2.1. Scope for the catalogue and definition of “collection” (INFORMATION)

Grey areas for inclusion in this list include:

  • archival material (particularly relating to historical collections) such as correspondence
  • field note books
  • collection registers including registers compiled by private collectors and are donated along with their collection.
  • photographic collections, now also including video

Thanks @elyw. You are correct. Topic 2.5 (Wider data linkages) identifies some of these grey areas as candidates for extended information that may be linked to a natural science collection, but from another perspective these things may themselves be seen as part of a specialised collection. We need to be flexible about how we handle the graph of interconnected information.

100% should include paleontological collections within the scope of this catalogue! GBIF is a primary distributor of specimen records from paleo collections, and many paleo collections are managed alongside extant biological collections in the same institution.


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Thanks @ekrimmel. You are correct. Beyond stratigraphy and dating, and the problems we encounter mixing fossil and modern species, can you identify any needs that are unique to paleontological collections?

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See also our answers to these questions in our document with 10 recommendations.

This is exactly the case in our institution (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin). Numerous artifacts like the mentioned correspondence, field notebooks and others exist and have on the one hand the role of information resources about the biological / geological specimens but are on the other hand administered as collections / aggregated resources in their own right. This is not only for administrative reasons (including storage needs). Many of these items are unique or have become so through, e.g., annotations of collectors or researchers which turn them into items with a museological value that contextualize the specimens they refer to in one way or another but are also informative for various fields such as history of science and various other cultural aspects.

Accepting a broad conception of what constitutes a collection in the context of the envisioned catalogue and the immediate connection these “grey areas” have to “proper” collections, I believe these could be generally included, possibly with content profiles of their own, as suggested in this post.

With regard to wether the catalogue should aim to represent deeper and more intricate relations among collections, such as above - it would be a good thing to choose a technological design which allows such representations to be added, possibly in a subsequent version of the catalogue, once the core structures are implemented.

I definitely suggest to include wood collections (xylaria) within the scope of the catalogue. Wood, as lignified plant, serves as quintessential materials used in most human history. The concept of wood collections fist appeared in the late 18th century, and large numbers of xylaria were established in the 1940s and 1950s. Institutional xylaria are listed in the Index Xylariorum, first published in 1967, and the most current edition is published online by International Wood Anatomists Association (IAWA) in 2016. It lists 158 institutional xylaria globally. A variety of national historical museums and herbaria also stores large number of wood collections, for example, Naturalis Biodiversity Center,Smithsonian Institution and Kew Garden. And large numbers of wood collections have been or being digitalized, databased and accessible online for public. Wood collections plays an important role in context of biodiversity and climate change, since tree rings could reveal and reflect the natural environment and climate in history. Reference wood collections are central to robust, scientifically sound forensic wood identification, which aims to combat illegal logging and associated trade to prevent biodiversity loss. The inclusion of wood collections in this list enrich the historical collections scientifically and technically.

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Many thanks @TuoHe. I fully agree. Xylaria are a very natural part of what we need to cover and meet all the criteria we expect for a preserved biological collection.

Are there any use cases you can suggest that would be unique to xylaria?

Well…I can see some issues with the Anthropological and Paleontological collections, because use to be sensitive in many occasions. In Argentina we have a really restricted law about those kind of collections. Also, some museums, like La Plata Museum (Argentina) has a restitution police for human remains who have been proven living offspring. But, even with all this, I strongly believe that all categories should be included, and also the grey categories mention by @elyw

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Sure. Basically, xylaria provides valuable reference materials for forensic wood identification to combat illegal logging, which is a main cause of forest loss. Contrary to animals trees are stationary and show an open growth. Trees are subjected to environment influences during their life which may last up to millions of years, please refer to Mahogany tree family dates back to last hurrah of the dinosaurs. The xylaria could provide fossil wood collections for the tree of life and natural environment, and disk collections for research of the relationships between climate and tree rings patterns.

What is the definition for our purposes (minimal and sufficient criteria) of a natural history collection?

I agree with @qgroom, @mswoodburn and others in topic 2.2 that given the vast diversity of specimen types and perspectives on what is conceptionalized as an individual collection (possibly as a subset of the union of several other collections it may be hard to come up with necessary or sufficient criteria to define natural history collection. The (provisional?) definition from TDWG CD quoted by

could be a start both with regard to necessary and sufficient conditions . However, even this generic definition may run into problems. The Naturkundemuseum Berlin, for example, hosts the Animal Sound Archive. These recordings aren’t usually categorized as physical or material objects. They are information artifacts which can be copied from one physical bearer to another. Nonetheless, we regard it as an (important) natural history collection.

If I had to come up with a definition it would, provisionally, be this:

Natural history collection =def= A collection whose constituent parts (a) are derived from participant entities of natural processes and (b) have been collected to study properties of such processes.

