Electronic gazetteers

Julian Humphries jmh3 at CORNELL.EDU
Thu Aug 18 11:16:30 CDT 1994

Tom Moritz notes:

>It also seems absolutely clear that the original provenance (in archival
>terms) of the specimen data needs to be preserved regardless of how we may
>end up "enhancing" those data. Community agreement on linking original
>label data & field notes to records seems essential. (In most cases, this
>should be implicit in the specimen management system.)

Although I have comments on several aspects of this discussion, this one is
one of my favorite topics for arguing (uh, make that intellectual

The whole idea of what is "original provenance" is very difficult to define
for museum specimens and in fact varies among taxonomic disciplines. (I am
ignoring Tom's previous point about whether Rafinesque even knew where he
was, just dealing with what was written down in journals and subsequent
paper records). For example, in (freshwater) ichthyology data are typically
recorded (historically) in up to three places: an original field book, in a
museum catalog ledger and a specimen (jar) label.  The label is probably
the least accurate of the three; the field book, the most accurate for
locality information (but the least for taxonomic determination) and is
only occasionally available.  The museum ledger is the typical authority
for most information.  However, even in this context there are questions of
"original data."  A good example is that it is very common to use ditto
marks for repeating data top to bottom on a page.   Should "errors" in
dittoing be considered "original provenance".  It is also common to use
shorthand (abbreviations) in catalogs because of space limitations.  Thus
New York was abbreviated NY.  Note that these entries were almost never
done by the actual collector, but by a cataloger who may or may not be
copying from field notes.  How far do we carry the notion that this simple
abbreviation must be maintained somewhere in electronic form and not simply
translated to whatever internal representation is used for that state.

In other disciplines there are labels made in the field that follow the
specimen forever.  We might consider these "original provenance" more so
than museum ledgers, but what about disagreements between clearly
contemporaneously collected specimens?  How many "versions" of original
data are reasonable to capture and curate?

I bring these topics up, not because I have a disagrement with archiving
whatever we consider "original" data, but to echo Tom's call for some
community consensus, with the realization, that the more complex the
solution, the more expensive it will be to capture and maintain these data.
 Where the discipline has the luxury (or limitation!) that all of the data
appear on a single original label, an image of that label might be fine.
But for many disciplines these data are spread across multiple original
paper resources and capturing their complexity and subtlety electronically
will be a real challenge.  Increasing the cost (in time) of this
functionality means something else won't get done!

More on precision and resolution of geocoordinates in a later message.

Julian Humphries
The Vertebrate Collections and The MUSE Project, Cornell University
Building 3, Research Park
83 Brown Road
Ithaca, NY  14850

Voice: 607-257-8143
Fax:   607-257-8109
Email: jmh3 at cornell.edu

More information about the Taxacom mailing list