Collections Work: Collections Kits


Taking the bare minimum (camera, notebook, writing utensil) into collections and hoping for the best is a horrible idea. Sometimes things go wrong–an SD card goes bonkers, the lighting is horrible for pictures… Other times you really wish you’d paid more attention and taken a good photo of that phylogenetic character that’s uncoded in your matrix.

Whenever you start visiting collections for research, you should start building up a collections kit–things you regularly take with you because you might or will need them, just like a dancer’s dance bag. Exactly what you take will vary depending on what data you’re collecting and what questions you’re trying to answer, but some things are ubiquitous. Below is what I take (or, in some cases, have considered taking) into collections.


I take my laptop, but if you have a tablet you may prefer that. It would be an easy way to access all the scientific papers you could want. If you choose the laptop route, do yourself a favor and invest in a lightweight one; you’ll be carrying it around a lot. If you have any spreadsheets of data (like caliper measurements or character matrices), save yourself some time later and enter them straight into your files in the collections.


It can be a good point-and-shoot or it can be a DSLR. I’d been taking my Canon EOS Rebel XSi into collections and was about to invest in a good macro lens when someone introduced me to a point-and-shoot (a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS) which cost pretty much the same amount as a decent macro lens and has good macro itself on top of good telephoto and phenomenal IS. I’m a birder with shaky hands, so those last two things are very important to me. I decided I’d rather buy a new camera than spend two or more times that amount on the decent macro and telephoto lenses I sorely needed. Extra bonus? Point-and-shoots weigh less than DSLRs and take up less space.

The advantage a DSLR has over a point-and-shoot is better resolution. If you use a point-and-shoot, you’ll want to make that ISO number as low as possible to maximize your resolution for specimen photos (though I’ve heard that each model is designed around a specific ISO and quality is only minimally increased below that?). Camera shake is more of a probably at low ISO numbers, so this is where you’ll want to use a tripod and a timer or remote button to take that picture.

Also, if you have a DSLR, get it serviced every few years. If you’re uncomfortable poking around the delicate mirrors and sensors yourself (as you should be), take it to a professional to have it done. University Camera here in town is great.


When I first bought my Rebel, I bought an accessory kit on Amazon that included everything I needed and more for a great price. It came with a cheap tripod which I though was just what I needed. It was light, took up very little space when folded up, and it worked. It wasn’t high quality, but I just needed something to hold my camera still at a specific height and angle.

…But then I found out that the horizontal bars between my tripod’s legs got in the way of taking specimen pictures all the time. If you’re taking pictures from the side, that’s not an issue, but when you take them from above…

So when my tripod finally broke, I shelled out the money for one with an arm that extends the camera away from the legs. Sometimes I need that extra distance even without the horizontal bars because some of my specimens are big. The legs can also be splayed out even farther than the default max if you want to get a good close-up shot of something small. I’ve enjoyed using it, but it is more annoying to transport because it’s so big and heavy.

Camera cleaning supplies

Lens wipes, the air squirters with brushes on them, q-tips. They don’t take of much space or weight much and you might end up in a dusty back room if that particular institution doesn’t get a lot of funding for collections care. You don’t necessarily need to take these to the collections, but you should at least take them with you during your travels.

Extra camera battery

Just in case you forget to charge the one you’re using and it dies in the middle of the day. That sucks.

Extra SD card

Also just in case. I’ve had one decide to stop working on me before.

Camera manual or cheat sheet

Unless you’re very familiar with all the digital camera settings, you should consider bringing one of these with you. The best setting is going to be different between collections (lighting!) and between fossil specimens (color and luster vary due to the differing chemistry of the fossilization process in different rock formations). Also based on what the purpose of a picture is (depth of field is a common one to change to highlight either whole specimens or single features).

Bidirectional bubble leveler

Helps to make sure your images are taken from a consistent angle. Maybe not important if you just want pretty pictures, but very important for 2D morphometric analyses. I used to have one that slides onto the tops of cameras (lost it somewhere), but now I have one on my tripod head. You should also consider bringing one to put on your specimens to check that they themselves are sitting at a consistent angle to one another (again, not as important if you aren’t doing 2D morphometrics).

Scale bar

Don’t forget one of these. You’ll kick yourself later. So much extra work and so much introduced error… If you do happen to forget one, use something you have on hand as scale and measure it later, like that restaurant punch card in your wallet, or the lid to a pen. You could bring along graph paper and use that, but there’s no guarantee of good contrast between the paper and the specimen. I have a scale bar that’s shaped like a credit card and always carry it around in my wallet.


