Catalog vs curate

Wed Feb 5 20:14:13 CST 1997

In September 1995, I posted an article on TAXACOM re cataloging versus
curating natural history collections, which started a lively discussion.
My original article is included below.  It is also archived, along with
the entire thread that followed, on
taxacom.html.  Recently, I was asked if my views have changed over the
past year and a half.  In short:  no.  In fact, the posted replies to
my article convinced me that the problem is far more severe than I had

Here's one common scenario:  a funding agency awards a grant to build
an electronic catalog for an important collection.  By the end of the
grant period the money is gone but only a tiny part of the catalog has
been done.  "The agency said our grant was to cover cataloging 40,000
specimens, but they only gave us enough money to pay for doing 1,000!"

How did this happen?  The funding agency and the institution had very
different ideas of what the term "catalog" meant.  The agency expected
a small amount to be spent on each specimen, but left the particulars
up to the institution;  the institution spent most of the money on a
few very difficult specimens, and nothing on the rest.  This is not a
good outcome for anyone, except perhaps the one or two scientists who
are most interested in those few specimens.

Apparently, this is a common scenario.  Why?  I think the reason for
this is evident in some of the replies to my article back in September
1995.  Several people (dare I say, taxonomists?) stated that curation
and cataloging are (or should be) one and the same.  Cataloging can be
fairly cheap and painless (especially when done in the course of
curating), but curating (especially of important, *old* collections),
is always expensive.

Why are funding agencies so willing to pay for rapid cataloging of old
collections, but not for "proper" curation?  Because once the catalog
is available on the Internet, specialists anywhere in the world will be
able to locate specimens of "their" group in that collection.  It is
these taxonomic specialists who will (and should) be expected to do the
extensive, detailed curation that is so expensive.  If they are like
me, they will be delighted to perform this valuable service in exchange
for access to these important, historic collections.


        Una Smith
        Department of Biology
        Yale University
        New Haven, CT  06520-8014


Posted to TAXACOM, 12 September 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

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