Reply To: Curation of Personal Collections

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Eleanor Gardner

Posting on behalf of Jack Kallmeyer –

OK, I’ll start with my own example.

First of all, in my area we have lots of fossils so there is always duplication and multiple specimens of the same species from a given location.  After 30 years of collecting, the numbers get large.  A few years back I donated the bulk of my collection to Ohio University.  This amounted to 10,000 individual fossils.  Bear this in mind as you read about my “system.”

1) Each distinct collecting locality is given a letter/number site code.  This code is listed in a log book with a site map, word description, or GPS coordinates.  The geologic Formation exposed at the site is also listed.

2) I sort fossils after collecting and cleaning and only the best or most unique are retained in my personal collection.

3) Bulk samples of specimens are kept in small boxes marked with the site code (the fossils may or may not be identified within this box).

4) The best examples from a site are placed in small Ziploc baggies (could be one or multiples of the same species in a bag).  This baggie is marked with the site code in Sharpie along with the ID if known.

5) Specimens too large for the small baggies get the site code marked on them in an inconspicuous place with a fine tip Sharpie.  This is as small as I can write.

6) The best specimens of rare species (primarily echinoderms and some trilobites) may be placed in Riker mounts.  The mount is marked with the site code.

7) Larger display specimens may get marked with the site code or may be accompanied by a paper tag containing the site information along with the code.  When displayed I try to hide the label from view.

8) Specimens not worthy of display  or are too difficult to display are kept in a 3×5 card file cabinet arranged by taxonomy rather than by site code.


1) This system relies on a detailed log book.  The drawback is where is the logbook?  Will it be obvious to others when I’m not around? What if my house burns down?  Without it the logbook, the site codes on fossils are meaningless.  A copy of my logbook has been given to Ohio University and The Geier Collections and Research Center so I should be covered except for recent additions.

2) The Sharpie marks on Ziploc bags can rub off with repeated handling.  I need to be aware of this and correct as needed.  Adding a paper tag inside each bag would also be a good idea.

3) As much as I know I should do it, not all of my larger display specimens have site code markings.  I have been trying to fix this most recently so it is an ongoing process.

4) Individual specimens are not marked (except as noted for larger specimens).  A specimen separated from its bag has no key to link it to a site.

This topic has become prominent in my mind as we (the Dry Dredgers) receive orphaned collections from deceased members’ families.  I have seen first hand what seemed to be great curation systems at the time deteriorate and become useless.  What should have been scientifically valuable specimens end up as mere curios.  Paper labels deteriorate unless you use archival paper.  Handwriting can be illegible to future readers.  Site descriptions naming prominent businesses, roads and landmarks can change,  I had a small box of very nice fossils donated recently that had a paper label in it with the site location.  This was perfect until I spotted a fossil within the box that could not have been collected at that locality.  This made all of the fossils useless for study purposes.  Another collector stored his collection in homemade galvanized steel drawers with the site written on the drawer front in pencil.  Galvanized metal doesn’t rust but it can corrode so the pencil markings were destroyed.  So, when thinking of your own curation system, consider what kind of disaster could make your system fail and your specimens become curiosities.  Once you’ve done this you can modify your system to compensate.”