Something to prop specimens in place because they aren’t all going to sit the same. Many of them have bits broken off. I use a hacky sack with bright colors that are easily removed in Photoshop. Other people use moldable erasers, but I’d rather not risk leaving an oily residue on the specimens. If you use something like that, test it beforehand on something innocuous to see if it leaves any residue. Also make sure it doesn’t leave bits of itself behind or take bits of specimen with it.

But use whatever works. I’ve been thinking about sewing some microfiber or jersey knit beanbags. Sometimes the shadows in the big stitches of my hacky sack have to be removed manually rather than using the magic eraser tool to get rid of them on the computer with one click. Big time-sucker.


Some of my specimens are dark, some are light, and some are in between. Most collections won’t have photography stations set up for you, so you should bring your own fabric to place your specimens on. Try white for the dark specimens, black for the light ones, and some mid-range colored one for the in-betweeners. Don’t use a color that’s liable to be a fossil color, like red or orange. Turquoise, lime green, purple, or something like that would work better. I use my black laptop sleeve for the dark contrast and blank pages in my notebook for the light contrast because I keep forgetting to add fabric to my kit before leaving home.

Other photography supplies

You could get crazy—bring lamps and a tabletop light tent to stick your specimens in so the lighting is diffused—but that would be crazy. Lamps would be a pain to cart around. I do not recommend it unless your travel will be limited in scope and you know for a fact that the place you’re going doesn’t have their own. Light tents aren’t as useful without them and, depending on what you work on, your specimens might not fit in it anyway. Sometimes they also diffuse the light too much and the specimen looks “flat” in pictures.

FD filters will make it look more like your specimens were photographed under natural light instead of the fluorescents you’ll almost always be under. Sometimes that looks better, sometimes it doesn’t; depends on the fossil and the lighting conditions. But filters also decrease the quality of your images a little and aren’t as useful for scientific photography as artistic photography.

A lens hood might not be a bad idea, especially if you end up stuck in a room with giant windows that can’t be covered; less risk of flare.

A white balance card could be useful if you’re particular about true-to-life color. Otherwise, just use the presets on your camera. I don’t think true color is important for most types of scientific photos. I just pick the preset that lets me see what I want to see best.

Notebook or pad of paper

I prefer to take notes in a notebook, but you might want to do it on your computer instead; ymmv. You can also use the paper to draw specimens, which can be done much more quickly than doing it on the computer (unless you have an artist-friendly tablet with a stylus).

Drawing supplies

Going along with the previous idea, I bring drawing supplies to illustrate the most important specimens. How to draw study illustrations in collections is a whole post in and of itself, so I’ll eschew the details here and talk about that later.

Important checklists

As in, things you want to observe about each or some specimen(s). In my cases, that’s a character list for phylogenetic analyses. I highly recommend printing long checklists off beforehand and bringing them along in a folder. You have no idea how much time it saves vs. scrolling up and down in Adobe Reader. Plus I feel like I concentrate on things better if I’m looking at hard copies than at a screen.

Examination Aids

Hand lenses and flashlights are a huge help when it comes to seeing little tiny character states or looking into the depths of some specimen’s ear hole.

Any important papers

If you reference any frequently, consider bringing hard copies. Otherwise, pdfs on your computer are just fine. Unless you have a tablet, in which case the pdfs will probably always be just fine.

Sticky notes or tabs

You know those neon tabs you can buy to demarcate your books and folders? They’re really useful for keeping track of which drawers and specimens you still need to go through. More about that in a later post.

Getting from A to B


I carry a small notebook with me when I travel. In it, I write down information that I’ll need which I won’t  be able to pull up on the internet while in transit (I don’t have a smartphone). Things like the addresses of the places I’m going to, phone numbers of my contacts, flight/train/bus numbers and what time they leave, etc…

The most important thing I write down is directions. And I commit them to memory as much as possible beforehand so I can reference my notebook as little as possible while out. Better to be able to act like you know where you’re going than to broadcast to potential ne’er-do-wells that you’re new in town, naive, and distracted.

Another thing I do that’s less common–but quite helpful–is to keep track of what compass direction I’m going based on the sun. I took a class called Archeoastronomy in college and part of it was learning how to do naked-eye astronomy the way ancient people would have (including tracking the sun across the sky).

It keeps the visual map in my head connected with what I see in the real world, which means that if I find I need to make an unexpected detour I don’t have any issues.  I’ve missed turns before, but I’ve never actually felt lost and always easily found my way back–even when I wasn’t paying attention because someone else in my group was leading and got us turned around.

If you try to do it, keep in mind that the arc the sun travels along will differ based on both the latitude and time of year. But so long as you know what time it is (and whether you’re on Daylight Savings Time *grumble*), you can figure out direction (and vice-versa) even if you only have a general idea of where the sun should be.