The clause (b) is added to exclude cultural artifacts collections of e.g., wooden sculptures, stamps and historical weapons which are, at least in any conventional sense, not collected or designed to study the natural processes that brought their constituent parts into being.

This definition probably is as problematic as certain others. How important, in the context of the catalogue, is it really to have one? An informal description that conveys the intuitive understanding of “natural history collection” and intended use of the catalogue may be adequate, especially if the governance model allows for self-identification and self-governance of entries by participating institutions. It is, in my view, better to be more inclusive than restrictive with regard to grey area collections.

How do collections relate to and differ from institutions?

A collection is administered / held / owned by an institution.

  1. An institution is an agent, usually a corporate body. Compared to collections, institutions belong to a materially distinct type of entity. Even if the holdings of an institution are identified as a single collection, the two entities should be represented separately.
  2. At the whole-enterprise level, it is not uncommon to have the term “XYZ collection” denote the institution and at the same time the entirety of this institution’s collections.
  3. An institution might administer a multitude of collections that are interrelated in various ways, notably by an overlap of the specimens accounted for in individual collections.
  4. There might be cases where administration and ownership of a collection could be distinguished (specific use cases?). Who administers a given collection (and should be contacted about the collection) might, in the context of the catalogue, be more pertinent.

How do collections relate to and differ from datasets?

Collections are original entities, datasets are information about something. A dataset can be about a collection or some of its constituent parts. A collection can be represented in a dataset. In certain cases, the only manifestation of a collection may be in the form of information artifacts / datasets, e.g. digitally encoded animal sound recordings, i.e. without physical preparations.

How do collections relate to and differ from collecting events (e.g. expeditions)?

Collections are related to collecting events by virtue of the collection items which are part of the collection. Any collection item that is part of a given collection was collected - or is derived from one or more items that were collected - in the course of one or more collecting events.

Collections and collecting events are materially different types of entities. The latter is an event that has happened during some interval of time. The former is an object that keeps an identity over time (but may change over time with regard to its constituent parts).

  1. In a variety of contexts the term “collection” is used to refer to collecting events or to collections as sets of items administered by an institution (each of which has been collected in a collecting event).
  2. The collecting event from which an item originates may be unknown.
  3. Collecting events may be nested or have other relations holding between them. An expedition, as a complex collecting event spanning months or years, may have numerous individual collecting events as parts (for which there might be detailed information pertaining to certain items in the collection relating to the expedition as overarching collecting event).
  4. It might be challenging to actually define the original collecting event, especially when aiming to distinguish it from subsequent relocation or processing (like preservation or preparation). Intuitively, the collection event is the process in the history of a specimen for which there is no prior process of preservation or preparation. That initial event may be inseparable from processes that aim to preserve the material.

Should the following categories be included, or are there important linkages or opportunities that should still be considered?

  • Geological and paleontological collections
  • Anthropological collections
  • Ethnobotanical collections
  • Wood collections (xylaria)
  • Tissue banks, DNA repositories and slide collections
  • Living collections (microbial collections, zoos, aquaria, botanic gardens, seed banks)
  • Personal collections

All of these fit the definition given above and should, in a more inclusive perspective on the catalogue advocated above, be eligible for inclusion.s

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Because of their importance to taxonomy, I would add important historical/defunct natural history collections to your list, such as Museo Laurentii Theodori Gronovii, Lugdunum Batavorum [Leiden]. Also because some currently active collections are likely to become “historic” in the future.

Personal (aka private) collections. I think most taxonomists would agree that private collections should not be “legitimized” in any way. Yet, some taxonomists cite private collections in their works. And so, private collections cannot be ignored.

In some countries, the institutional infrastructure is too unstable…and so a taxonomist might assemble a personal collection in country. Such private collections are extremely valuable and warranted.

In countries with a robust institutional infrastructure, someone might assemble a private collection to control its use during their lifetime. Some personal collections masquerade as “museums” or occupy a professor’s lab space in Dept X of University Y. Most of those collections eventually end up at an established institution of natural history where they often occupy “backlog” shelves and cabinets. Some are undoubtedly pitched.

Anyway…it is hard to both recognize and discourage private collections at the same time. I suppose private collections need to be recognized at some level because they are often cited in published works (many have established Codes!). Perhaps an ORCID ID would suffice as the PID for a personal collection.

In corresponding with over 200 arthropod collections in North America as part of SCAN I am amazed at the variety of organizational workflows (or lack thereof) among the institutions. Generally, the institution does not seem to administer collections beyond asking how much funding they bring to the institution or how much they cost. Most US collections are based at universities and each collection is typically controlled by the curator. This is generally good, the institution relies on a tenure-track faculty to be successful. But it generally results in fragmentation. Collections typically have more loyalty to the CMS they use than sharing a common institution.

