Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Equidae Can Labeling

For the past few weeks the Vertebrate Paleontology volunteers have been generating labels for doors on the third floor. This project is a face lift for the floor and important for collections management and use in a lot of respects. Our mission was to clearly label each door with information relating to genus names and geographic locations of the fossils inside. This proved quite a task! Old labels were handwritten on 3 x 5 index cards by many different people who have worked with the collections in the past. In some cases, these labels were faded, damaged, missing, misspelled, blank or illegible.

Our first step was to take the old label off of a door, open the cabinet, make a quick inventory of what was labeled on each drawer and made note of it to add to the new label. In most cases, cabinets contain 10 drawers holding a variety of fossils from intact skulls to fragmented ribs, from phalanges to pelvises and all from different localities.

Often the old labels reflected only partial information. The original labels had been created over many decades by different teams of people emphasizing elements dependent on their background be it scientist, intern, or volunteer. This yielded inconsistencies in the information presented as well as the style.

It was important to have labels that were not only consistent but also that would hold up to the test of time. Thanks to the grant provided by National Science Foundation,we were able to print the new labels on archival quality cardstock, one of the many improvements to the collection. The new labels are now consistent in reflecting the family, genus, species for each cabinet. Where applicable, general geographic locality or description was listed. The new labels we created using Adobe PageMaker which allowed us to create a master template to ensure a consistent layout for information.

This enables researchers and scientists to more effectively and efficiently locate specimens. Without such a system, specimens are not as easily accessible, if at all. If you can't find it, it's as if it isn't there at all!

Thanks to our select group of volunteers, the project has been inching toward completion. The task of labeling all 696 cabinets will facilitate future projects of inventory, rehousing, cataloging. In addition to completely labeling floor three, the volunteers have also worked on lining drawers, flagging damaged, uncatalogued, unorganized specimens, and inventory. Carefully documenting each step of the processes is imperative in maintaining consistency throughout all stages of the project.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Conservation Surveys and Handlebar Moustaches

So seemingly 8 billion fossil horse teeth later, and now that all of the arduous parts of my project are finished, I can look back on my work and put everything into perspective. Overall, I’m really pleased with the turnout of this project. Basically, the museum had decreed that whenever a collection is touched (or in this case, moved), there must be an assessment done to report the condition and the risks that a certain collection faces, whether it be in the physical sense (the condition of the specimen) or in the organizational sense (the management of the collection). Since the fossil horse collections were just rounding out their move between different floors, we knew that an assessment was impending. Before we even started, Lisa, Chris, and I had sat down to tailor a general conservation assessment spreadsheet to meet the museum’s individual needs. We compared various methodologies for taking these surveys, weighing the pros and cons of each. We successfully ran several waves of assessments at once, customizing previous attempts to suit the characteristics of the collections that we have specifically been targeting. My first survey, the aptly-titled space survey, you’ve already heard about in my previous post. Next came two versions of a survey method invented by a man named McGinley (who, to me, is probably the most elusive thing about this whole project… and for some bizarre reason, though I've never seen the poor man's photo, I always visualize him sporting a handlebar moustache, but that’s another story…). In these versions of his survey, I looked at two tiers of assessment levels: the cabinet drawers as a whole, and the specimens in each drawer as individuals. Lisa, Chris, and I used a random integer generator (it’s not that fancy, really, you can just check it out at http://www.random.org/) to come up with a series of random coordinates that I pitted against the storeroom to choose 100 specimens that would represent the collection as a whole in the assessment. By opening a drawer and laying a numbered Mylar grid over it, I could pinpoint each individual specimen completely unbiasedly. Then I tallied these specimens’ “scores” based on whether or not they exhibited certain characteristics (for example, “associated parts unlabeled” or “insufficient room for expansion”). After the McGinley surveys, the next assessment was a conservation assessment, which followed the same basic method of the McGinley surveys, but answered a different series of criteria for each specimen (for example, “yellowing” or “further preparation needed”). This survey was more in depth than the McGinley surveys when dealing with the actual condition of each specimen. We also conducted a risk assessment on the storage room which allowed us to assess the stability of the physical environment in which the specimens are kept (it covered everything from sprinkler systems to visiting scientists). A risk assessment identifies key risks to the collection and is used to prioritize and target the resources needed to provide better maintenance of the collections. Seeing the results of these months of work has been really gratifying. I’ve already starting to graph my collected data, and have also come up with updated, current statistics about the collections. Each survey can be used separately, or in conjunction with each other to create a virtual image of the state of the collections. It’s all a matter of how you manipulate the data. I can now instantly know, for example, how many new drawers the collection needs, or how many specimens have cracks that need repair (or at least have a pretty accurate estimation thereof). It’s really, really refreshing to just pull up a spreadsheet to get a question answered, instead of having to shimmy up 3 flights of stairs, down an elevator, up a ladder, and into a cabinet to solve a problem. This information really comes in handy when pulling specimens from the collections, ordering materials, or even applying for funding! The results were so comprehensive that, much to the delight of my résumé, Chris and Lisa even want me to publish my findings in a scientific journal, and now I’m really excited and looking forward to seeing how my data comes together. Here’s to the next 8 years of volunteering!