The latitude I’ll be at during this first trip is 43-53° N. Aside from Marseille, France, I’ll be at higher latitudes than here in Iowa City (42° N). I’m going to be traveling in the month immediately following the summer solstice (which is today!), so it won’t deviate too far from its northern maximum during my trip. Because I’ll be well north of the equator, the sun will be rising 30-40° N of E and setting the same amount N of W (it only rises and sets directly east and west on the equinoxes) and will be 20-30° shy of directly overhead at its zenith (1 pm in England, noon on the continent because of time zone silliness).

Here are a couple sunpath generators you can play with:
Sun Calc– If charts with lots of information scare you, this website is good to ease you into looking at sunpath charts.
Sun Earth Tools– Several different charts and tables are generated by this website. Scroll down to see a re-creation of what it looks like from the ground



In most of the places I’m traveling to, English isn’t the main language (though it’s fairly common in some and the scientific community I interact with will speak it). But it feels so much better to be able to get the gist of things on your own than to smile awkwardly and act like a mute. Plus it’s just polite to make an effort to learn local languages when you travel.

Classes–You can take classes at a university. I took Conversational Chinese I and II here before going there in 2010 and it was a huge help. The teacher made sure my pronunciation and tones were so good that people I talked to on the street there got excited and started trying to have full conversations with me because they assumed I was fluent.

Duolingo–This is a free website where you can learn other languages that’s fun and works well. They currently only offer Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portugese for English speakers (fewer if your native language isn’t English), but they’re constantly working to add more. I’ll be brushing up on my French verbs and learning basic German for my upcoming trips.

Airline computers–Some international airlines offer basic language instruction via the computers in the seatbacks. You can work on that instead of watching movies. I was able to pick up a few phrases of Thai this way, but they really aren’t as useful as they should be. The program focused on nouns I wouldn’t be using in daily conversation and didn’t discuss tones at all.

Guidebooks w/audio– If you buy a book to learn from, make sure it has audio. They won’t necessarily describe the pronunciation well via descriptive text.

And unless you’re fluent in the local language, it might be useful to carry a book of useful phrases around with you so you can point to them if need be.

Etiquette and Culture Clash


When you travel internationally, it’s a good idea to learn some of the common customs and cultural perceptions. You can find some of the basic ones by doing a simple Google search. Being mindful that what your culture perceives as normal or polite can be considered unusual or rude by others will reduce inadvertent insults on your part as well as failure to correctly perceive whether you’re being treated well or badly.

For example, before I went to Thailand, I found out that it’s considered rude for the bottoms of your feet to face anyone because they’re considered unclean. I had to curb my dance habit of sometimes flexing my feet to stretch my calves while sitting.

Below are some of the customs and cultural perceptions I’ll need to keep in mind during my upcoming travels. And if you’re from any of these countries or have lived abroad in them, please let me know if you have any corrections or additions you feel should be addressed.


Small talk with random strangers is considered superficial (whereas we consider chatting to be friendly).

If a random stranger of the opposite sex smiles at you, they’re probably hitting on you. Keep a blank look, then turn away (unless you’re actually interested in that sort of interaction).

Restaurant checks are usually split evenly, regardless of who ordered what.

Greet clerks when entering/exiting shops

If you need to ask a stranger something, lead with “Excusez-moi de vous déranger” (sorry to bother you).


Jaywalking isn’t illegal, and quite common.

Patiently wait in queues. Don’t complain about it.

Most pubs don’t serve dinner or have dedicated waitstaff. Go to the bar, order your drink and meal, and tell them where you’re sitting.

You’ll need to request more to drink at restaurants. No free refills here.

Be aware that many shops close after 5 or 6 o’clock.

Leave a small amount of food on your plate.


Don’t put your hands in your pockets. This is going to be a tough one for me…it’s pretty common in the Southern hillbilly culture I’m from and I do it all the time.

Finish all the food on your plate.

Belgian culture is heterogenous. Find our whether French, German, or Dutch culture influence the area you’re visiting. Choose the language you use to address others in the same way. Speak English if you aren’t sure which is appropriate.

The American “OK” sign means “zero” in Belgium.

Subtlety is preferred over directness.


Have good posture.

Don’t point your index finger at your head (it’s an insult).

Eat everything on your plate.

Again, don’t put your hands in your pockets [while talking to people].

Don’t chew gum or clean your fingernails in public.

They don’t really do lines here.


No lines here either.

Whistling is rude (*sad face*)

It’s polite to hold your plastic or money with both hands when giving or receiving it.

Point with open hands, not your index finger. Likewise, beckon by making a scratching motion with the palm down instead of palm up and curling your index finger.

It’s better to ask someone you already know to introduce you to another person that they already know than to approach them yourselves out of the blue.

