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Access Makes an Old Collection New
Brian Bisbee


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Kristina Bartlett


Somewhere in a drawer lies the fossil your museum visitor wants to see — somewhere in one of a few hundred drawers of neatly labeled, but similar looking specimens. Not to worry: far in the past, a meticulous curator had arranged all of the specimens in this collection alphabetically by genus and species. It should be just about … here!

Only, perhaps it’s not. Unbeknownst to you, your visitor has requested the fossil under its new name, assigned in a paper only last year, instead of the old name under which it was cataloged 60 years ago. A quick trip to the library reveals the change and, sure enough, there is the specimen, seven cabinets away and four drawers down.

As any collector knows, managing the information associated with large groups of objects is a difficult chore. When you are charged with managing and preserving an ever-increasing amount of data — and are legally bound to do so in perpetuity, as museums are — the chore takes on an entirely new dimension. How do you plan for future expansion? How can you make sure that information stays up-to-date year after year? How will important institutional knowledge be maintained as different staff members with different specialties come to care for varied collections? And, most importantly, how can this store of information be made accessible for public benefit?

These problems are not new for museums, nor are they uncommon.

The Illinois State Museum maintains a sizable collection of fossil plant and animal specimens from the famous Mazon Creek area of northeastern Illinois. This collection is important for two reasons. First, it contains numerous type and figured specimens — those first examples used to describe a new species or illustrate it in a scientific paper. Also, some of the specimens are among the museum’s founding collections, received from the original Geological Survey of Illinois in the late 1800s.

These collections have supported considerable scholarly work. Unfortunately, in recent years, work on the museum’s geological collections had shifted to other areas and the Mazon Creek materials were falling into disuse. With the recent retirement of a curator expert in these specimens, it has been difficult to keep catalogs updated and to provide interested researchers access to the collection.

I was asked to devise a plan for revitalizing the collection by increasing its availability and utility to researchers and the public. By trade I am a technologist, not a geologist, and I opted to hit the problem with the largest hammer at my disposal: the Internet. Museums have been experimenting with online technologies since the early days of the public Internet because constructions such as “virtual exhibits” and online collections databases are ideally suited to meeting museums’ two primary, and sometimes conflicting, duties: preserving objects for posterity and making them available for the public to use. Access via the Internet to digitized collections often can provide enough information to answer a question without requiring a researcher to handle the actual objects, thereby avoiding risk of damage. The same technologies allow information to be disseminated to a global audience, instead of only people living near a museum or having the means to travel there.

At the same time, I wondered whether an online database could also provide a third function: assisting in the upkeep of collections information by allowing users to add new information or commentary about existing information in the digital collection.

A project such as the one I undertook has three components: identifying the information that the system must hold; designing and implementing an appropriate architecture for the system; and, digitizing the collections objects and their associated information.

I began with part of the third component. In this early phase of the project, I chose to work with only a portion of the Mazon Creek materials: the George Langford Collection, 1,672 Pennsylvanian fossil specimens from the Francis Creek Shale of Will and Grundy counties in northeast Illinois given by a single donor in 1938.

Fossils from this area are notable for the level of fine anatomical detail preserved, even in soft-bodied organisms. The collection is mostly botanical, but does include some animal fossils. The specimens themselves are mostly in the form of split ironstone concretions, with the fossil revealed in part and counterpart along the plane of separation. They range in size from small buttons to large dinner plates, and in weight from a few grams to several kilograms.

My intent was to provide a digital image for each specimen at about 600 dots per inch, sufficient detail for figuring or presenting an argument about taxonomic description. I tried digital photography and scanning prints of conventional photographs, but the method that rendered the specimens in the best detail and at the most efficient cost and schedule was to scan the specimens in directly on a flatbed scanner. For all but those specimens with very irregular surfaces, where more than a centimeter lies between high and low surface points, direct digitization produces fine results. Color fidelity and contrast in these images are as good as or better than the results achieved through conventional photography, and reproduction of details is excellent.

Determining what information to include in the database was not difficult, because the museum already maintained a thorough paper record of cataloging information about each specimen. I duplicated this paper record in the database design, making alterations at certain points in order to form a more flexible, relational structure among the data. I also surveyed records pertaining to specimens outside the Langford Collection, so that data not needed initially, but necessary for future expansion, could be included early. To this basic database structure, I added facilities for referencing any literature where particular specimens had been published. Finally, and unusually for museum collections databases, I added a tool whereby users of the database could annotate the records where they wished to provide additional information about a specimen or dispute the existing information. Users are not able to alter the existing data, but their comments will be permanent.

The architecture I designed for the system has three layers. The top layer is the code forming the Web interface and is what the user actually sees. The middle layer is an intermediate database, accessed by the Web interface and containing the collections information to be served online. The bottom layer is the database used within the museum, configured to provide the intermediate database with information automatically. This structure shelters sensitive information in the internal database, such as appraisal values, from the Web interface. It also makes it possible to expand the scope of information available through the system, simply by connecting additional collections databases to the middle-layer database as necessary.

The most difficult part of this architectural design was selecting a suitable data model for the intermediate database. A data model, in database parlance, is the framework used to arrange the information and link it relationally. I investigated several existing models from large museums and universities, but was not entirely satisfied with any of them. Ultimately, I had to construct one from scratch that was based on the museum’s record keeping practices. It is flexible enough to accommodate all of the information identified for inclusion in the database, and expandable enough to accept data from the museum’s other collecting areas, if required.

The Mazon Creek Collections Database made its first appearance on the museum’s Web site in early 2001. It quickly has become one of the most frequently visited portions of the site. Visit the database.


Bisbee is assistant curator of information technologies at the Illinois State Museum. He investigates how to use digital technologies for making museum collections more widely accessible. Bisbee has a master’s degree in museum science and a bachelor’s degree in history. He has no training in geology, but can appreciate a cool rock when he sees one. E-mail

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