BG-Map TechNote

Questions and Answers Involving Use of Volunteers in Mapping and Plant Records

Updated 9/29/00


This document contains an e-mail message thread regarding use of volunteers for mapping and plant records in botanical gardens and arboreta.


FROM:	Mark Glicksman
DATE:	9/14/00

RE:	Use of Volunteers for Mapping and Plant Records

I am interested in learning how gardens have successfully used volunteers to assist with mapping and plant records - particularly:

Which tasks can volunteers perform and which tasks are not suitable for volunteers?

How do you screen and select volunteers for this specialized work?

How do you supervise volunteers?




Reply 1:

At The North Carolina Arboretum, we used volunteers to hold the prism pole for mapping. They are also helpful on inventory work and recording bloom dates. Database assistance is more difficult.

Rich Owings

Executive Director

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

18220 North Highway One

Fort Bragg, CA 95437

707.964.4352 voice

707.964.3114 fax


Reply 2:


Mark, I use 2 volunteers primarily in plant records to enter computer data.

It isn't always easy and they can make mistakes. I have found the best way to "screen" volunteers is to find out how interested they are in plants. If their interest is high, they often make good volunteers. I start my volunteers out slowly, I give them relatively easy tasks and monitor them closely- it is time consuming, but every hour spent training is well worth it. I give them a trial period of about 2 months to see if it works out for both of us. When they work out well I am constantly thanking them, because without them the many tasks would never get done. I also find that if possible, it is sometimes best to have them work in teams of 2 or perhaps 3. They tend to not get bored, have someone to talk to instead of me and watch each others work. Good Luck! Tom

Dr. Thomas M. Antonio

Curator of Collections

Chicago Park District Conservatories

Garfield Park Conservatory

300 N. Central Park Avenue

Chicago, IL 60624


fax 773-638-1777



Reply 3:

I have found that most volunteers can help us do the physical measuring in the garden. We do all the input of data ourselves, but I think if you had a qualified confident volunteer they could help do that. I do supervise the volunteers and we work as a team. That seems to work best. The volunteers at Red Butte Garden choose the area they would like to work. So if they choose plant records we have them help us do everything from measuring, identifying, labeling, etc.

What programs do you use for mapping and database??

Mindy Mortensen

Red Butte Garden


Reply 4:


Thanks for your input. I do not work at a garden. I am the developer of the BG-Map mapping program. But, I work with many gardens, some of which would like to consider using volunteers to help ease their workload.

Yours very truly,

Mark Glicksman, Glenside, PA USA

BG-Map Botanical Garden Mapping System/GIS

Mapping the world... one plant at a time

e-mail: web:

tel: 1.215.887.1100 fax: 1.215.887.1470 

Reply 5:

Hi Mark

Which tasks can volunteers perform and which tasks are not suitable for volunteers?

We have volunteers mainly working in our plant records, however we have used them to put out labels (utilizing book maps), engrave labels, and hold the prism for surveying. In plant records we have volunteers working on correcting and filling in some of the gaps in some of our names files using well recognized data sources and correcting author names and confirming that the author abbreviations are in accordance with Brummit and Powell format. Other volunteers have been confirming the native and endemic status of some of our existing wild collections on the property. One volunteer enters all of our propagations data in the propagations file and the nursery inventory data (yearly event), another works mainly on entering our monthly phenology data in plants and enters information from the yearly grounds inventory (a task that will now be greatly automated by Garden Notepad this year). We have yet another volunteer with photography skills whom we use to digitally photograph the growth and development of our collections and any other flowering or fruiting event in our collections. He uses the book maps to negotiate his way around the collections to photograph at least one plant (the same plant) of each accession every other year. Some of our volunteers have had training in Adobe Photoshop and we have found them helpful in improving and formatting our images and then linking them into the database. It is probably best to familiarize a volunteer mainly with one part of the database at a time and making a specialist out of them. This will greatly reduce the amount of errors introduced into the database. I also have volunteers doing data cleanup tasks that are simple and no-brainers from saved browse lists. I have found volunteers worthwhile to invest time into and there is almost no task that the right volunteer is not capable of doing. Depending on the volunteer and the time you are willing to invest into their initial training it can be a great win-win for the volunteer and the institution.

How do you screen and select volunteers for this specialized work?

Only very special people even offer to volunteer. Working for free in the US or any other part of the world is not a really popular thing to do for most people trying to raise a family and trying to make ends meet. I try them out on simple tasks first and check to see how they performed the task. I am also interested in seeing how well they remember their training from one week to the next. If they do well I progress them to more thought provoking data entry tasks. The trick is to get to know the needs, and the skills of each volunteer. There are many menial tasks that need to be constantly performed on a database to make sure that it is of the highest quality. I have yet to fire a volunteer. I can usually find another job for them somewhere at MBC.

How do you supervise volunteers?

I watch them perform the task many times before turning them loose on the data. I keep close and maintain an open door to their questions once they are trained. At least once or twice during their time here, I check in on them to find out how they are doing and to encourage them.

Larry Noblick, Ph.D.

Collections Manager

Montgomery Botanical Center


Reply 6:

hi Mark, this summer we used a volunteer and some interns, mainly when I was unable to help map. The one time I worked with our volunteer, the trick was to go slowly and try and keep the process fairly straight forward. I think that it is better to have the experienced mapper out with the plants and the volunteer at the Topcon (total station). I could then just instruct our volunteer, step by step. On some of the days (not all, and he only worked with interns about 5 times) when Steve went out with the interns there were lots of mistakes--I'm not sure where to lay the blame, but we've been using lots of temporary markers, and often these were entered incorrectly, so an afternoon would be wasted. I think the key is to go slow in setting up, and make sure that you communicate clearly.

So we don't have just volunteers working without either Steve or me.

Sarah McNaull

Cornell Plantations


Reply 7:


Hello Mark,

We're not currently using volunteers in support of our plant records, but are considering it. We've recently installed BG-Base and are eager to further develop our records and, ultimately, mapping programs.

Will you be making the information you gather public? It might be quite interesting for many people.


Mark Jeter

Mounts Botanical Garden


Reply 8:


Salisbury State Plant Records has not had much experience with volunteers, but last summer we had a high school student volunteer here for his community service requirements.

Instead of having the volunteer key in data, he and I went out into the field and collected plant data, which I later keyed into the system. It actually works a whole lot better having someone else with you to take measurements, but since then we have switched from using measuring tape to using a measuring wheel, so I feel that a volunteer or second worker is not necessary.

The work that a volunteer may do is really dependent on who they are and how they work. Our volunteer needed guidance and supervision while in the field collecting data, so I had to be here working with him whenever he was here. It may be different with other volunteers, but that was the only experience that I've had.

Hope it was helpful.

Josh Mitchell

Curator of Plant Records

Salisbury State University

Reply 9:

Greetings Mark-


This response won't be much help, but I thought I should acknowledge your inquiry.

In short, we do not use volunteers for mapping. Currently our 2-layered map system (hand drawn and BG-MAP) makes for a fairly steep learning curve and we've decided not to use volunteers in this area at present. But I will be very interested in the results of your survey as I'd like to use them once our system has been streamlined.

all for now

Randall C. Hitchin Registrar/Collections Manager

206/616-1118 (office) Washington Park Arboretum

206/325-8893 (fax) University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195-8010