Collections Work: In the Collections

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Unless you’re lucky or clever, your time in the collections while on a research trip is going to be limited. Which means that making efficient use of your time can be the difference between getting everything done and either needing to go back or just missing out on some information.

The exact specifics of what constitutes “efficient use of your time” is going to vary depending on what type of data you’re collecting and what questions you want to answer. Below is how I make use of my time visiting collections.

Step 1: Triage

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When I enter a new collection, the first thing I do is triage the specimens in my study group. I take my sticky notes and my pen and go through all the drawers. If I see a specimen I want to look at, I stick a note on the front of the drawer. If it’s a full drawer that I’d have to sort through again to find what I want, I write its number on the sticky note (multiple specimens will go on the same note if they fit). I use different colorsfor different levels of importance. There are some specimens I want to spend a lot of time fully examining. Others I just want photo documentation of. And there are some that aren’t directly related to my research, but if I have time, I’ll look at them for comparison. This will probably eat up the first hour of your visit, but if you have a lot to go through, it saves you time and/or hassle later. If it’s a small collection (only a few specimens or a few drawers), triage is not necessary; just get right to work.

After you’ve gone through everything, you might consider making note of how many important, somewhat important, and not important specimens you have to go through. You could plan out when you’re going to look at each specimen or set of specimens (Day 1: important specimens 1 and 2 in the afternoon; Day 3: take pictures of somewhat important specimens…). Or you could just wing it and gauge if you’re going through things quickly enough as they come. Figure out what works for you.

Remove the sticky notes from the drawers as you finish examining each specimen. And don’t put the sticky notes on the specimens themselves or on their labels. You don’t want to leave glue residue on anything important.

Collect your data

This one’s self-explanatory. Take your pictures, code your characters, take your measurements, etc…

Draw specimens

If you have time you can draw some of your specimens. This is especially useful if you have an important specimen whose sutures aren’t showing up very well in your pictures. Better to draw them while it’s in hand than to draw from memory and unhelpful images later.

Scientific specimen drawing can be as simple as “Here’s the rough outline of my specimen, its important holes, and here’s where the sutures are”. It can also be as complicated as one of Ernst Haeckel’s absolutely breathtaking artworks.

Jaw-droppingly beautiful

But, uh…that last one is not what you’ll be doing during a research visit. You’re here to do science and don’t have time for art. That’s something you do if you have the specimen on loan or it’s at your home institution. My drawings are somewhere in the middle. I do the outlines, but I also shade them to record the topography. I’ll go through my process in another post.

Take breaks

This one is important and underrated. Many people try to go through the collections at top speed nonstop. Sometimes you have to if you don’t have much time. But your brain can’t be on constant overdrive without ramifications. You’ll start missing or misinterpreting things. You might have to spend longer mulling over whether that suture really does extend all the way to that foramen or not. Taking breaks is especially important if you’re going to be doing this for weeks and weeks. You will get burnt out if you don’t pace yourself.

I usually take about three breaks a day—mid-morning, lunch, and mid-afternoon—though this can vary greatly depending on when I start, how tired I am, and how focused I am [not]. I don’t rush my lunch if I can avoid it. I take half an hour or an hour. If there’s a park nearby, I recommend taking your lunch there. You’re going to be in the bowels of some building all day; enjoy the sunshine and fresh air as you’re able.

You might even consider taking a post-lunch nap. There’s a reason this is the norm in some countries (e.g., China). Studies have shown that short siestas increase your work output and quality during the afternoon. Anything longer than an hour is too much; you’ll feel tired after. If you can’t nap, sitting quietly for ten minutes, perhaps with your eyes closed, is still enough to help a little bit. It seems like 10-30-minute power naps are consistently the best.

Can’t power nap? Tough cookies. Learn to. If you’re in academia, this is one of the best ways to maximize your productivity prior to looming deadlines without harming yourself. The others being eating healthy and getting enough exercise.

You can, of course, caffeinate yourself, but it doesn’t work as well. And do you really want to rely solely on a drug to function when you have a choice not to? It’s not like some mental and physical illness cases where medication is necessary. But if you do choose to caffeinate, it will be more effective if you time when you consume it based on your circadian rhythm. This will both increase its effectiveness in the short-term and minimize the long-term tolerance you build to it.

Oops!

Did you break a specimen? Don’t worry; you won’t be thrown out or ostracized (unless this is a common theme with you, in which case you need to seriously rethink your specimen handling strategy). We all do this at some point. Fossils are millions of years old and removed from their fossilization conditions; they aren’t exactly stable. And we’re turning them around every which way trying to see everything.

If you break a specimen tell the collections manager. They need to know so they can either put that in the preparation workflow or decide it’s not worth fixing/able to be fixed and just record the specimen’s new state (2 pieces instead of 1) in their database. Don’t try to hide what you did. Next time someone goes to pick up that specimen, they’ll be working under the assumption that it’s a single piece and suddenly half of it has fallen off, the pieces have ground together on the way down, and there’s a pile of infinitesimally small bits of specimen in the box. Or worse–it’s broken into more pieces. Failing to report breakages will make people mad at you, and rightfully so.

I actually recommend taking a collection care class. Or even just a workshop on specimen handling if you can find one being offered. Some of it will be common sense, but sometimes people lack that. And sometimes it’s things you just wouldn’t have thought about it if someone didn’t point it out.

Actually…

Do you have an important identification observation to make that differs from what’s on the card? Maybe that’s not a jugal; it’s an ectopterygoid. Or maybe that Crocodylus fossil is actually Allognathosuchus and the label just hasn’t been updated anytime in the last century. Collection managers are very busy and simply don’t have time to learn everything about all the fossils in their care. They may be an icthyosaur specialist in charge of fossil herp collections that include snakes. Or, if they’re at a small institution, their job title may be a more general “paleontology collection manager” of a collection ranging from jawless fish to mice to dinosaurs. They rely on visiting researchers to keep their information up to date.

Post-visit

Thank the collections managers whenever you present research that includes their specimens. When you publish, send them a copy of the paper for their records. That’s the only way they’re going to be able to keep up with all the updates on their specimens.

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