catalog numbers

Melissa Winans mcwinans at BONGO.CC.UTEXAS.EDU
Fri Jan 13 12:32:53 CST 1995

Alan -- There are many pros and cons to both a single catalogue and
multiple catalogues, and neither is perfect for every case.  As a
specialist in catalogues and databases, my knee-jerk reaction is that one
per phylum may be a tad too many, but I can conceive of situations in
which that might be the best way.

There are two separate questions involved here:  1) How and whether to
renumber, 2) whether to condense everything into one database.

1. Renumbering specimens:  The easiest fix would be (as Margaret Thayer
suggested) to assign a distinctive prefix to each phylum's catalogue, and
not change the numbers themselves.  If you do this, the prefix should
become an actual part of the catalogue number, thus giving each specimen
or lot a unique identifier.  Thus "AMNH 1" might become "AMNH MO-1" in the
mollusc collection, "AMNH AR-1" in the arthropod collection, and so on.
(I apologize if some of my phylum names are out of date; as a vertebrate
paleontologist I don't often contemplate the taxonomy of invertebrates).
The advantages of this would be: A) minimum labor on renumbering; B)
minimum chance of loss of data due to marking something with the wrong new
number; C) minimum confusion for researchers trying to access the
collection through numbers cited in already existing publications.
Principal disadvantage:  To avoid eventual chaos of massive proportions,
you would have to maintain the separate numbering system for new specimens
in the collection, rather than starting a separate unified number series
for new material.

The alternative, renumbering everything into a single number series, can
be done, but will (as you point out) be a lot of work, and has the
potential to cause problems.  To minimize future problems, you would have
to be meticulous in documenting the number changes, and make it easy to
search the database based on either old or new numbers.  The easiest way
to do this would be to add a field to the database for the original
catalogue number of the specimen, and make whatever arrangements your
software requires to allow the records to be sorted and searched based on
either old or new numbers with equal ease.

Which should you do?  Only you can answer this.  We have had to do some
renumbering in our own collection, and it has worked fairly well, but our
problem involved far less than 1% of the total collection.

2. Condensing everything into one database:  The operative question here
is whether the information that you wish to store for each phylum is
similar enough that the same set of fields will be a good fit for all of
them.  If the answer to this question is an unqualified "Yes!" then it
definitely would be to your advantage to combine them into a single
database.  To do this, you *must* make sure that each specimen or lot has
a unique catalogue number -- but as noted above this does not necessarily
mean renumbering everything; adding a phylum prefix to each number would
work equally well.

On the other hand, if the only way that you can fit all phyla into a
single database structure is by lumping more than one sort of information
into one or more "Comments" fields, then a single combined database would
not be a good choice in the long run because.  It is more difficult and
time-consuming to search for data whose exact location you do not know.

Two caveats:

1. As noted above, whatever scheme of renumbering (or
non-renumbering) you decide on *must* be applied uniformly to both
already catalogued specimens and to new specimens just being catalogued.

2. You should not renumber everything into a single unified series of
numbers unless it is feasible to unite all collections in a single
database.  Having (for example) AMNH 1 - AMNH 10 and AMNH 21 - 25 in one
database and AMNH 11 - AMNH 20 in another database creates hazards too
awful to contemplate.

If it's any comfort to you, the vertebrate paleontology collection at AMNH
also has multiple catalogues -- although in their case I believe it's
only 3 or 4 catalogues rather than 30+.
Melissa C. Winans, Collection Manager                   Phone: 512-471-6087
Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory                        Fax: 512-471-5973
J.J. Pickle Research Campus
The University of Texas at Austin
Campus Mail Code R7600
Austin, TX  78712                       E-mail: mcwinans at

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