Read about the experiences of collection managers in supporting a volunteer digitisation project.

Dr Dave Britten, Australian Museum

Dr Dave Britton, Collection Manager of Entomology at the Australian Museum, has been the key player in providing digitisation staff and volunteers with the necessary knowledge, specimen handling skills and enthusiasm for the wonderful world of insects.

Dave, who has a PhD in Agricultural Entomology, has lived on Australia’s east coast and in Victoria working in the research field at different universities, specialising in entomology across a broad variety of disciplines. He started at the museum in 2003 and his interests outside of work include parenting, mountain cycling, music, gardening, insect photography, and collecting around his home.

What are the benefits of the project to the Entomology collection at the museum?
“The museum has a mandate to make information that is currently locked in the collection available to as many people as possible. We have been directly digitising the collection for a long time before the project began, but the reality is that we do not have the staff resources to do as much as we would like. Within the collection, we use digital records for a number of things, such as inventory, tracking internal specimen movements and external specimen loans. The digitisation project complements what we are doing already, and with a collection that contains over four million specimens it is helping get the information locked in there, out to our stakeholders.”

What are the challenges you have experienced with the project?
“The principle one is having the specimens handled by volunteers who may not have any experience or skills to handle specimens that are often fragile. In itself, this creates a subset of what we can provide to the project … we have focused on the dry collection, which in turn is much smaller than the ethanol-preserved collection, so there is still a mountain of work to be done.

“Another challenge is providing sorted specimens with up to date and meaningful taxonomic information associated with them. Finding specimens that are physically suitable for handling by volunteers, and have good taxonomic data, means that only a portion of the collection is currently suitable. What is required is added investment in planning and curation, which requires more money to pay qualified staff. I guess there is no such thing as a free lunch!

“In terms of the data, there has been a lot of discussion about what do we do with the data when it is imported from the Atlas of Living Australia online volunteer portal project to our internal data base. With each stage, we are looking at it and refining our processes to make the system work for us.”

Will this project be useful for other museums?
“Yes, I think so. There is a natural concern about handing specimens over to volunteers with no background in it. People who work with specimens are very fussy about the accuracy of information and there are examples elsewhere of shoddy information out there. Regular meetings to express any concerns helped sort out these issues on this project.”

Story by Leonie Prater