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Connecting Content 

September 13, 2013

Bird specimen photos take flight

Over the past two years, the California Academy of Sciences has been selecting and photographing a selection of finch specimens collected during the Academy’s 1905-1906 Galapagos expedition as part of Connecting Content grant. The Institute for Museum and Library Services funded grant aims to digitize field books and related specimens and allow for the creation of dynamic linkages between these interconnected materials.

We began our project by digitizing the field books created during the expedition which provided a rich picture of collecting on the Galapagos Islands. These accounts allowed us to look inside the personal experiences of the men who for a year and a day lived aboard ship collecting the specimens that now form the core of our scientific collections.  The field books illuminate the fine details of the specimens beyond what the collection tags could capture. These records indicate valuable information such as what the weather was like or the way in which specimens were caught. But the field books were only part of the picture.

After collection, all of the specimens from this expedition were retained by the California Academy of Sciences for study. The finch skins are a heavily used and popular collection, as they represent the species described by Darwin. This collection is not available for loan, not only due to our ongoing research on natural selection, but also because efforts to preserve and support the endemic species of the Galapagos have ended collecting on the islands. This project aimed to provide a look into the specimen collections and provide researchers worldwide with images to use for study and reference.

The California Academy of Sciences is home to 7401 finch specimens collected during  the 1905-1906 expedition, and providing digital access required significant planning. To do this work, we (the Academy’s Library and Archives) teamed up with the Ornithology and Mammalogy department to select a representative sample of over 750 specimens. The selection process was careful and deliberate. Since time and resources were both in short supply, we had to ensure that the specimens photographed for this project showed a representative sample of the diverse traits and characteristics of the birds in our collection. Ornithology researcher Ore Carmi and Collections Intern Logan Kahle took to the task, laboriously opening drawers and making careful observations not only about aesthetic qualities of the birds but also their age, molt, and the season in which they were collected.


Ore Carmi and Logan Kahle select finches from the 1905-1906 expedition to the Galapagos Islands.

After representative examples of the collection were selected, the finches were photographed in the California Academy of Sciences’ Project Lab, which is a space on the museum’s public floor that allows visitors to see the work we do behind the scenes at the Academy. We are lucky enough to have access to The Big Kahuna, a custom-built digital macro imaging system that allows us to take extraordinarily close-up shots of specimens without sacrificing resolution or depth of field. Our skilled digital imaging assistants took six photographs of each specimen: lateral, ventral, dorsal, and head views, as well as both sides of each collection tag.


Digital Production Assistant, Kelly Jensen photographing a specimen.

These images were then sent through a quality assurance process to make sure that the images were clear, with the relevant information in focus, and that all of the photos were a consistent quality and size. Once all the images went through the QA process and were normalized, they were then sent to join more than 122,800 vetted photos of animals on CalPhotos, which shares images with the Encyclopedia of Life. This process allows diverse users all over the globe to have access to our collections.

We are excited to share 4,763 new photographs of Galapagos finch specimenswith you and we look forward to continuing to look for new ways to provide improved access to the collections.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ybustos @ 4:37 pm

March 15, 2012

Rachel Sargent, CC Intern – Guest blogger

I came into my museum studies program with an interest in digitizing collections.  I had volunteered on a project photographing butterflies, which introduced me to the possibilities of improving collections access while preserving fragile specimens.  Throughout my classes, sections on digital access always piqued my interest, so when I heard about the opportunity with Connecting Content, I jumped on it.  Connecting Content is a unique and exciting project and, it turns out, exactly the kind of project I’m advocating for with my Master’s thesis.

I’ve been investigating online access to digital collections specifically with natural history museums in mind.  It turns out, most natural history museums don’t do much to make their digitized collections findable by the average person.  Even high profile natural history museums present their digital collections through keyword searches that can be difficult to use, sometimes even for research experts.  This is interesting for two reasons: one, natural history museums do want to encourage interest in natural history.  Two, art museums have been making browsing of their collections websites creative, accessible, and even entertaining for years.  My research is focused on applying user interface strategies from art museum collections websites to natural history collections websites.

So where does Connecting Content fit into all this?  It’s at the forefront of what I hope is a trend towards creative and multidisciplinary collections web presences that seek to engage all types of visitors, not just researchers.  By attempting to virtually re-unite specimens with field journals and published literature, Connecting Content will provide a more complete picture of the process of natural history  research to everyone and a unique window into an exciting field for the general public.  Connecting Content is a pilot study and with a little luck more and more innovative projects like this one will be coming to a natural history museum near you.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Christina Fidler @ 10:03 am

January 23, 2012

Rachel Sargent – Connecting Content Fall intern

The California Academy of Sciences brought in Rachel Sargent as the Fall intern for the IMLS Connecting Content grant.  Rachel graduated from the University of Vermont with a BA in Biology and is now enrolled in the John F. Kennedy University Museum Studies Program.  Her work experience includes managing the neurobiology and microscopy lab at Harvard University and volunteering at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where she participated in a project digitizing butterfly specimens.  In addition to the Connecting Content grant, Rachel is also volunteering in the California Academy of Sciences Ornithology and Mammalogy Department.

Rachel has spent much of the Fall assisting in the development of the technical specifications for the Connecting Content specimen photography.  She has also scanned the Rollo Beck field notebook.  She is now hard at work photographing the Connecting Content finch specimens.  You can see Rachel in action in the California Academy of Sciences Project Lab, located on the West side of the museum public floor.

Rachel in the Ornithology and Mammalogy collection room.

Rachel in the Ornithology and Mammalogy collection room.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Christina Fidler @ 5:47 pm

June 14, 2011


Follow the progress of our IMLS-funded Connecting Content grant.

The California Academy of Sciences Library was awarded a 3 year IMLS National Leadership Grant and is working with partners at Missouri Botanical Garden, Harvard University Botany Libraries, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology Library, the New York Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. The project involves the digitization of field notebooks and natural history collections and the generation of metadata for these items to enable linking of content.


Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 4:34 pm

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