Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Collections Matter

One of the big problems facing many collections-based facilities, like museums and libraries, is the limitation of space as collections grow. Some institutions realize the value of their collections and work to create greater storage space. Other institutions, often led by short-sighted leaders not familiar with collections-based work, often simply begin discarding parts of their collections to make space.

Two recent news items illustrate the importance of preserving collections materials.

First, the Washington University library has recently announced the discovery of quite a few of Thomas Jefferson's books. The books are thought to have been sold to settle Jefferson's debts, but could contain important personal writings of the former president that might provide more insight into him.

Second, as part of a move to a new location the Grant Museum in Great Britain has re-discovered a number of valuable specimens that had been misplaced over the years. However, the most significant discovery was that of a partial skeleton of the extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus). The bones were mistakenly thought to be crocodile bones.

Mistaken identification of significant museum specimens occurs regularly. For example in one museum a pair of bird specimens thought to be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were discovered to actually be a pair of the even rarer Imperial Woodpecker.

In situations where institutions begin to clear out their collections to make room they run the risk of discarding potentially valuable specimens that could later be identified by more experienced and knowledgeable researchers. Fortunately in the examples above, expert researchers were able to identify the specimens and preserve them for future generations to benefit from.

ADDENDUM: since this posting the following story appeared in Cincinnati.

Photo: female Imperial Woodpecker by Casey Tucker, Wild Auk Photography