Institutions are generally permanent but the practices of individual collections are very idiosyncratic, changing with each succession in curators. Collections are much more likely to come and go. Most collections probably do not know what their institution code on GrSciColl is and several make up their own when the digitize.

Additionally, entomology collections in the US want to divide collections within a larger collection by taxa. For larger collections, especially at museums they already administer holdings by order or class.

I conclude that defining and tracking a collection is challenging because they vary so much among institutions, and they are not static, they will evolve, divide and combine with time as curators or institutional politics change.

I would also advocate for a new category “research collection”. More and more we are seeing postdocs go for years without finding a permanent position and for the SCAN portal https://scan-bugs.org/portal/ we are recognizing these as professional collections worthy of being treated with as much respect as institutional collections. We also post data from persons that curate their collections from their homes if they are actively collaborating with an institution or have plans to donate their collection to an institution and otherwise the curation of their specimens are done properly. I think the term personal collection is getting to be more and more dated.

Hi @neilcobb, in DiSSCo linked projects we tend to call these Private collections (not personal collections, to indicate that these are different in ownership and access provision. Does that make sense? The distinction does not say anything about quality or size or value of the collection.

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Hi @waddink, I am pretty sure that postdoctoral researchers would not like their collections to be considered private. This is an informal movement in the US that is just starting to gain momentum. I am just trying to promote digitization and GBIF will not accept data from personal collections. I think both personal and private have connotations of natural history stamp collectors. So we are trying to define a collection that wants to make data public and has high standards for curation. Also, when they do get a permanent job their research collection will go with them and be housed in a non-private facility. There are lots of private collectors that want their holdings private and I admit that I am only interested in people that want to digitize their collections and the only truly private collectors that I know are actively digitizing work with an institution and use their codes. I think “research” collections might be a small subset but I would not be surprised if there were at least 50 such research insect collections in the US.

Thanks @neilcobb, this is very interesting. It is a class of collections I was not aware of. I am curious to know if such collections also exist outside the US. About negative connotations of English terms: in my experience this varies per part of the world, sometimes a term has a positive connotation in one part of the world and a negative connotation in another part. With multiple languages it probably becomes even more complex where in some cases you do not want to use the literal translation. But that is a relative small problem as users tend to get used to new terms quite easily as long as these are not confusing.

As a researcher, I would like to find the specimens that could inform my research. Those could be held in institutions or at someone’s home (permanently or temporarily), and could have different access policies (loans policies from museums, or will to share from private collectors, etc.).
I think then there are three separate things here: 1) knowing that the specimens are there (somewhere), 2) knowing where they are physically, with as much level of detail as possible so that I can go knock on the door and ask for it), and 3) knowing under whose rules they are held, and which are those rules (who they depend on and if I’ll actually be able to inspect them).
With this in mind, although we would all probably agree that the best situation is for specimens to be deposited in a place that allows open(ish) access (e.g., a public museum; understand place here as not only the physical spot but also the policies around it), I would want and/or need to at least know of the existence of those personal/private/other_denomination assets. Being personal/private or public may be subjected to change over time, as pointed out by others before, and passing from private hands to public hands may or may not ever happen (or not during the time of my research). Yet I want the data. And therefore I’d advocate for all kinds of collections (understood as for the preliminary definition of the CD group, “a group of physical collection objects with one or more common characteristics”) to be included.
I think it’s a matter of thinking why do we want the catalogue, or rather, what for. Whether personal/private or else will be important to me only when I want to access the specimens. The question to me would not be whether to include the collections or not, but rather which information do I need to see attached to those records for those to be useful to me (like access options). What a person does with a collection they possess, e.g., if they finally deposit it or not, is a personal (ethical, if you let me) matter.

Yet, playing the devil’s advocate, my first complaint would be in the lines of “but how do we trust this fellow declaring she/he‘s got a collection in her/his living room”. So similar to the individual researcher’s datasets not being directly published through GBIF.

  • This is probably more of a governance matter, and not a scope one. I think we want those collections in, but we need a mechanism to ensure those are real collections. A system somewhat parallel to what GBIF uses to endorse organizations could be looked into, “nodes” and experts could be consulted about the collection in question (and this would only need to be done once at incorporation).
  • But also an information matter, a minimum amount of info should be requested from these collections to be included (as for any). If for example an attribute of “is this openly accessible to the public”, “where”, “how”, was to be declared, there would be no harm in trust from the community in the provenance of the catalogue records - maybe those holding back the specimens would even feel bad in comparison to others and actually open them : )

Here is a real life example M.Andrew Johnston Research Collection .

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