NHC3 – Creating a Network of Natural History Collections Clubs

Guest post by Kari Harris

It is not hard to show undergraduate students the value in being involved in academic organizations. Students are aware of the difficulties facing them in the current job market. Academic organizations allow them to develop leadership skills, network with other students and professionals in their field of interest, and learn new skills that they may not be able to learn in a classroom. Organizations such as SPNHC exist, in part, to help students at the national/international level and are striving to provide more local resources. Despite this, there was not previously any individual system of support for students interested in natural history collections.

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NHC3 Members showcasing specimens at the Arkansas Science Festival, photo courtesy of Kari Harris

The Natural History Collections Club Network (NHCCN) is filling this gap. The four existing network clubs have demonstrated that student-led organizations can unify students interested in collections on a university campus. It is not feasible for large professional organizations to target every student who is interested in natural history collections. It is, however, completely reasonable for such an organization to support a series of smaller organizations that can reach students at a local level. By expanding this network, we are able to provide opportunities to students who seek to study biodiversity and collections. The nature of the club platform allows even students who do not want to study collections as a career to participate and gain experience in collections work. This will lead to a greater pool of emerging professionals in science (and other disciplines) who appreciate the value of collections and support collections preservation.

The first Natural History Collections Curation Club was started in spring 2013 at Arkansas State University (A-State). A group of students became interested in collections through an informal collections course and were seeking a way to further help the collections. Some of the biodiversity collections at A-State were falling into disrepair due to lack of funding and appropriate staff. Student organizations at the university are allowed to apply for an Action Fund, which supports various club activities. The original club members planned to use an Action Fund and hold fundraisers to collect money to support the collections.

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2015 NHC3 club photo taken with an American Alligator prepared by the club, photo courtesy of Chris Thigpen

In its first semester, the club raised nearly $1000 for collections supplies. Additionally, the students volunteered about 100 hours working in the collections refilling jars, removing specimens from overcrowded shelves, and sorting out specimens that were beyond repair. Faculty members were available to train the students and were responsible for deaccessioning specimens. It is important to recognize the great amount of work that can be accomplished by a group of highly motivated students led by 1-2 faculty members. Using this model, we demonstrated that student volunteers can be used to bring a collection back from the brink of disaster.

By the end of its first semester, the A-State NHC3 caught the attention of administrators. This is when we learned something that inherently makes a lot of sense – college administrators are interested in what interests their undergraduate students. This means if undergrads suddenly think that collections are worthwhile and are choosing to volunteer their time in order to save university assets, the chairs and the deans see new value in collections and may start funding them. It also helps if those students are going to conferences, writing blogs, and writing research papers about the collections at their university, because everyone likes free advertisement. This is what happened at A-State. The students became so interested and involved in collections that the collections became a true and quantifiable asset to the university. Over the course of three years the College of Sciences and Mathematics has allocated approximately $45,000 to collections activities including supplies, field trips, conferences, and personnel support. To some collections, this amount of funding may represent too small a figure to be significant, but it is very meaningful to a collection that had become accustomed to a budget of $0.

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NHC3 member Mary Rath using specimens to discuss biological adaptations with local 6th graders, photo courtesy of Kari Harris

This network of individual university clubs supports solutions to many of the problems currently facing collections, especially small collections and university collections. We have successfully created a way to:

  • Inspire a new generation of collections professionals
  • Link them to a larger professional network through the NHCCN and ultimately through SPNHC (last year 5 club members and 2 advisers from the network attended SPNHC)
  • Informally train students in collections techniques
  • Link students to formal training opportunities
  • Raise awareness of collections locally (when individual clubs host outreach activities in their communities) and broadly (when club members become professionals who understand the importance of collections)
  • Quantify the importance of collections to university administrators

The NHCCN is made up of four very different clubs with very different collections at very different universities. The model has worked for some clubs better than others, but it is leaving a lasting impact on the collections at each location. The NHCC at University of California Santa Barbara is the largest club and has branches dedicated to curation, outreach, and research. The NHC3 at Missouri State University has fewer members, but those students are making great strides towards improving collections, including some efforts towards digitization. The NHC3 at Pittsburg State University is less than a year old, but it has already become a valuable part of the network by leading the way in establishing a multi-club meeting event this spring.

The point is that no university is too small or too large to participate in the network. A club can be started anywhere with even just one motivated student and one willing adviser. Our network is just getting off the ground, but we welcome anyone who would like to join us. The club members, advisers, and I are always happy to talk to anyone who is interested in this model, and we are able to provide information and resources to help you start. If I have learned anything in my time working with clubs and organizations, it is that it is impossible to reach every person by email. The best way to get people involved and excited about what you are doing is to show them. And trust me – you’ll be surprised at how many art, English, and math majors get excited about dissecting an alligator!

Kari Harris is the Club Coordinator for the College of Sciences and Mathematics at Arkansas State University. She was a co-founder of the NHC3 as a graduate student in 2013. For her graduate work she digitized the STAR Herbarium at A-State. She is also a co-founder and co-chair of the SPNHC Emerging Professionals group.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

March 10 – Reflections on all the great things the Emerging Professionals have done throughout the previous year in our annual Year-In-Review post!

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