What do researchers want?
posted June 11th, 2013
Nina Cummings, who ably heads our photo archives in the museum shared with me an interesting blog post she saw recently. It was from The Library of Congress and was written by Bill LeFurgy, their digital initiatives manager of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. The title of the blog post was “What do researchers want from institutions that preserve digital content?” Here at the museum we are working through our digital initiatives so the post resonated on several fronts. The opening statement included this: “User expectations influence so much of what stewardship organizations do. We collect and preserve all content primarily to support use.”
I started thinking about this from the perspective of my institution and not just from the digital perspective. This was partly because he cited a quote from “The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Preservation and Access” who as a primary finding, wrote ”when making the case for preservation, make the case for use. Without well articulated demand for preserved information, there will be no future supply.” I think Blue Ribbon committees are incredibly valuable and the point of LeFurgy’s article is that researchers should be consulted about what is useful to conserve. It makes a great deal of sense to talk to the experts, the users of the data, about how they see data being used. But when I think about our scientific collections, one thing I have learned through the years is that it falls to the curators and collections staff making and maintaining those collections to make the important decisions about what to preserve. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this is that it is also essential to do this recognizing that what researchers will want to know in the future does not necessarily have anything to do with current use.
The example I frequently show people in our collection are eggs of Peregrine Falcons that were all collected around 1900. This is the time when egg collecting was at its height and shortly afterward it stopped because of concerns it was detrimental to populations and the thought that there was nothing new to be learned by doing it. In the 1960’s, these sets of eggs were used as baseline data to show that eggs laid in the pre-DDT era were thicker than those that were laid after the pesticide a began working its way through the North American food chain decimating the nesting success of Peregrine Falcons and other top avian predators. Populations of Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans, Bald Eagles and Ospreys all have recovered dramatically since the pesticide was banned in North America, but I like to point out that this was a valuable use of these eggs that the collectors and researchers in 1900 never dreamed of.
FMNH Peregrine Falcon eggs all collected around 1900.
This often strikes me as an overused example, but a number of my blog posts related to specimens include examples of where older specimens yield new information, e.g., the two chicks of Lanisoma elegans, multiple specimens of seedeaters that proved to be Tiaris grassquits, older specimens of African shrikes that proved to be the recently described Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi), studies of molt by Peter Pyle, and the effect of climate change on North American birds by graduate student Jennifer Phillips. Our earliest specimens date to an era well before DNA sequence data, stable isotope analyses, niche modeling, CT scanning, electron microscopy or a host of other technologies that were not even dreamed of 100 years ago.
So this is the real conundrum for any curator. I believe we need to meet the needs of today’s researchers, but I am constantly thinking that the specimens we bring in today provide baseline information that will be extremely useful in the future, even if today there is not a big immediate question to address. That is why what we try to collect as much information/material from every specimen. That is why series of specimens of species are essential. Had there been a single set of Peregrine eggs from the 1900s, the fact that they were thicker than eggs laid in the 60s and 70s would have been statistically meaningless. As truly great as our collections are, we frequently find that older series are not large enough to study everything we would like to study today, and of course, we cannot go back in time to change that.
I should come back to digital collections because that is what LeFurgy was talking about. For natural history collections, digitization makes collections more broadly accessible by getting information on-line. That is important, but a primary point we always have to make is that images do not and cannot take the place of the actual specimen. Another related aspect of all this is that I think we need to do a better job of adding images from where we collected (e.g., habitat) to the databases of our specimens. Doing this adds another task what is becoming a long list of data to input when cataloguing specimen and may not be all that useful immediately, but I think the long-term research value of having done this is obvious.
This photo from a net line on the eastern slopes of the Itombwe Plateau will become part of the digital data associated with each specimen collected there in 2012. What will this region look like in 100 years? or 1000?
In response to his original question: “What do researcher want from institutions that preserve digital content?” LeFurgy wrote “A smart-alecky way to answer the question… would be: ‘why everything, of course’ “ to which he added “But we don’t traffic in snark here, at least not intentionally.” It is a fact that we cannot save everything, but our curatorial expertise does include the ability to think beyond present uses, and we should be broad thinking with respect to what we collect and preserve with an eye to what might be needed by researchers far into the future.