Catalog vs curate

Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Tue Sep 12 13:52:44 CDT 1995

>One theme that emerges consistently is the difficulty of finding a good
>relationship between cataloging and curating.  Cataloging is the creation
>of data records in a consistent format on a tangible medium.  Curation is
>the analysis of specimens and all pertinent data, with various goals in
>mind:  verification of known data, validation of that data, discovery of
>interesting links or patterns among the data, determination of correct
>identifications, and taxonomic and systematic treatments and revisions.
>In some institutions, on-line catalogs are perceived as an end-product,
>and as being (ideally) fixed.  [snip] there is sometimes intense pressure
>on research staff to do "complete" and "final" curatorial work on all
>specimens as part of the cataloging effort, regardless of the scientific
>value of the specimens or the area of expertise of the curator.  It also
>requires highly trained researchers to spend huge amounts of time doing
>what could be done, for the most part, by a semi-skilled clerical worker,
>student trainee, or volunteer.  Consequently, cataloging can become an
>excruciatingly difficult, expensive, and slow process.
>Is it practical to make curatorial work a principal element of cataloging
>work, and not the other way around?  Is it useful?  Is it even desirable?
>I think not.  In fact, I think it may be extremely detrimental to natural
>history research institutions and to our science.

Having now had a hand in several such projects, my comment would be that as
long as the material being catalogued has *already* been well-curated, then
a straight cataloguing effort is approriate, and only a technician is
required. I've been involved in one such project (a database of the INHS
Plecoptera collection), and it worked like a charm. In another project (a
database of Mexican bees), the material was newly-acquired, and the
processes of curation and cataloguing were simultaneous, so having me (the
curator) doing all the data entry rather than a technician was not
unreasonable. Other combinations, as you suggest, might not be the most
efficient use of time and resources - it seems to me most logical to work
on setting priorities first, as to which material in a collection is
best-curated, and start there. A cataloguing effort focused on material
which is NOT well-curated is, as you suggest, potentially even deterimental
(I can imagine, for example, having to re-do almost the entire thing when
someone realizes, say, all of family X had their names last updated in
1910). If the budget for such a project does not allow for the realistic
needs for expert curation, that is a mistake. One of those proverbial
"cart-before-the-horse" situations; most collections need curation *first*,
before we start worrying about putting everything into databases.

Doug Yanega       Illinois Natural History Survey, 607 E. Peabody Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820 USA      phone (217) 244-6817, fax (217) 333-4949
 affiliate, Univ. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Dept. of Entomology
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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