Managing the Digital Archive at Kew Gardens

For most IT directors, the vast majority of the images held across the corporate network are an irritant: holiday snaps, cartoons and other multi-megabyte (MB) files all consume valuable disk and back-up resources unnecessarily.

Ken Bailey, IT manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, takes a different attitude to images, reckoning on growing his bank of files by roughly three terabytes a year.

These, of course, are no ordinary images. As part of an on-going process to digitise records of specimens, drawings and old periodicals in detail, images are captured at high resolution (600 dots per square inch), resulting in an average file size is 200MB.

While the gardens are renowned for their beauty, fewer people are aware of the volume of research that takes place at Kew. It is home to a vast collection of plants – living and dead. The Kew Herbarium alone contains over seven million dried specimens, some dating back to the fourteenth century.

“The problem for me is that the researchers inevitably want to look at pictures at levels bordering on the microscopic,” explains Bailey. This has entailed capturing and storing enormous image files.

“We’re currently at the tip of the iceberg in digitisation."

Ken Bailey, IT manager, Kew Gardens

Kew has also had to impose a strict metadata policy across its growing digital archive. Researchers use this to access specific parts of the collection relevant to their work. Implementing the system required detailed discussions with various interest groups to ensure that the most appropriate information was being recorded and included in the metadata.

In light of the sheer volume of material, there is no formal aspiration to digitise everything immediately. Rather the team at Kew is progressing gradually on a project-by-project basis. “We’re currently at the tip of the iceberg,” explains Bailey, “but with each new project we are able to offer new opportunities for students and visitors to get the most from our collection.”

However, Bailey also has the problem of providing communications across the multiple locations of the Kew campus. Researchers in various buildings need access to the digital archive and that has meant installing a network capable of handling the movement of large files.

To facilitate that, Kew has installed a gigabit Ethernet network from Extreme Networks that links all of its campus sites – but not without some careful planning. “I can’t just go out and dig up the plants at Kew to lay some cable,” says Bailey. No matter how good the digital images, botanists might have something to say about the loss of originals.

Further reading

Science at Kew: Kew Gardens Data Collections

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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