Growing a Collaborative Community with the Natural Science Archives Association

Guest post by Julia Blase

Last August, at the Society of American Archivists annual meeting, a group of professionals began to gather around discussions about the intertwined issues faced by those of us who work with preserving and providing responsible access to archival records of all formats residing within Natural History walls, whether or not that was part of our original job descriptions. The group found that its members included archivists, librarians, information and data scientists, museum and collections managers, and curators from multiple disciplines, but that we all shared similar experiences and concerns.

First, that study and research in the natural sciences or natural history generates valuable historic data, visual media, institutional records, correspondence, rare books, and other archival materials – or current materials that will be invaluable archival material to future researchers.

Second, that after the initial research is completed, these materials may come to rest in many places – natural history museums, libraries, and archives; botanical gardens; local or far-flung research centers; art and culture museums, libraries, and archives; universities; and personal or local archives and museums.

Third, that depending on our backgrounds and institutions, we may not all have the same training and resources available to properly care for and provide access to the items that come under our jurisdiction, but could and would like to supplement our training with the knowledge, experiences, and training of our peers.

And fourth, that we all want the same thing – to be able to reconnect these collections to their archival, library, and cultural counterparts, in a way that facilitates the ease of current and future research and also supports the preservation of the items themselves.

The Natural Science Archives Association (NSAA) was formed to help provide a venue for the inter-institutional conversation and collaboration on those concerns mentioned above. Some of the topics that are of immediate interest include using new tools and systems to manage and connect our collections. EAC, Encoded Archival Context, has emerged as a topic of conversation at different levels – at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the archives have recently adopted AToM (Access To Memory) for their archives, a system that enables the  import and export of EAC records to take that first step towards describing their creators and expeditions in a more widely shareable format, while at Smithsonian, the Field Book Project has been describing entities in EAC in our cataloging database, FileMaker, for several years, but is now looking at and wondering how to make that information more widely available and usable, possibly through larger public platforms such as SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context).

And speaking of AToM and FileMaker, another recent and popular topic of conversation has been the systems that Natural Science libraries, archives, museums, and collections managers use. We’ve heard from many people who use EMu, TMS, Horizon, Archivist’s Toolkit or ArchiveSpace, OCLC products, and so on. The question becomes, how might we connect the records held in each system, first within the institution to enable one global interface to all of the information, and second between institutions. Do we create back-end SQL data warehouses with custom interfaces? Do we export catalog information to institution-wide public catalogs, or to third-party catalogs such as SNAC? Do we invest in the manpower to encode data in RDF (Resource Description Framework) and create a custom web platform so that all institutions can contribute and share data in that place, and if so, who will take on responsibility for continual support and expansion (if you are familiar with the Biodiversity Heritage Library, you may know that the responsibility for support and expansion is quite demanding!).

More topics have already arisen in casual conversation and, I’m sure, will make it to the group soon enough. We hope to be a place for helpful dialogue between those who manage Natural Science library, archive, museum, and specimen collections!

As a group that is still in the early stages of its formation, we welcome feedback from the members of SPNHC – information you would like to provide, questions you’d like to ask, and of course, we welcome new members as well. Please see our still-young website,, for more information and for instructions on how to become a member.

Julia Blase is the Project Manager for the Smithsonian Field Books Project, a pan-Smithsonian initiative to increase access to scientists’ field books. She manages day-to-day project operations and coordinates communications between project partners. Julia comes to the Smithsonian from the National Digital Stewardship Residency, a fellowship program with the Library of Congress. Her  interest in working with natural science archives stems from an early interest in a biology career before settling on history and business instead. She enjoys her work for the unique potential it has to combine her interests in science, history, and education. 

 Next time on Cracking the Collections:

January 10 – Adele Crane talks about “collecting smart” in another Collections Professionals post!