Curation of Personal Collections

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    Eleanor Gardner

    I am re-posting this on behalf of Jack Kallmeyer, who suggested that a forum topic thread be started on curation of personal fossil collections.

    “I suggest that we start a Forum for discussion of techniques for curation of our personal collections.

    Even though many of us donate fossils to institutions, we still maintain a personal collection for some prized specimens.  Curating a personal collection is vitally important to the future utility of your specimens.  Think about the “getting hit by a bus” scenario.  How will anyone other than yourself be able to identify your specimens and maintain the necessary data that goes along with them if you were to disappear?  Curating also forces some degree of organization so it will also assist the collector in dealing with his own specimens.

    I have seen many curation ideas as used by myself and other club members.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.  By proposing this forum, I would like to see members here share their techniques.  Those with no current methods will be able to see what others have done and decide if one of these methods may work for them  Those of us with systems in place may also see a better method as used by someone else.

    In my mind, of prime importance in any curation system is data retention over identification.  Knowing what something is certainly is nice but knowing the collecting data is priceless.  Also of significant importance is how does one keep the data (which may be a significant amount of information) associated with specimens.

    I encourage all to contribute to this Forum regardless whether you think your system is less than perfect.  We can all learn from each other.


    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.”

    Eleanor Gardner

    Posting on behalf of Ronny Leder –

    Hey Jack @jkallmeyer,

    I think your suggestion is a very good idea and since this topic is also related to digitization we have decided to include this to the the forum topic about digitization and photography and will rename it.

    We would like to integrate the curation aspect to the overall topic of the digitization and photography forum since all that belongs together … that is it.

    Once again, very good idea!!! Thanks Jack!



    Eleanor Gardner

    Posting on behalf of Lisa Lundgren –

    @jkallmeyer, having a discussion about curation of personal collections is a great idea. I wonder how different/similar other collectors’ systems are to yours. Is your system of curation used by other Dry Dredgers (@kyle-hartshorn, @bheimbrock etc.)? I’d love to hear feedback from others on this matter. Off the top of my head–@lmccall, @cferrara, @lcone, @joyce-drakeford, @lhigginbotham, @jon-cartier please, your input to this discussion is important and valuable! If others who have not been tagged want to jump in, please do so as well!”

    Eleanor Gardner

    Posting on behalf of Linda McCall –

    I vote we all take road-trips and view each others collections and make notes – Oh, WAIT!  I AM visiting Jack soon.  Notes will be taken….

    Inviting all to my house during NCFC Fossil Fair, November 19, 2016 for viewing and discussion…..”

    Eleanor Gardner

    Posting on behalf of Lee Cone –

    “I want to get George Powell involved in this topic also.  His personal museum is curated very well.  I will contact him today.”

    Eleanor Gardner

    Note that I’ve moved this conversation into the appropriate forum, @jkallmeyer, @rleder, @llundgren, @lmccall, @lcone.

    I think that getting @george-powell ‘s input on this discussion would be very useful.  George, how do you curate your personal collection (museum)?

    George W. Powell Jr

    Hi Eleanor sorry for the delay in getting  to this. I hope that the attached file (Date.doc) will help out, after collecting the fossil and cleaning them I then but the info that is in this file on all of the fossil and also have the site listed in a catalog with all of the info about site location and its #. If you need more info on the way I do this you can call me at 252-756-8039 or e-mail me at [email protected]. I have around 15,000 fossils that I have collected and yes the info is on them all. This is just one of the many ways to curate & catalog and it works for me.George

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    Jack Kallmeyer

    @egardner, @george-powell, @bheimbrock


    Your system is very good.  At this point in my life, I’d hate to start numbering each of my discrete specimens since the numbers are overwhelming.  This would be good for someone with fewer fossils like a newer collector to get started doing the right way with their collection.

    I wanted to relate what one of our members, Bill Heimbrock, was doing.  I don’t know if he still does this or not but I thought it to be an excellent way to identify individual specimens.  Bill printed individual labels with his specimen code.  I don’t recall any more what all his code included but I believe it was numeric.  These labels were glued on each specimen with clear nail polish.  After this dried, he over coated them with more clear nail polish.  This sounds ridiculous until I reveal that the printing required a 10X hand lens to read.  Bill printed these labels at a small point size.  In MS Word, you can select a pt size of “2” and get a 10 digit number that’s about 4 mm wide and under 1 mm high.  Word does not give you a choice this small so you just type it in the box.  You can also chose a point size of 1 but readability is not as good.  I can’t speak for ink jet printers but it works well on a laser printer.

