Cataloging

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I tend to post mostly about the more exciting parts of my job, such as excavations, preparation, and cool new specimens. I figure most people don’t really want to hear about the endless meetings, the 70+ progress reports I have to file each year, or the hours spent revising a manuscript or composing a figure for a paper. Some of the drudgery seems pointless, even to me, but some of it is critically important to caring for our collections. Today we spent the entire day cataloging specimens.

With all the preparation work we’ve done this summer, the lab has started to fill up with specimens that need to be taken across the hall to our collections storage room. But we can’t just move them over and place them in a case at random, or we might never find them again (we have hundreds of thousands of fossils). We first make an entry for each specimen in our collections database, assigning it a VMNH catalog number. The entry includes a lot of information, such as:

The exact storage location in the museum, down to the individual drawer
Taxonomic identification, to whatever degree is possible, and the name of the person who made the identification
Exact locality information
The parts of the skeleton that are preserved
The stratigraphic unit from which the fossil was recovered
The age of the specimen
Other context data (was it found in place or on the surface, was it reworked, was it associated with any other fossils)
The name of the collector, and date of collection
Whether the specimen is a type, and if it has been figured in a publication (with citation)
Various administrative data related to ownership (donation date, accession numbers, currently on loan or on exhibit, etc.)

This data is what gives a museum’s collection its scientific value. Without this information the fossils aren’t much more than interesting shapes. There is some data in the fossil itself, but most of our ability to reconstruct the past comes from being able to locate that fossil in space and time. Our mission is not just the preservation of the specimens themselves, but the preservation of the information attached to those specimens.

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