“Saving face” is big there. For example, if you ask for directions, you might be given good ones or you might be pointed in a random direction if the person doesn’t know the answer. They don’t want to be perceived poorly, which seems counter-intuitive to us because our cultural norm is that admitting shortcomings is fine, but lying is bad. Thankfully, on my previous trip, I found that I could usually tell based on the generality of the answer and facial expressions/body language whether the person was giving me correct directions or not.

Be prepared to haggle prices at markets and be more insistent than you think you should be. The cost you’re verbally given when shopping is going to be way overpriced because you’re a foreigner (and therefore assumed to have more money). Try countering with 1/10th that amount. If they reply by offering a price lower than the original, continue bartering with them. If they don’t, they’re probably unwilling to go lower for a foreigner because they work in a market frequented by foreigners who don’t know better, so say “tài guì le” (that’s too expensive) and shop somewhere else. In some markets, they’ll be very insistent that you buy from them, going so far as to follow you or pull you into their shop.


No hands in pockets when talking to someone here, either.

The American “OK” sign is a rude gesture.

Don’t point your index finger at your head here, either.

If someone corrects your behavior, be gracious. It’s a social duty.

Stand when an elder or someone with a higher rank enters the room.

Common differences and American mannerisms

Chatting with strangers and loud, jovial conversations are very American and not widespread in other cultures.

Our idea of personal space is pretty big, comparatively. You may find that people stand uncomfortably close to you because they don’t know your ‘bubble’ is bigger than theirs.

We say “thank you” a lot more than many cultures. One of my Chinese colleagues told me we’re the only ones he’s ever known to say “thank you so much”. Note: “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” are also commonplace in England.

When to show up to appointments, meetings, etc…differs substantially between cultures. Americans often show up 5-15 minutes early. In some cultures, you’re expected to be there right on time. In others, you’re expected to show up late. Find out what the typical time difference is for the country you’re in. Take that into consideration when showing up for or planning meetings.

We tip a lot. In some cultures, tipping (or tipping too much) comes off as showing off or insulting the employers. Find out what the local tipping customs are and tip accordingly.

Some cultures have gift-giving customs. Find out what they might be interested in and bring some small gifts along with you if you foresee being in a situation that would warrant it.

Business cards are commonly exchanged in many cultures. If you can, make double-sided cards with the local language version on one side and English on the other.

If you have any special dietary needs or restrictions, let any dinner hosts know beforehand. I’m a teetotaler, so I make sure to let local colleagues know if I may be in a situation where it would be rude for me to refuse alcohol without prior warning.

It varies across the US, but many Americans see certain physical contact as friendly (hugs as greetings, congratulatory back-slapping, etc…). Other cultures may not be comfortable with physical contact between people who aren’t close, or may have alternate gestures (“cheek kissing”, which is really more kissing the air beside the cheeks).


Depaysement and Culture Clash

One final thing I want to point out–culture clash is a valid thing. I’m not invalidating the differences here, just pointing them out. You’ll tolerate them better if you’re aware of them going in than just thrown into the fray.

There were times in China when I hated the place and other times when I loved it just because there were a few things that really got on my nerves (e.g., being stared at nonstop by people standing right next to me on the bus, or being stalked by someone who was curious about how Americans live but not very tactful about it). I just made an effort to avoid contact with people when I was grumpiest, both for my sake and for theirs. And sometimes I had to act in a way that I’m used to thinking of as rude (e.g., shoving and squeezing my way onto the subway), which I then had to unlearn when I got home because I got used to it after two months of doing it.

Overall, just be mindful. If you’re there long enough, you will develop depaysement (a French word for the feeling of being a foreigner) in a bad way at some point. Awareness of cultural differences helps dampen it and helps you recover more quickly. And makes it more pleasant for locals to interact with you.

Finding Transportation and Lodging


I utilized a lot of sources in trying to come up with the best prices, timing, and locations for transportation and lodging. I hope this list helps some of you.

Student Universe–plane and train tickets, lodging

Google Maps–Type “lodging loc:<insert address of workplace>” or use public transit directions. I also check walking directions from my places of lodging because I prefer to go on foot when possible.

Groups one is already a part of–For example, I’m in the SCA, a living history group that’s international in scale. Whatever group you’re a part of, you might be able to find locals willing to put you up and/or show you around.

Collections managers–They have a lot of experience with people coming to visit and can often tell you which places are the best to stay at (or if any should be avoided), an possibly what public transit to take to either get into town or get around town if you aren’t staying nearby.

The Man in Seat Sixty-One–This is a great little collection of information on trains around the world. Includes handy information about which routes are cheapest, most scenic, liable to be late, etc…

And of course there’s going directly to the airline, train, ferry, or lodging companies if you know who services the area you’re going to.