    The advantage to this is that a printed label will always be more legible than a hand written one.  I work in the research collections of the Cincinnati Museum Center and we have any number of specimens that were numbered in pen back in the day that are difficult to read.  The digits 4 and 9 can be difficult to tell apart when written very small.  Another advantage is that the label is removable with acetone if needed.


    Bill Heimbrock

    Since my name is being bantered about I thought I would be “social” and chime in on my methods of labeling.

    George, I agree with Jack and Lisa. (@george-powell, @egardner, @jkallmeyer) You have a very thorough method of cataloging. I also tip my hat to Jack’s excellent data collection tips.

    I must say that there is no single method or software used by the Dry Dredgers as a group. Everyone has their preferences. As long as all parties understand the needs, the solutions can be diverse. Here are a few details about mine.

    My specimen catalogue number is 8 alphanumeric characters – a 4-character site ID and a 4 digit specimen number.

    A trilobite from my Colerain Ave site is numbered like this.

    CA – Location Identifier (Colerain Avenue) Multiple sites on one street is no problem. Get creative. It’s just 2 characters AA BB whatever.
    2 – Level/layer 2 for that site. The higher the number the lower in the strata. Right or wrong, be consistent.
    R – Richmondian Stage. This can also be a formation or member name.
    4 digit specimen number left justified. This number is only unique within the 4-character site code.

    Of course somewhere on paper and in a computer file I have a list of these site codes and specimen codes along with extensive, extensive, extensive site data.

    Jack in his post mentioned my tiny fossil labeling method. I think I should talk about this. I used to have to label everything. I’m better now, but here’s what I did back in the 90’s.

    The idea is to print and affix specimen labels that are so small, I can label tiny trilobites with unique ID’s. I needed to do this in order to sequence all the trilobites by volume to make a growth sequence. When I was done I could see that volume is not the same thing as apparent size, but that’s what learning and science is about, right?

    See  for what my trilobites looked like. See also for a close-up where you can read the label on the trilobite.

    I did it with a 600 DPI (dots-per-inch) laser printer. I made the page size as big as I could and the font size as small as I could. I was able to fit 10,000 labels on one sheet by printing multiple pages on one side of a sheet. I used Avery full-sheet adhesive label stock so I could cut it the way I wanted and printed the numbers in blocks of 250.

    Here’s what the sheet looks like –

    First I cut out a block of 250 labels with a scissors and peeled the adhesive backing. Then I prep the specimen and cut out one TINY label with the scissors. This is where the self-stick adhesive comes in handy. It doesn’t hurt the fossil because it’s too weak but it keeps the tiny flake from flying away while you affix it to the fossil.

    Here’s what one block of 250 labels looks like compared to my hand which I used to cut the individual labels. –

    As soon as your label is where you want it on the specimen, brush clear nail polish over it and along the edges so it sticks. The nail polish is easy to remove so it won’t hurt your specimen. It also protects the printer ink from rubbing off with time. But it’s possible for the printer ink to smudge while applying the nail polish. It depends on the ink you are using. The dry ink from a laser printer I used did smudge the print if I fussed with it too much.

    I did 400 trilobites this way. They were all from one horizon in the Ft. Ancient member of the Waynesville Formation. In addition to a growth sequence exhibit for our Geofair, the trilobites were used by Greg Schumacher and Marcus Key for the JP paper “Paleoecology of commensal epizoans fouling Flexicalymene (Trilobita) from the Upper Ordovician, Cincinnati Arch region, USA” in which I was named co-author. Hard work does pay off!

