Saturday, April 5, 2008

Organizing Museum Notes and Photographs

Most paleontologists do the sort of research that requires an occasional museum visit. On these visits, we take notes and photographs, and spend time studying this or that specimen. The immediate result is a whole bunch of digital or hard-copy information. In this post, I'm not only sharing my own experience and practices, but also am looking for readers to share their own approaches.

Pre-2003 (before I got a laptop), I put all of my notes in bound notebooks. These were handy because I could put measurements, sketches, and brief descriptions in a single physical location. The plus side is that it was a physical copy that wasn't going to be targeted by laptop thieves or corrupted in that hard drive crash at the hotel room. The down side is that it was a physical copy that couldn't be backed up without a trip to the local photocopy center. Plus, anytime I wanted to look something up from a previous museum trip, I had to run to the bookshelf in my office. Not so handy when on a museum trip elsewhere. My notes also tended to be rather brief and scanty in some cases (what a pain to write out a full description in long-hand!). Finally, all of my photographs were taken on film. The result of this was literally hundreds of photographs, still sitting in a set of drawers in my office (organized by museum, but not much else).

Since joining the age of the laptop and digital camera, my work process at a museum has changed drastically. When sitting in collections, I type all of my notes into a word processing file. All of my photos are taken digitally, too. At the end of the day (or the end of the trip, more frequently), I download all of my images from the camera and sort them into folders by taxon and then by specimen. I can't begin to say how useful this photo organization system has been! My notes (and photos, if they're small enough) are backed up onto a USB jump drive that always stays in my pocket. On my hard drive, notes are organized by museum and by date.

Another incredibly useful practice has been the use of digital video. If I have a specimen with particularly interesting morphology, or something that doesn't photograph well, or something that would benefit from a walk-around, I use the video function on my digital camera in order to shoot a minute or two of footage. I probably don't do this as often as I ought - it makes a huge difference when I'm back in the office and trying to interpret a series of photos or notes! I must thank the guys at the Utah Museum of Natural History for cluing me in to this practice.

I have found several benefits to this digital approach. First, because my notes are digital, I can take them with me anywhere - for writing papers at home, or comparing with other specimens in a museum. I've also found that my notes are much more thorough - it's easier for me to type a page than to write out a page in long-hand. Finally, a well-organized photo collection is invaluable. On a visit to the ROM, it's very nice to pull up a few views of that specimen at the AMNH (and it's even nicer to be able to find the photos in a matter of five seconds, instead of five minutes).

Unfortunately, I've also discovered some limitations. First, the digital approach makes it rather difficult to sketch with any efficacy. Sure, you can hook a drawing tablet up to your computer - this just didn't work for me, though. Another alternative might be to make the sketches, and then scan them in to the notes. A second major limitation concerns working on exhibit mounts. There's never a good workspace (or even space, in some cases) on which to set up a laptop. Thus, I usually fall back on the "traditional" methods, in this case.

So, what do the rest of you researchers do? What works? What doesn't work?


ReBecca said...

More often that not I still take all of my notes and measurements in a notebook. I also have a spread sheet that I will transfer my measurements into (although not always as often as I should).
I organize my digital photos the same way, and label pictures by their specimen number typically. I try to have them sorted within a file by location.
Good idea with the film footage. I do not have a camera with that function, but I can use my phone that way. Might have to do that till I can upgrade to a different camera. What kind of camera do you use?

Andy said...

I'm in the market for a new one right now. . .up until last summer I used a Nikon Coolpix 5400. A pretty good camera on most counts, except for when it died in the middle of a field season in a developing country. I've been limping by on borrowed cameras, for now. Most cameras I've seen (even the el cheapo ones) have a movie function.

ReBecca said...

I am still using my Cannon Rebel. I love the manual function, but wish it did video. I need a smaller alternative to have anyway. My camera takes great pictures, but it is large and not always convenient to take into the field.

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