Content Curation for Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition

Content Curation for Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition

When we began brainstorming with the JSTOR Labs team about this project, we, the JSTOR Primary Source content team, knew that Global Plants contained a wealth of materials from Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition that included letters, specimens, and botanical illustrations. Armed with the idea to build a map connecting the specimens with the other materials, we began the hunt for more Zambezi Expedition materials in Global Plants and the JSTOR archive.

Step 1: Content Discovery

We started on the Global Plants live site searching for: letters to and from Livingstone, Kirk, Baines, and Meller; specimens collected by Livingstone and Kirk; paintings completed by Baines. We searched for anything with the keyword “Zambezi” or “Zambesi” to pull in related works. Finding content from the JSTOR Archive started with a similar approach. This allowed us to find relevant content within the journals of the Royal Geographical Society of London, the very organization that funded the expedition.  The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London includes letters and updates about the expedition before, during and after the event.

Step 2: Export Content

In both instances we worked with a “wide net” theory- capture all the records that could be relevant, export those records, and then trim out the unrelated ones.  We compiled a list of content across many collections, from different institutions, contributed over many years. With the help of our awesome Software Development Manager, Chakradhar Sreeramoju, we exported the content from Global Plants and the JSTOR archive.

Step 3: Standardization: Augmenting and Refining Data

We then got to work refining and cleaning the data, so that we had more uniform data that could be used to help drive functionality and display.  Some work was relatively automated, for example standardizing dates and personal names, excluding paintings completed after Baines was dismissed in 1860, or removing specimens Kirk collected after the Expedition ended. Others were more difficult, and required a close read to confidently include or exclude. Identifying dates and localities often required examining the objects individually; a sample of lichen and wood that Dr. Kirk donated to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew might have its place of collection listed in the description, or a letter might state in the title the location from where it was written:

JSTOR Global Plants screenshot

Step 4: Adding Geographic Context

By the end of this work we had identified 118 unique localities, with only 100 objects missing a locality. We assigned these materials a generic locality near the mouth of the Zambezi, labelled “Zambezi Expedition”. To find coordinates for the 118 localities we utilized a combination of resources, including the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online, Harvard University’s AfricaMap, the Columbia Gazeteer, and Google Maps. We also used the functionality built by Labs that overlaid the historical maps from the expedition on top of current maps. This was particularly helpful for working with locality place names that were identified on the historic maps but are no longer in use.


The work to identify localities is definitely a challenge to replicating this project for other expeditions, as it did require time to locate and verify an identified locality. But the value it adds to understanding the expedition and its impact is enormous. For example, you can see what kinds of plants grew in the same areas, or compare the Combretum imberbe Wawra specimen that Kirk collected in 1859 to the sample of Combretum imberbe Wawra wood the expedition donated to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the following year. Or, examine the Dasystachys drimiopsis illustrations Baker that Matilda Smith created for Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1898 alongside the original specimen, collected by Kirk in 1859, shown in the image below.

plant drawings

These sorts of connections are certainly possible to uncover in Global Plants, but it is difficult; the 800 objects collected or created during the Zambezi Expedition represent just .033% of the 2.4 million objects in Global Plants.

A major benefit of Global Plants is that plants that were collected in the same locality or on the same expedition can be reconnected and discoverable in one place. But the size of Global Plants can make it difficult to uncover these connections if you don’t already know you’re looking for them. We see projects like the Zambezi Expedition as a way to help strengthen these connections and increase the types of discovery Global Plants facilitates to better encompass browsing and exploring. As we knew we would, we learned a lot from the process of doing, both about the Zambezi Expedition and the multitude of uses such a rich dataset provides. And we’re very happy Labs gave us the technical support, enthusiasm, and opportunity to uncover so much about the Zambezi Expedition anew.