    Thanks for reading. – – Bill Heimbrock, Dry Dredgers

    Jack Kallmeyer

    @egardner, @bheimbrock, @lcone, @lmccall, @cferrara, @llundgren  I just wanted to let everyone know that starting this forum has made me do some thinking about labels.  I was speaking with the Head of UC Preservation Services about paper and archival quality and that made me concerned about my labeling.  I just bought some Hammermill acid free paper for laser printers and will use this to produce my specimen labels from now on.  I’ll probably go back and re-do some older ones.  I am considering placing a label with my site code in each Ziploc bag of specimens in my collection.  You may recall from my earlier post that the Sharpie writing on poly bags rubs off over time and these labels will solve that problem.


    Eleanor Gardner

    I am thoroughly impressed with your methods, @jkallmeyer, @george-powell, and @bheimbrock!  And holy smokes, Bill, your labeling of tiny specimens is INCREDIBLE!!  Hard work certainly does pay off – what a labor intensive but useful method!  @rleder, have you ever employed methods like Bill describes?

    Jack (@jkallmeyer) – I know that Ronny feels very strongly about the use of acid-free paper.  He advocates for all field notebooks to have acid-free pages too.  Sounds like you a making a good choice.

    Tangentially related to the idea of labels, I saw this morning an announcement about a ‘WeDigBio’ paleontology event this coming Saturday at Indiana University where folks can help transcribe labels from their fossil collections.  The fossils are Ordovician to Pennsylvanian in age.  Read more here:


    Jack Kallmeyer

    @egardner, @lmccall  I’ll be giving Linda McCall an Ordovician tour this weekend so won’t be able to make that IU event.



    Hey guys, @jkallmeyer, @bheimbrock, @george-powell, @egardner,

    very impressive methods that you have developed and very useful information for our FOSSIL community. Thanks you for sharing these experience. I would like to add another method that I was using labeling fossils. I was in charge of the paleobotany collection in Leipzig for a long time and to label fine clay sediment blocks was not always easy since little pieces of paper would not last very long even if you cover it with glue. I was using Tipp-Ex, a German liquid correction fluid like White-Out in the states. You just have to clean and smooth the area where you put on the White-Out. It last much longer than the paper since it soaks better into the sediment. Once it has dried you can write on it with a very fine dip pen. You can also use the White-Out as the basement to glue a printed label on the fossil.

    I hope that was helpful too.






    Walter Stein

    All very impressive methods for labeling, curating and storing fossil collections! Nice! Thanks all for posting your techniques. I’ve used the paper label methods in the past with mixed success. Since we deal mostly with larger vertebrates, I have tended towards Ronny’s method of white out with a fine felt tip pen painted right onto the specimen. These seem to last the longest and when drawn on using the fine pen and a magnification visor you can write very small and neat. The label can be removed easily with a little light abrasion (30 psi) from a Comco micro abrasion unit. For smaller specimens we encase in riker mounts when possible. Microfossils are bagged (labeled with a sharpie) and stored in plastic containers with site information.

    All of our fossils are given a field number that begins with a two to four letter site designation (TD- stands for the Tooth Draw Site, ENS- Stands for Enigma Site, etc. etc.) , followed by a two digit number that refers to the year of collection (16= collected in 2016), followed by a 3-4 digit number representing the sequential order of collection. These, including site descriptions and locality data, are all logged into a field book and then later digitized into a PDF which can be printed and stored (though I am admittedly about 2 field seasons behind in digitizing these- very time consuming).

    We do not have the funding for some of the larger museum sized curation cabinets, so we went with the next best thing… large metal mechanics tool storage boxes obtained from Home Depot. They are cheaper, can hold hundreds of small-medium specimens, are padded, and can be locked for safe keeping. See photos…  best wishes!

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    Hunter Thurmond

    @jkallmeyer, @rleder, @bheimbrock, @lcone, @george-powell, @lmccall, @cferrara, @walter-stein

    Could some of you share your criteria for what you keep and what you discard; and how you discard of it?

    After my first fossil trip I ended up with many fragments, half of me wants to keep them all and say each one is special because its 300 million years old, but I know I can’t and that there will be endless more.

    Bill Heimbrock

    Hi Hunter @hunter-thurmond

    You’ve asked a good question. You’ll get a wide variety of answers, most with common points.

    Generally, when you get more experienced, you’ll know what you want to keep. Until then, here are some of my thoughts.

