Our Collections Online: Digitizing Is the Key

Although digitization efforts of natural-history collections have increased over the last decade, most of the world’s natural-history data are not yet digitized and remain “locked away” on specimen labels, in field books and in project-driven databases, none of which is readily available to the scientific community and the general public.

The Canadian Museum of Nature houses some 10 million natural history specimens in 24 major science collections, representing the life sciences (botany, vertebrates and invertebrates) and the Earth Sciences (palaeontology and gems, rocks and minerals).

Current estimates place the number of individual specimens that the museum manages in excess of 10 million, with an estimated total of approximately 3.2 million catalogable units in the museum—each record may include multiple specimens: eggs in a clutch, fish in a jar lot, insects in a collecting event.

Mounted mammal skeletons lined up in a row.

Data from some of our collections are already widely digitized. This is the case for our collection of vertebrate skeletons, including some of the specimens seen here. Image: Roger Baird © Roger Baird

Museum staff have been digitizing specimen data here for well over two decades. It’s a slow process because most records are entered one at a time. Despite the magnitude of the job, progress has been made: the museum’s corporate database contains nearly 710 000 specimen records—about 22% of the museum’s total catalogable units. It’s clear that the job ahead to get the entire collection digitized is a big one, but it’s also an important one, because collection data that cannot be easily discovered and shared cannot be easily used in research and education.

Scarab specimens mounted in small trays.

Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

We are pursuing this task every year, digitizing about 16 000 new records annually. Some of our collections are nearly completely digitized, such as the amphibian and reptile (99% complete), skeleton (88%) and bird (80%) collections. In others, just a small portion has been digitized, such as the vascular plant (20%), bryophyte (10%), mollusc (20%), and general invertebrate and annelid (16%) collections.

Screen shot of Search Our Collections.

Search results from the Canadian Museum of Nature’s new collections-online database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

Although our collections online tool is brand new, some of the museum’s collection data have been available online previously. Collection data for more than 84 000 samples or lots (an estimated 350 000 specimens) in the museum’s National Phycology Collection (algae and diatom) have been available online for a few years (http://www.nature-cana.ca/english).

Data from the phycology collection are stored in a separate database designed specifically for aquatic biological collections and the unique environmental data that are closely associated with the specimens, such as water chemistry.

Screen shot of the National Phycology Collection Database.

The National Phycology Collection (diatoms and algae) database. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

About 40% of the museum’s digitized collections data, excluding data from the National Phycology Collection, has previously been available through partner organizations. The largest of these is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF; http://data.gbif.org/welcome.htm)—an international organization that is working to mobilize the world’s biodiversity data and make it openly and freely accessible.

Other partner organizations include Artefacts Canada – Natural Sciences (of the Canadian Heritage Information Network), through which our palynological data (primarily fossil pollen) are available, and a subset of the museum’s vascular-plant data for British Columbia are available through E-Flora BC (http://www.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/eflora).

Most of our data had not previously been available directly through our own website—the obvious first place to look to access information from our collection!

Now, Canadian Museum of Nature collection data are available directly through the museum’s website. Our new web application provides free and open access to over 709 000 of our biological and geological collection records!

Check it out: nature.ca/collections-online.

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