Catalog vs curate

Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Tue Sep 19 20:32:37 CDT 1995

Una Smith asks several questions, and it sounds like they're directed at
me, so I'll take the bait (it's near and dear to my heart, so forgive my
long-windedness). Also note that I've crossposted, as folks on nhcoll-l
seem to want in on this thread:

>Last week on TAXACOM, Doug Yanega <dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU> offered
>these scenarios:
>> [snip]
>Okay, to catalog something, you must have data, which means some level
>of prior curation.  But what about the very common situation where the
>prior curation is ancient and scant?  You *know* it is below current
>standards, and that it could be improved by meticulous investigation
>of historical documents, etc.

Then maybe you should put that material aside temporarily? When you've got
several hundred thousand specimens to catalog (all of my comments should be
taken realizing I have an entomological viewpoint), there's no reason not
to do things out of sequence - e.g., if your Odonates haven't been touched
in 70 years, and you can't get someone to look them over, but Dan Otte
worked on your Orthoptera 5 years ago, skip to them. When prioritizing
which areas in a collection should be catalogued first, those most recently
and completely curated seem the logical choice.

>When should you merely transcribe the data from prior curation?  Can
>you use a technician to catalog specimens that are not "well curated"?
>When should you go all out in an effort to recover curatorial data?
>Is a piece-meal effort largely wasted?  How do you keep track of the
>extent of curation given to each specimen, so that those specimens
>needing further attention can be identified in the future?

I'd say (a) when you trust it, knowing who and when last worked with that
material (b) if you do, you will almost certainly have to hire another
technician at whatever future date the material *is* curated, and spend
almost as much time updating the original records as was spent entering
them the first time (retrieval and editing are not instantaneous, even with
bar codes) (c) in an ideal world, curation should always be the top
priority, cataloguing secondary...that's what I meant by cart before the
horse, and it's unfortunate the funding dollars go the other way around so
commonly (d) what do you mean exactly by piece-meal? If you mean, for
example, cataloguing only identified specimens and leaving unidentified
material uncatalogued, that would probably be fine, since there will need
to be retrieval and editing down the road for those specimens *anyway*; if
you mean entering only some of the data from the material and leaving the
rest unentered (like neglecting to enter gender data), then I'd say don't
even bother in the first place, because you're probably *forcing* some
future person to redo the entire job just to add in the bits you left out.
(e) THAT is a good question, and would largely come under the myriad
responsibilities of the collection manager; I suspect it's easier to keep
track of which groups *have* been well-curated than those which have not,
at least in Entomology collections. Again, in an ideal world, each
collection would have a master checklist of taxa held and when each was
last curated, and they'd spend their budget bringing in specialists or
sending material out until everything was checked off.

>If someone is willing to pay for putting everything into databases,
>but the collection is not well curated, what is the best course of
>action?  Must you curate it first?  Is it really a waste of effort
>to transcribe the data at hand?

(a) To be honest <STRONG personal bias on> if they're willing to give money
to a poorly curated collection, it should be used for *curation*. We're
literally losing systematists and taxonomists to retirement, unemployment,
and alternative careers faster than we are replacing them, and what we need
very badly right now is a recognition that funding should be devoted to
supporting taxonomists *first*, and THEN we can all sit back and catalog
what we've got. If there are no taxonomists left in 30 years, just who
exactly is going to make *use* of all these enormous databases?? Just ask
the question on a small scale - for example, if there is no one alive right
now who studies tardigrade taxonomy, and there hasn't been for 40 years,
why bother making a database cataloguing all your tardigrades? Why not
invest that money in training a tardigrade researcher??? Then they can
gather all the material from various collections, curate it, and THEN
everyone can put their records in the database.<STRONG personal bias off>
(b) ideally, because it's more efficient and puts proper emphasis on
getting money for curation (c) not a complete waste, no, (for reasons you
mention below) but it IS almost as labor-intensive to update a data record
as it is to enter it the first time.

>Why not let adequate curation wait until someone comes along with a
>specific interest in the material (and funding to do extensive work
>on it)?  What is the harm of converting old manuscript catalogs into
>a computer database?  That would at least put the data now available
>at the institution onto a computer where a visitor could potentially
>access it in advance of visiting the institution, over the Internet.
>        Una

(a) Why is it that you feel *curation* must wait for the cataloguing,
instead of the other way around? (b) it's not a matter of harm, and that
specific case you mention - old manuscript catalogs - might indeed be very
useful when placed into a relational database structure so it can speed up
the data entry process for the material listed therein (the INHS tried to
get support for just such a project - we've got thousands of specimens from
the 1800's whose only label is an accession lot number, and dozens of
yellowing tomes full of lot numbers and their data - but this was not
funded). Giving a potential visitor or outside taxonomist an idea of the
collection's holdings is one of the best reasons to have an on-line listing
of holdings, for sure, but to a certain extent, one could gather and
tabulate enough crucial data on poorly-curated material without having to
do a full-scale cataloguing (e.g., "ca. 1400 specimens of Odonata, 600 of
which are unidentified, some 150 of which are Central American and South
African, the rest North American") and still accomplish almost as much. To
some extent, putting catalog records of a poorly-curated taxon on-line can
be more misleading than helpful, especially if many of the names are
outdated, or much is mis- or unidentified (i.e., you might convince someone
that you have no specimens of taxon X, so they ignore your collection when
requesting material - while it turns out that taxon X was described in
1930, and that your two drawers of taxon Y, last examined in 1915, contain
dozens of X). If you just give a more general description, they'd have more
reason to suspect that the curation wasn't up-to-date, and be more likely
to borrow the material.
        Sioncerely, a sorely frustrated taxonomist AND database manager,

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

More information about the Taxacom mailing list