at Kew, under the informal directorship of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. With the support of King George III and major trading bodies such as the East India Company, Banks sent gardeners from Kew to accompany plant consignments, collect specimens and supervise colonial botanic gardens across the globe. Botanic gardens played a central role in the establishment of British power overseas, facilitating the transfer of food crops and useful plants between colonies, and providing staging posts for horticultural specimens on their way to Kew.

The volume opens in 1793, when William Townsend Aiton succeeded his father as superintendent of Kew. Entries are in a variety of hands, noting donors and recipients of consignments, identifying plants by their Latin botanical names. Also included are a number of copies of letters sent to and from plant collectors overseas. A particular highlight is Francis Masson’s 1798 letter from New York recounting his capture by French pirates when crossing the Atlantic (folio 84).

The volume records plant exchange for a range of commercial, colonial, and diplomatic purposes and Kew’s involvement in colonialism is clearly documented. Among the most active donors to Kew was William Roxburgh, superintendent of the East India Company’s botanic garden in Calcutta (Kolkata). Roxburgh established firm and long-lasting links between the East India Company and Kew.

Regular shipments were received from plant collectors around the world. In 1793, 82 crates arrived from the new penal colony of Botany Bay in Eastern Australia (folio 7). Banks had lobbied hard for the establishment of the colony and supplied the first settlers with seeds and plants. Two Kew-trained gardeners tended the crops and collected Australian plants on behalf of Kew.

Banks was also responsible for organising one of the most well-known – indeed notorious – of plant transfers: that of the breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean (1791-3). The breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, was proposed as a suitable foodstuff for enslaved people on British-owned plantations in the West Indies (although it only became a staple food in the Caribbean post-emancipation). The Kew Record Book includes a list of plants brought back to Kew from the voyage: from Tahiti, New Guinea, St. Helena, St Vincent and Jamaica (folios 10-16). Heading the list are ‘Otaheita Plants’, some with Tahitian names, but the first entry is for ‘Bread fruit 4 plants’ (folio 10).

Plants were also used to forge diplomatic alliances. In 1795 a shipment of over 300 rare plants was sent to Maria Feodorovna, “the Great Dutchess of Russia” who, the following year, would become Empress consort of Russia (folio 38). The batch was headed by the spectacular bird of paradise Strelitzia regina, named in honour of Queen Charlotte (of the house of Mecklenburg-Strelitz).

With its detailed inventories and multiple correspondents, the volume offers an invaluable resource to reconstruct botanical networks and chart the routes of plants across the globe.

View the complete Record Book in BHL.

The Encoding

To make the Kew Record Book as accessible and searchable as possible, we decided to train volunteers to encode their transcriptions. We chose to follow the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an international consortium whose XML standard is used globally to create digital texts. As a markup standard based in natural language, TEI-XML represented a relatively friendly way of enhancing the Travelling Plants volunteers’ digital skillset.

Given the limited timeframe of the project, we didn’t aim to produce a complete digital edition of the Record Book. Instead, our goal was to develop and test a model for engaging volunteers in the encoding of archival texts; to refine the model through testing and dialogue; and to produce guidance that could be used by other archive-based projects. Travelling Plants volunteers were given the option of learning TEI-XML and encoding the text after they had begun transcribing and annotating it. Almost all tried their hand at encoding. Approximately half shifted their focus to encoding during the project’s final phase, while the others completed the transcription and annotation of the volume.

Because TEI-XML was new to all of the volunteers, we created detailed written guidance complemented by ten training videos. Three real-time tech support sessions on Zoom gave volunteers opportunities to share their learning with one another and to ask questions about the most technically challenging aspects of encoding the Record Book’s many types of entries. Volunteers then worked in teams to produce their digital edition.

By the end of the project, approximately 100 pages had been encoded in a way that made the Record Book easily searchable by the names (in all forms) of plants, people, ships, and institutions, as well as by places that can be plotted on digital maps. The digital edition and training materials will be made available via the Travelling Plants website, as soon as final revisions are complete. In the words of one volunteer, “I never thought I would enjoy coding but now I find I don’t want to stop!”

In the end-of-project evaluation, our volunteers said making history accessible and deciphering the handwriting were enjoyable parts of the project. However, the group work was the universally most enjoyed:

I’ve really enjoyed working on the transcriptions, in particular the research and ‘detective’ work to firstly figure out what a letter or word is and then the investigation into the people and places which really brings the archive alive, and it’s been lovely to work with my group and get to know them.”

It was a gift in lockdown to have something else to focus on other than the virus, masks, social distancing.

Word cloud of feedback from volunteers. Most prominent words include: handwriting, reading, people, time, researching, interesting, plants, addictive

What the volunteers found most enjoyable about the Travelling Plants project

The least enjoyable part was unanimously reading the handwriting!

By developing and sharing our protocols and training resources, we aim to empower other archivists to work with volunteers to create open access, shareable transcriptions that will help open their collections to the world.

Kiri Ross-Jones is the Senior Archivist & Records Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Dr. Kate Teltscher is a cultural historian and writer. Her most recent book is the acclaimed Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. She is the author of India Inscribed and The High Road to China (shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography). She is an Emeritus Fellow at the University of Roehampton, Honorary Research Associate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Dustin M. Frazier Wood is a Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Roehampton, London.