Catalog vs curate

Tue Sep 12 12:11:13 CDT 1995

Over the past few years, I have visited numerous museums, herbaria, and
botanical gardens in the course of my research, to look at specimens.
Invariably, it seems, I also talk to curators, collection managers, and
computing system administrators about their on-line cataloging efforts.

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.  Also, there appears to be a great deal of
difference of opinion about what various funding agencies want when they
fund "cataloging" projects.  Hence, 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.

Comments, anyone?  Because I think that many people reading TAXACOM find
themselves in exactly the sort of situation that I describe here, and may
feel hesitant to post anything that may appear to be a criticism of their
own institution, I would like to propose the following:  If you wish to
post a comment on this topic, but do not want your identity known, you
may send it to me via e-mail privately (be sure to check your headers!),
and I will post your article with a pseudonym.  If you do not state that
you wish me to post your e-mail, I will hold it in strictest confidence.

        Una Smith                       una.smith at

Department of Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT  06520-8104  USA

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