SPNHC 2011 and necessary heterogenity

Believe it or not, Rob and Andie still Think We Can Digitize, but unfortunately had to take a break from blogging due to Rob’s travels taking him antipodal, Mapping Life in Australia, and Andie’s writing of end of term papers and not sleeping.  But all that is done — only to be replaced with new travels and continued lack of sleep, as Andie gears up for a trip Westward and Rob is somewhere in Kenya.  Last week we did manage to once again co-locate, in San Francisco, for the annual SPNHC conference, where we renewed our vows to blog about digitization like no one has blogged before!  Yeah!   So here goes:

This was Andie’s first SPNHC, and despite her prior experience working with a diverse, data-rich and, well, messy, museum collection and paleontological excavation, she was still impressed with the broad spectrum of Collections Folks represented by the SPNHC community: conservators, paleontologists, biodiversity informaticians, imaging specialists, archivists, biologists, population geneticists and more.  However, we were both left with the feeling that not only is our community diverse, but it has a lot on its collective plate — and dealing with priorities remains challenging and perhaps occasionally frustrating.  How does one digitize a collection while one is simultaneously wondering whether or not there is Secret Deadly Arsenic lurking in taxidermied pelts?  How does one have _time_ to digitize a collection when one must also catalog and re-vial a massive number of marine invertebrates, many of which need to be double-vialed because they’re so delicate that even thin paper tags can damage their wee little arthropody limbs*?  And finally — maybe most frustratingly — how does one adequately staff a museum that can only afford two full-time collections staff — but in actuality, really needs at least four specialists in wildly different domains (e.g. conservation, collections management, database administration, systematics, imaging, etc)?  The care of digital objects requires a very, very different skillset from the care of the physical; few folks are well-versed or even necessarily interested in both.

This heterogeneity of skillsets and even interest: this is SPNHC’s — and natural history collections’ — greatest strength… and weakness.  We are this extraordinarily diverse group of humans, tasks, objects and data; and there is ever-present pressure for us to split off into smaller, more manageable, more homogeneous groups.   But here’s the thing: this heterogeneous mass — that _is_ our community; natural history collections aren’t just objects and they aren’t just data — they’re both.   Worse yet, both objects and data exist in the even broader context of knowledge out there.  So natural history collections staffers are stuck accepting and ultimately embracing dualities or pluralities.  Frustrating!  Requires too much school!  But, alas: must be done, somehow.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that fossil preparators need to learn best practices in database architecture, but it does mean that fossil preparators need to be aware that database architecture is A Thing and is just as important to a collection’s sustainability as the appropriate application of acryloid.  And conversely, it also means that metadata specialists and database designers need to remember that technical specs MUST be easily interpreted and implemented by the non-technical people who have no choice but to struggle to learn to implement them!  And that fossil preparators have the right to ignore their eager but often times a bit overzealous techie friends and enjoy doing their task well.

In summary: SPNHC served as a reminder that data-minded/digitizing folks need to stay ever connected to the physical objects they are digitizing, and physical object folks need to remember that natural history specimens are next to useless without their well-curated, accessible data, or easily queried collections catalogues.   Increasingly, accessibility of data means that it must be digitized and published in ways that those data can be discovered and used most effectively by the most number of people.  We think this means that NH collections folks need to stop thinking of digitization of their collections as a task above and beyond normal everyday curation; but rather, as something that must be done along with writing out catalogue ledgers and maintaining stringent pest control.  Keynote speaker Craig Moritz spoke of a vision for a 21st century Museum.  We think that Museum is going to be an awesome, if perhaps just a bit busily schizophrenic, one.  It’s a place we’d both like to work, because we think we can digitize.

One last note: Andie was particularly heartened by a strong showing of smaller, not necessarily grant funded digitization projects in the Friday AM poster session (though Andie is maybe biased because she spent that Friday AM standing next to her small, not grant funded digitization project).  We think this shows evidence of digitization activities being increasingly incorporated into everyday collections management.  Readers — what did you think?  Were you at SPNHC?  Tell us your stories!

* per LACMNH’s Emma Freeman’s talk

About Andrea

Andrea is a Ph.D. student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is supported by the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship.
This entry was posted in collections management, data deluge, SPNHC. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to SPNHC 2011 and necessary heterogenity

  1. Judith in Ottawa says:

    Goodness, you really GET SPNHC! Thanks for the great write-up.

    By the way, Emma Freeman was this year’s winner of SPNHC’s Fitzgerald Travel Grant for young collection managers. See http://www.spnhc.org for more details on the grant.

  2. russellrusty says:

    Very insightful and pretty accurate. Sorry I didn’t meet you last week. You could explain what digitize means to you. Hope we have a chance to meet in the future. -Rusty

  3. Norma says:

    I love the post and I know it is sad that funding, funding… oh! funding is a lack. Is it possible to generate income for Natural History Collections so we can pay you oh mighty digitation data gurus? (and everybody else for that matter, as budget cuts are happening fast and furiously). I use data and I dig through piles of specimens and catalogs from two hundred years ago to get the information I need and of course having the data at the tip of my hands would make my life easier. Maybe something like the leaf snap app (Science mag. Vol. 332 p.648) that involves three Universities and the Smithsonian Institution, maybe micromanagement (like videogames). Personally, I don’t think I can digitize. And yes, I was at the SPNHC meeting and I missed the Friday session for the same reason (lack of funding). By the way, the banquet and the dance were awesome!

  4. Chris Norris says:

    Thanks Andie and Rob for a great post. What you’ve put your collective finger on is the single greatest challenge for collection management – our struggles to actually do the management part of our job. Faced with limited resources, we have to come up with a model that can somehow maintain all core activities, both “traditional” and “new” – and we need to do it soon. Strangely enough, there are actually people out there who study management; because they live in management schools, we’ve tended to be suspicious of them, but my initial encounters suggest we should be talking to them. But then, you already know this, right?

    • Norma J. Salcedo says:

      Indeed, as humans we fear the unknown. I am glad to know about good experiences with management people. Then, the multitask job of the Museum community might need to stretch a little bit more and build work relationships with them. The effort will pay, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it is definitely worth trying. After all we are talking about the preservation of collections to perpetuity.

  5. For budding so-you-think-you-can-digitze-rs, I highly recommend the book “Digitization in the Real World” (http://metroblogs.typepad.com/ditrw/about-the-book.html) produced by the Metropolitan New York Library Council (www.metro.org).

    They have put together case-studies of digitization projects. It’s a quick read full of commiseration and success stories. It’s nice to know we are not alone.

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