    First a disclaimer, I’m a bit different than most collectors. I don’t have a room to display fossils, so I don’t keep fossils for that purpose. No fossil is wasted for me. I help run the classroom fossil kit distribution and sales for the Dry Dredgers. So I screen for museum-worthy fossils and bring those to the attention of the Cincinnati Geier Collections and Research Center. I’m also aware of what research our local professionals are conducting and keep an eye open for what they need. So I collaborate and donate fossils for educational purposes.

    Given that, here are my thoughts. The greatest value of fossils to you at this stage in your collecting is what you learn from them. If a fossil looks interesting to you, pick it up and examine it. If you are still interested in it, bag it and make note of where you found it. Without info on where it was found, the fossil is useless to you and everyone else.

    When you get home, examine your finds while you are still excited about them. Look up the fossil online and learn about the fossil. When you revisit the site or similar sites, you may find better specimens of the same fossil. Take them home, compare to what you found previously and perhaps even act as a scientist in your approach. If you just want to have the best fossils for an exhibit and nothing else, then consider giving the lesser specimens to others who want to learn or give them to educational institutions. NEVER put the lesser fossil back on the site or on other sites. It will corrupt the stratigraphic information.

    I do much of my fossil selection while I’m still on the site. I surface collect and the surface is just as important to me and Paleontology as the fossils on it. Put on your thinking cap while out there. Study photos of fossils in books so when you see a fossil like what you read about, you can know to pick it up and compare to the photos.

    I strongly urge you to join your local fossil club or volunteer at your local museum. This will help you get the greatest knowledge the fastest and make your time in the field much more enriching.

    After a few years, you’ll understand better what is common and what is rare and sought-after. Fragments of fossils can be just as interesting and important as whole body fossils. Trace fossils also show the behavior of the ancient animal and are at least as important as the body fossil.

    I could go on forever. Thanks for the great question, Hunter. I’ll be interested in how other people respond to this question as well.

    Bill Heimbrock
    Fossil Kit Chair and Webmaster
    Dry Dredgers
    [email protected]

    Hunter Thurmond

    Thanks @bheimbrock awesome to get such an in depth response from a professional.  I’d like to point out I was considering putting some back and appreciate the advice NOT to.  And next time I’ll spend a bit more time examining on site.

    Bill Heimbrock

    You’re welcome, Hunter @hunter-thurmond. But I must point out that I’m a fellow amateur fossil collector by hobby and a computer systems analyst by trade.

    I wonder if it would be good to have the avatars show the amateur or professional designation under the user type “participant”? In this way we would be able to know when we are conferring with peers or collaborating with a professional. I wonder if anyone else would find that useful.

    Thoughts, @bmacfadden, @llundgren, @jkallmeyer, @lmccall, @lcone, @kcrippen?

    Amateur Everything 🙂

    Walter Stein

    Hunter @hunter-thurmond

    I know what you mean. It’s very easy to walk away from some sites with too much stuff. When I was in college, I had a tendency to collect every little scrap I found. After several years of field trips, I had buckets worth of invertebrates that I had no real use for that took up lots of space. Now, I’ve become very selective in what I keep and what I leave in situ for others. When it comes to inverts, I keep a personal “research set” that I use to help make identifications. Particularly useful with ammonites which can be used for biostratigraphy.

    With vertebrates, however, its very important to leave some material in the field and often a bad idea to collect every scrap during surface collection. As a skeleton or bone bed begins to weather out, it produces an awful lot of bone fragments that we call “float trails”. If I find a float trail and chase it up hill, but can not find where the source layer is, I try to leave the trail untouched, except for a few diagnostic pieces I can use to help ID the specimen or name the site. Further erosion of the site in the future may eventually reveal where the specimen is coming from, so best to leave the rest of the scraps in place. This makes it easier to relocate the spot and try to find the source again. At other sites that are clearly scientifically important, I do try to collect as much as possible, because every microfossil/fragment might be a clue to what is going on and leaving it out to weather away would be a waste. The fragments that do not have much value after evaluation, can then be given away to kids and guests to help get them interested in the science. So, it depends on the site and type of fossils you are working on.

    In the case of invertebrates from sites that are extensive, its best to be very selective. Better to have three nice trilobites or shark teeth then a bucket of subpar ones. Just my opinion. Good luck!

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