Unique Numbering of Specimens

Peter Rauch peterr at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU
Mon Jul 31 10:47:28 CDT 1995

No doubt that putting unique number labels on each specimen is more
costly than not doing so --in the short haul.

Many entomologists (they seem to be at the threshold between those who
can easily decide to number individual specimens as a matter of course,
and those who can easily decide to not number) have argued to not
number because of the relative high cost.  Some have argued that it is
critical to the future of effective use of collections to number --but
to do so at the "right" time (which usually translates to at the time
of initial pinning and/or labeling, or when the specimen is being
handled for some particular purpose, like study, at a later time).

The issue of "uniqueness" of this label is often raised too. The usual
reply is that some effort in the biological (entomological?) community
should be made to standardize label content is such a way so that the
labels are indeed unique across the entire community --but without having
to deploy a cumbersome "standards and approval" organization simply to
assure that no two "numbers" are identical. A current, somewhat imperfect
system of similar nature is used by collections to identify the collection
and/or institution --the traditional acronym, e.g., amnh, fmnh, cas, etc.
Were the collection/institution id systematized more "perfectly", then
each collection/institution would be responsible, by itself, to assure
that _its_ numbering system, only within the institution, is unique.
In other words, the combination of collection/number is unique.

Now, if a label becomes unique in the world by virtue of following that
protocol, then the remaining issue is to design database/information
systems that work with that characteristic uniqueness. Again, it's an
issue of some community standards.

Gary can then not worry about whose specimens he is working with. They
will be uniquely identified, and his database system will accommodate
them.  Of course, if an institution loans Gary some specimens which it
did not bother to (uniquely) label (at that only-when-handled-for-some-
ther-reason time --e.g., loan shipping time), does Gary put his unique
id on the specimen, does the loaning institution send Gary a bunch of
(unique) labels and say go to it, or ....?

With some _community_ effort and cooperation, these issues, of how to
create an environment where unique labeling of specimens could be
accomplished by _all_ those who wish to allocate the resources, can be
resolved. The "tyranny of large numbers", as Gary referred to the
problem privately to me, doesn't exist for this problem. The issue is
to make the large numbers smaller. The tyranny lies in the inertia of
the collections community (and its funding agencies/sources), which
must take action as a community, rather than solely as assorted,
independent individuals (which some have successfully done).

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