Modernizing Natural History Collection Workflows to Address Global Biodiversity Challenges
Expanding access to research collections
While general public perception may be of museums as places for entertainment, the importance of museum research collections for documenting historical and present-day patterns of biological and cultural diversity cannot be overstated.
Worldwide, over 2 billion specimens preserved in thousands of natural history collections (also referred to as “biological collections”) provide the most comprehensive documentation of life on earth, both past and present. Biological collections document the presence of particular species at a particular place and time, providing critical baseline biodiversity data. They serve as a repository for the planet’s biodiversity and an archive for current and future research, allowing researchers to examine changes in the environment over time.
However, accessing this repository of information has been a hurdle for most stakeholders. Until recently, there was no way to know that a particular type of specimen existed without directly asking individual collections. In the past two decades, “digitization” efforts have dramatically increased availability by making data and media about specimens accessible digitally and online.
The Arctos Consortium is a group of institutions and field stations with the shared mission to connect natural and cultural history collections within a digital ecosystem that empowers research, education, and conservation with high quality data. At its core, Arctos develops and maintains a shared online database platform that serves as the primary data management system for over 200 biological, geological, cultural and observational collections. Arctos collections house over 5 million objects representing over 150 years of biological and cultural history, and are used by researchers for myriad studies.
Addressing the challenges of going digital
The expansion of digitized records also poses an exponentially growing problem. Collections staff and budgets are overwhelmed by the increasing awareness of and demand for biological specimens as critical resources for protecting the health of the planet and its people. Institutions are grappling with how to provide digital access to their collections on restrictive budgets that make it difficult to expand permanent staff and training.
The Arctos community has been opportunistically addressing this problem over time, but needs help modernizing its data mobilization processes in a systematic way to support long-term sustainability. With the support of a Switzer Foundation Leadership Grant, Arctos is contracting Erica Krimmel – who is uniquely positioned as a Switzer fellow, biodiversity information scientist and former Arctos consortium member - to help them address this challenge.
Biodiversity science–like many (most) disciplines today–is in the midst of a data revolution. The success of this revolution depends on combining effective tools with human-centered implementation.
Erica Krimmel, 2013 Switzer Fellow
Erica has been embedded in the natural history collections community since receiving her master’s in Library & Information Science at San Jose State University, where she received a 2013 Switzer Fellowship. Working at the intersection of specimen-based data and knowledge, her expertise lies in designing and implementing systems to increase the digital availability of high quality, accurate and verifiable biodiversity data.
This Leadership Grant will allow Erica to strategically review, analyze and provide recommendations on how Arctos can mobilize high-quality biodiversity data and create a sustainable system for long-term implementation. The results will ultimately facilitate research and impact in many disciplines including evolutionary biology, ecology, conservation, parasitology and epidemiology.