Managing Unmanaged Collections: In Which One Must Wear Many Hats
Guest post by Colleen Evans
I didn’t decide to go to graduate school to become a collections worker. I’m not even sure I knew that was an option.
But, I was unemployed my last semester of undergrad at the University of North Texas. The nannying gig I had held for most of my college career ended abruptly when their employment situation changed. During a meeting with my future advisor, Dr. Kennedy, my (un)employment situation somehow came up. He’d already agreed to take me as a graduate student that fall to do research related to stream ecosystems or aquatic insects. He also happened to be the director of the collection on campus.
The Elm Fork Natural Heritage Museum at UNT is your classic, formerly-neglected natural history collection. When the new Environmental Science building was built, Dr. Kennedy and some of his graduate students at the time moved all of the collections out of nooks and crannies in the Biology Building and into an empty lab.
I spent my last semester of undergrad in there as a student worker and then I just didn’t leave. When the Teaching Assistant slots were full that fall and I was left in need of a proper graduate student job, I was given a research assistant position to help finish a project to digitize the Joseph Britton Freshwater Mussel Collection, funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. By the time the project was over the following summer, I was hooked. I refocused entirely, took a couple of classes through the Department of Library and Information Sciences and started cataloging the herbarium.
Well before my projected graduation date, I started applying for every natural history job I saw and felt vaguely qualified for. By what felt like a miracle, I was offered a job six months before I planned on graduating. I shoved six months of work into a month and half, defended my thesis on a Monday, packed a moving van on Tuesday, moved halfway across the country on Wednesday and started my new job the following Monday.
At Georgia Southern University
As the only full-time collections staff at Georgia Southern University, I have a wardrobe’s worth of hats. Each collection has an assigned curator, but they are all professors with teaching loads, graduate students and research programs that may or may not involve their collection. Therefore, I am responsible for all day-to-day operations: pest control, data management, training students, etc.
I’m also the first Collections Manager ever, so the collections were literally and figuratively all over the place when I arrived. Some of the collections were well cared for. The Herpetology collection was in the end stages of an NSF grant to digitize and recurate the collection. All of the specimens had been rehoused, relabeled and cataloged. It was, however, the only collection with an official space that was designed as collections storage.
The Mammalogy, Ornithology and some of the Ichthyology collection was stored in an old janitorial closet. The Entomology collection was stuck in a closet under the stairs. The herbarium was scattered throughout the bottom floor of the building, lining the hallways. The U.S. National Tick Collection was, until very recently, in the old Home Management House.
Thankfully, a new building was completed for the Biology Department a few weeks after I arrived. This building has actual rooms dedicated to the collections: one for the spirit collections, one for the herbarium and one for all of the “dry” collections.
Because of the unorthodox storage methods, even with proper cabinets the mammals were infested with Dermestid beetles and had to be frozen before being moved. The insect drawers all contained pesticide of some sort, as did the herbarium cases. I’ve since phased out most pesticide use in the collections, but after many years of having no dedicated collections staff, some of the professors are a bit too used to taking what they need for teaching and returning it without me ever knowing it left.
Lately, I’ve had more opportunities to wear my more comfortable hats, collection digitizer and data manager. The GSU Herbarium (GAS) is part of the SERNEC Thematic Collections Network and we’re starting the imaging soon. I’ve been working towards getting all of the collections’ data either transferred into or cataloged in Specify 6. This will be a never-ending task: the tick collection alone has 97,000 records in an old Filemaker database, which desperately needs cleaning before I can think about transferring it into a new format.
Speaking of the ticks….
The ticks are their own thing altogether. The U.S. National Tick Collection is on long-term enhancement loan from the Smithsonian Institution and has been at Georgia Southern University for 25 years as of 2015.
The collection was started in the early 1900s, after scientists, including Dr. Howard T. Ricketts, realized ticks were capable of transmitting disease. In the 1930s, the collection became part of the U.S. Public Health Service Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana. It stayed in Montana until the 1980s, when it transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. While at the Smithsonian, it was merged with Dr. Harry Hoogstraal’s collection, increasing the volume significantly. The various transfers and additions make it the largest continuously curated tick collection in the world.
When the collection came to GSU in 1990, it was moved into the old Home Management House, a literal house on campus that was formerly used to teach young ladies how to run a household. In its time, it was a home to aspire to with marble fireplaces and a chandelier from Spain. Once the ticks took over, the dining room and kitchen became collections space, the parlor became an archive and the bedrooms transformed into offices. While charmingly bizarre, the Tick House was cramped and had become a fire hazard that was literally falling apart around us.
Technically, the tick collection is in a separate department from the other collections, the Institute for Coastal Plain Science, and it wasn’t given space in the new building. After the Biology Department vacated its old building, we were able to secure some of the space and renovate to create a bigger, safer home for the USNTC. After a few delays and the threat of a wrecking ball taking out the Tick House with us still in it, we managed to move into the new space earlier this year. We even snagged the house’s chandelier and installed it in our new home.
Moving the collection itself in some ways was the easy part of this process. We still had some of the original wooden cabinets that had been constructed when the collection was in Montana, but these were impossible to open on particularly humid days, which are common in swampy South Georgia. These were replaced completely. When moving, we were able to cycle jars out of the metal cabinets we wanted to keep and into new cabinets. Then move the cabinets and clean out the wooden ones. I had everything mapped out, even accounting for taxonomic changes, so once jars made it to the new space they were put where they now belonged.
But we don’t just have the specimens, the collection arrived with a whole archive and plenty of other stuff. I’m still slowly sifting through it all to figure out what needs to be kept and what is destined for the dumpster. Much of the ephemera is what you’d expect, piles of books, old grant applications, receipts and other papers belonging to people who have since retired or moved on. Some of it is a bit more unexpected.
We were aware that Dr. Hoogstraal had a small collection of tick art, parts of it had adorned the walls of the house for years. We were not aware that there was even more stashed in a tiny closet behind one of the collection’s cabinets, where we also discovered his photo albums from various African expeditions.
Evidently, throughout the house someone had stashed small cardboard boxes containing glass plate negatives from research in the early 1900s. These were all reunited as I unpacked the boxes after the move. I’m still trying to figure out who they once belonged to. Glass plate negatives are extremely fragile. The image tends to flake off over time, especially if the plates were stashed haphazardly in various cabinets and closets while still in their original, crumbling boxes. I spent a few days gently repackaging all of the plates, so they wouldn’t sustain any more damage than they already had.
So now, I am fashioning a new hat as an archivist. Just in case I didn’t have enough already.
Colleen Evans is the Collections Manager for the Institute for Coastal Plain Science and the Department of Biology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. The collections span all modern taxa and include the U.S. National Tick Collection. Colleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next time on Cracking the Collections:
November 10 – Announcements from the SPNHC Emerging Professionals Committee, including ways to become more involved in SPNHC.