Collections Organization, Who’s Right? Part III: Numeric Organization

Before the holiday break we discussed biostratigraphic organization, or the organization of geologic collections by stratigraphic, or temporal occurrence.  This is the favored organizational scheme among most vertebrate paleontologists, particularly mammal workers.  It serves to preserve the contextual nature of the geologic record.

Here at the Museum of Geology we employ a third, very straightforward method of organization, numeric.  Specimens are simply numbered in consecutive order as they’re cataloged.  We’ve chosen this method for our mineral collection for a few reasons.

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Small portion of our mineral collection, a work in progress.  

The benefits to a numeric system are primarily in its intuitive nature; simply add numbers.  Our mineral collections are currently being organized by Professor Emeritus Colin Paterson, who works with many work study students.  A numerical system is easy to impart on his workforce which may change every semester.   Additionally, a numerical system is reliable and stable.  Arabic numbering hasn’t changed in awhile, and probably won’t anytime soon.  Finally, accession of new material is a snap with a numeric system.  Simply number, tag, and place in the collection.  No space need be made within an existing systematic or biostratigraphic organization.

Despite its simplicity, numeric organization does have its down sides.  Within our mineral collection there is no underlying organizational scheme other than specimen numbers.  Many mineral collections are organized by mineral type or chemical content (e.g. silicates); ours is not.  Because of the lack of an over-arching organizational theme, a database is required to find specimens.  If I’m interested in finding a nice specimen of tourmaline, it’s more difficult to peruse the collection if not organized by mineral type.  I have to access the database to find the tourmaline specimens scattered throughout the collection.

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Some of our larger specimens.  No, the gold nugget isn’t real (one of our most asked questions).  

Because there is no foundational organization, contextual data may also be lost with this organization.  However, it is precisely to preserve some contextual data that we’ve also chose numeric organization for our mineral collection.  The Black Hills was a mining hotspot for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Hundreds of small mines are located throughout the region.  Many of our mineral collections were obtained from these mines which are now abandoned and forgotten.  Our mineral collections may be the only tangible evidence of a mine’s existence.  Thus, we’ve chosen numeric organization so we can keep minerals of varying types together based on provenance.  The historical value of our mineral collection often outweighs any other uses.

Of course, there is no “right way” to organize geologic collections; it’s all a matter of curator preference and collection usage.  But it is important to examine the varying methods and delineate their benefits and shortcomings.  Ultimately, collections organization should do one thing, facilitate efficient access and use.  The efficiency depends greatly on the purpose for access and use, and organization should be chosen accordingly.

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