Core Competency F: Collection Management
“Use the basic concepts and principles related to the selection, evaluation, organization, and preservation of physical and digital items and collections.”
I work at Sagehen Creek Field Station, a central Sierra Nevada research facility operated by U.C. Berkeley and used by professors, students, and others from all over the country. In my role as Sagehen’s collections manager, I deal with the practicalities and realities of collection management on a daily basis. Our primary collection is the herbarium, with 1600 specimens of plants found at Sagehen. The herbarium provides a valuable resource not only as an instructional aid, but also as a physical record of the plants on our site species list–because plant taxonomy evolves, it is important to be able to revisit physical specimens and reassess their identification. In addition to the herbarium, I also maintain our teaching collections for mammals, birds, and insects. The past three years working at Sagehen have given me real world experience applying principles of selection, evaluation, organization, and preservation to both physical and digital collections.
Selection is usually the first, and therefore most influential, step in the collection management process. Selection entails deciding what the scope and purpose of the collection are, as well as what resources will support it. At Sagehen, our herbarium has a very specific purpose: documenting plant species and their distribution within the 8,000-acre Sagehen Creek watershed. Our scope, however, is broad because we want to include all plant species present in our area. In terms of resources, we are financially very limited, but we do have physical items, such as herbarium cabinets and mounting paper, and human resources, like visiting botanists and community volunteers.
Once the purpose, scope, and resources for a collection have been determined, selection criteria assist in filtering individual items. Criteria should be closely tied to the collection’s purpose, and must take into account user needs, cost, and uniqueness of the item. For instance, I actively collect new plants to press, dry, mount and add to Sagehen’s herbarium, but I don’t do so by walking outside and picking the first ten flowers I see. My selection criteria includes plants of species that are underrepresented in our collection either by number or location of existing specimens. When I sort through legacy specimens waiting to be accessioned into the herbarium, I only accept those in good physical condition and with adequate metadata. Like most collections, we can’t afford to keep everything, nor would doing so help us accomplish our purpose any better.
Digitizing collections adds a new layer of complexity to selection, because cost usually either prohibits institutions from digitizing their entire collection, or forces them to digitize in stages. At Sagehen our herbarium is small enough that we can database and image every specimen; however, other herbaria may choose to select only the most relevant specimens–e.g. a synoptic collection–for databasing, imaging, or both. Again, the purpose, scope, and resources of a collection will determine selection for digitization.
Evaluating collections, both Sagehen’s and those of other herbaria, helps me understand how well-planned selection and implementation lead to successful collections. Whenever I travel, I contact local herbaria and arrange to visit because observing other, similar collections allows me to evaluate them from several perspectives. First, how well are they living up to their stated purpose? Second, what unique processes and products have they developed? And third, where does their support come from? Asking these questions helps me determine best practices I can borrow for my own collection management toolkit.
A secondary aspect of evaluation is assessing how well a collection’s organization enhances its purpose. Organization may be analog or digital, but both have the same goal of increasing findability for individual collection items. Analog items are organized in their physical space–for instance, our herbaria specimens are ordered by family–or with visual tags, like color coded folders. Digital organization is often much more complex, since more can be accomplished with less physical work. Digital asset management systems, databases, XML records, content management systems, and other metadata tools help organize digital collections.
Metadata is information about a collection object, and according to Cornell’s digital imaging tutorial (2000-2003), it can be descriptive, structural, or administrative. Descriptive metadata is what we are most familiar with. Structural metadata aids in translating between analog and digital, e.g. what page of the book an image is of. Administrative metadata records internal information, such as preservation status and rights management. Each of these offers a way to label, sort, and otherwise organize collection items; like selection, metadata depends on the purpose, scope, and resources of the collection (NISO, 2004).
In terms of organizing, standardized metadata enables collections to make their items more accessible while minimizing internal work. For example, many herbaria use the Darwin Core metadata schema to organize their specimens because it allows users to learn standard metadata categories, and different herbaria to contribute digital records to data portals, such as the California Consortium of Herbaria. Portals, in turn, have huge potential to increase the value of any one collection, as they offer one-stop access to multiple collections. Smith (2001) introduces the theory of critical mass, which says “if you get enough related items up in a commonly searchable database, then you have created a collection that is richer in its digital instantiation than in its analog original,” (Smith, 2001, Section 3.2, para. 1). This is true within a single institution, but even more so within a consortia of collections, where metadata standards enable interoperability, and interoperability enables critical mass.
Finally, preservation is an essential task in collections management. Analog preservation for herbarium specimens amounts to using archival mounting supplies, storing specimens in herbaria cabinets, deterring pests, and repairing specimens that age and break. For established collections, digital preservation requires much more consistent input than analog. Herbarium digital preservation includes imaging, databasing, file backup, equipment upkeep, and file migration. While an analog specimen can easily sit untouched in a cabinet for 100 years, a digital image of the same specimen must be converted to new file formats and backup spaces as technology evolves.
Although most of my experience in collections management comes from my work at Sagehen over the past few years, SLIS courses have also provided me with an analytical classroom approach to evaluation and organization. In the evidence below, I present two such class projects.
EVIDENCE 1. The North Carolina Maps digital library offers an online portal to access map collections from the North Carolina State Archives, the Outer Banks History Center, and the University Library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Over 3,000 maps of North Carolina from the past 500 years are provided as high resolution digital scans, some with the option to overlay historic layers. By providing digitized maps via this website, the collection institutions safeguard original maps, while also expanding their accessibility and available features.
In a report for LIBR 246 – XML, I evaluated this digital library based on its content, interface, and online functionality. I also did a test document analysis, and compared North Carolina Maps to a similar online map collection hosted by Harvard University. I found that having a well-scripted, seamless online interface made this resource very usable, and thus more useful.
EVIDENCE 2. After creating an online Flickr image collection of “Wildflowers of the Central Sierra Nevada,” I wrote a metadata analysis of it for LIBR 282 – Digital Asset Management. I organized my collection with a target audience in mind–amateur botanists who may be unfamiliar with my area and want a guide to local wildflowers–and included metadata focused on object (photo) identification, subject vocabulary, and search retrieval. As the Cornell University Library put it in their digital imaging tutorial, knowing your users is as important as knowing your collection (2000-2003); NISO’s 2004 framework for metadata also recommends focusing on the purpose of the digital collection, as well as the targeted users’ needs and behaviors. I tried to keep these principles in mind while organizing my “Wildflowers of the Central Sierra Nevada” collection.
NISO Press. (2004). Understanding metadata. Bethesda, MD: National Information Standards Organization [NISO]. Retrieved from http://www.niso.org/standards/resources/UnderstandingMetadata.pdf
Cornell University Library / Research Department. (2000-2003). Moving theory into practice: Digital imaging tutorial. Retrieved from http://www.library.cornell.edu/preservation/tutorial/contents.html
NISO Framework Advisory Group. (2004). A framework of guidance for building good digital collections, 2nd Ed. Bethesda, MD: National Information Standards Organization [NISO]. Retrieved from http://www.niso.org/publications/rp/framework3.pdf
Smith, A. (2001). Strategies for building digitized collections. Washington, D.C.: Digital Library Federation / Council on Library and Information Resources [CLIR]. Retrieved from http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub101/contents.html