Online Collections: An Underutilized Tool

Hey there every peoples!

Well that’s another year down! Sorry i haven’t posted as much as i should have. But i have been quite busy, especially with school. Thanks god it’s over (for now at least). I’m actually work on a huge post, probably against my better judgement. No doubt in over my head, i have been chipping away at it for the last week or so. But i didn’t think i’d get it in before year’s end. So i instead opted for a much shorter, quicker post that i have actually been meaning to do for some time now. That’s all i have for now so enjoy!

Now we know that museums are always complaining that they can only put a small portion their collections on display. That’s certainly true, but I still don’t think that’s any excuse for not trying to diversify their collections and instead opting for the same material everyone else displays. But there are many out there (sadly I’m amongst them for reasons you should already know by now) who can’t help but feel some resentment towards museums that keep all these fabulous relics of the earth had no way, seen only by the few scientists allowed access. How can people know what their heritage really entails? How can interested folk like me see the specimens, out of either sheer curiosity or to compare them with something they found? Well one possible solution is online databases.

For those of you who don’t know, there are several institutions out there who have moved their collection databases online. These can be easily searched by anyone, academic or otherwise. Now this certainly has the potential to ease the animosity that some like me possess by allowing us to see just what is behind locked doors. They can help us to better understand the breadth of the museum’s collection. Hell, it could allow us to discover specimens we never knew existed. Now of course this isn’t a complete fix. It still doesn’t compare to seeing the real deal, which remains sealed away. But something is better than nothing. Unfortunately, museums have been very slow to adopt this new method of outreach. And the few who have certainly leave room for improvement.

Listen to the bottom and work your way up shall we? Sitting down at the bottom is the Museum of the Rockies. This lame entry into the world of online databases consists of a static list of genera and species ordered alphabetically. So right off the bat there’s a problem: you cannot narrow or broaden your search. You’re stuck with whatever they put in place. But that ain’t the worst of it. Their list only goes up to K, with only one entry (Knightia, famous herring of the Green River formation). The Museum of the Rockies is mostly Honda one the largest collections of dinosaurs in the world, including vast holdings of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. And yet they’re not even represented on this list. The individual specimen logs consist of unspaced rows of information. Each specimen appears to have an accompanying photo but it is broken. Why even bother in the first place? Probably their only saving grace is that they do give some detailed information about the specimen but that’s it. Banged up job doing their guys!

Not like any of the next entries are much better. In fact there’s quite a few that that fall into this level. First up we have the San Bernardino County Museum. It causes me great pain to write this because I really do like that place. Then a friendly knowledgeable staff and I think it has really cool fossils in the collection (which Eric was nice enough to show me a few of, that one time). But all their search consists of is a menu bar to select your department and then a single bar to enter a search keyword. And you really have to make sure you spell the word correct or try and anticipated the word even exists in the database. Individual profiles provide only the barest of information and no picture to speak of. Pretty much on par is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. There is consists of three bars. The first one simply allows you to sort the listing by one of several categories. The next is a search bar to enter the specimen ID number (a useless feature if you’re not a scientist or familiar with the collection). The third is the same as the second but with the locality ID. This means that you can only use the first toolbar which then takes you to a set of rather confusing and rigid search parameters. Because you can’t simply leave the field blank, your results will get skewed most foul. And of course, no pictures. This is a tragedy because like the San Bernardino County Museum the place sounds like they have some really cool fossils in the collection. The San Diego Museum is barely a step above, with a few search bars of different categories. Like the others it displays the scantest, bare minimum type of information. Once again, this makes me sad because I know based on their excellent exhibit that they have some really unique and interesting fossils.

The final entry in the subpar department may surprise you. No better than these meager databases I have laid before you is the one and only American Museum of Natural History. You must be wondering “can such an important and reputable institution have a crappy online database?”  Turns out they can. Their basic search consists of little more than a keyword bar with a secondary bar that allows you to differentiate between “all specimens” and “image specimens”. Might as well just go with that over the advanced search. Three of the bars consist of catalog number, accension number, and “other numbers” (no seriously, that’s an option). I already established in the last paragraph why such choices are irrelevant and useless to the common man. The other three bars are for taxonomy, stratigraphy, and locality. As of the like that you better have all your spelling and names in order. Everything was possible but they actually provide less information than any of the places previously listed. You just get the component, the locality , collector , and catalog number. For some reason you only get the actual name of the species in the search, rather than its individual profile. Lastly some specimens do have photos but you can’t blow them up or anything. And they are too few and far between. You should think the place is esteemed as the American Museum of Natural History would do better.

