LSA Research Museums Go Digital

U-M Research Museums’ collection management database makes specimens transparent to the world.
by John Torgersen, Database Administrator

As reported in The University Record, “Movers have finished hauling more than 20 million museum specimens from U-M’s zoology, paleontology and anthropology collections to a state-of-the-art collections and research facility. The specimens were moved to the university’s research museums complex on Varsity Drive, about five miles south of Central Campus.” Not as well known, however, is that a second large move was occurring at the same time— this one digital—which also reflected the commitment LSA has to preserving the legacy of these important artifacts.

Beginning in 2010, the LSA Research Museums partnered with the college to ensure the digital management and sharing of the Research Museums’ collections. By making these collections transparent to the world, researchers and others can see and learn from the specimens curated by the museums, which supports the mission of the university and the goals of LSA. The aim of this multi-year project is to migrate the unit-supported collection management databases to college-supported, enterprise level platforms.

John Torgersen, from the LSA Technology Services Infrastructure Team, was hired in August 2012 to complete this process. Lisa Ahlgren, from the LSA Technology Services Management Information Systems Team, joined the team as the new project manager in October 2014. As the Museums-embedded day-to-day support person, John liaisons with the professional staff at the museums, U-M internal organizations like the Digital Library Platform and Services (DLPS) group, and external vendors (and their developers) for the database project, while Lisa handles coordination with the college.

A collection management database is one of the most important tools that a museum has for representing the context and depth of their collections, and LSA has a vested interest in knowing what items are in the collections, where they are located, and if they are valuable or subject to special oversight. After exploring databases, John found that it was not feasible to use one database for such a large collection. It was a six-month process to find the right databases. Through a series of vendor visits, coordinated by Lisa in late 2014, the LSA Museums stakeholders chose two database systems on which to standardize. The Specify database system is used for biologically-based collections, and CollectiveAccess database system is used for anthropologically-based collections. Since that decision, most of the collection databases have been migrated to the new systems, with just a few remaining.

According to John, “we are now in the final stages of this project, where most of our collections are on stable platforms and we are ready to share them with the world.” Some of the biologically-based collections are already available on the LSA Integrated Publishing Toolkit (IPT) server, from which they are distributed to national and international data-consolidation sites, like iDigBio and the Global BioDiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

The U-M Library Digital Collections will be the public face for many of the museum collections, both biological and anthropological. This is where the world will be able to view information and images about the extraordinary artifacts held in the LSA Museums collections, and from where users will be able to download specimen records that are important to their research—or even just of interest. In the past, researchers had to physically visit the museums to learn which specimens were part of our collections. In the near future, interested parties will be able to browse the collections from anywhere in the world, at any time.

Interested in learning more about U-M collections? Watch this video to see highlights of the the many specimens in the museum collection.

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