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!