So after all that griping did I really find anyone with a satisfactory online collections database? The answer is yes, actually. The first is the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology. The maid had an edge because they are a small museum but whatever . They have a good variety of fields to help you narrow your search in the individual profiles have all the relevant information. Not as detailed as the next two, but definitely a step in the right direction (and certainly more than most of the other guys we’ve talked about ). They have not a photo to speak of, but maybe this is because it’s relatively new. And besides that might get fixed in the near future (see below).

And now for the pinnacle, the best of what online collection databases has to offer.  They are tied with one another and it is safe to say that they are way ahead of the competition. They’re by no means perfect, but definitely the best we’ve got. I’m talking about the online collection databases for the California Museum of Paleontology (at UC Berkeley) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Both have quite similar layouts which may or may not be a coincidence considering they actually work. Each search offers a wide variety of choices to help you narrow your search. You could divide between vertebrates, invertebrates, or plants. You can search as much as an entire country or as little as an individual county. You’re not just restricted to general time frames; you can actually go down to the epoch if you need to. You can search the formation or if you know what you’re looking for just go with the genus or species. Now would be nice if you could narrow it down a little bit more to the member of the formation but hey you can’t have everything. Each individual profile offers an extensive range of information, the one they specimens slots are empty. If these can be filled they should because it makes a record looking complete; if it can’t be filled then it should just be labeled as unknown. Many specimens have photos that can even be blown up. But like the American Museum, they are a scarce commodity. With Berkeley in particular, they get a few demerits because there seemed to be a few specimens missing from the database. These are mainly specimens I’ve heard of from other people, such as specimens from the Pismo formation and placing fossils from the Guadalupe dunes. , Makes you wonder what else is been left out. So as you can see there is certainly room for improvement but I will tip my hat off to these two institutions for at least creating intuitive and even useful online databases.

Now before you start making excuses, like how they don’t have the time or resources or people to do such a thing, let me say that paleontology seems to be having a bit of an image problem as of late. Like I said, people who seem to have this kind of resentment towards museums because the majority of stuff cannot be seen. Online databases are a chance to at least stem that tide. One not the same as viewing the real thing, people would nonetheless be able to view all the specimens that a museum holds without all the trouble of trying to manage visitors to the collections. People are slow to adopt the “shared heritage” argument because they have no idea what the true extent of their heritage is. They need to be able to see that in one form or another, to truly understand it. And it might not be as hard to achieve as you might think. I have a camera, a flickr account (a pro account I might add), passion, and am willing to work for free. I mean I’m completely willing to devote my time and energy to helping museums bring their collections into the digital age. Hell I’ve been trying to do it with Andy Farke Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology. But I haven’t heard back from him in a while, that’s probably just because he’s been busy (at least as far as I can tell). It’s not like I would just photograph the Alf’s collection to be done with it. Anyone else out there, from San Diego, LA, to Berkeley, and maybe even beyond: I’d be more than willing to help you photograph your collections and plug them into an online database. I like taking pictures, I love fossils, and can’t wait to get into the world of paleontology, even if it’s as a volunteer (and let’s face it, you guys practically run on those!). I want to build my own museum because I want to share fossils with the people of the world. I want to give a platform to the fossils that are so often overlooked and not known because they’re in the collections were no one can even know they exist. But you have a chance to rectify that by creating online databases. We are still in the infancy of the digital revolution. Technology has already taken our field in ways we never thought possible. And now here is an opportunity easily within reach, to advance the cause of science even further. You can open the doors to the museum unseen without even turning a key. Bring your collections out of the dark and into the light of the public eye. Because how can people appreciate the fossil record when so much of it remains hidden?

Till next time!


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