An Open Letter About ADBC

The role of ADBC in the larger digitization context: a beginning, not the end

The ADBC solicitation from NSF represents a tremendous opportunity to begin the process of digitizing our nation’s biodiversity and paleodiversity collections.  We believe tremendous progress will be made over the multi-year time span of the ADBC program, leading to a very significant increase in digital and mobile holdings. Yet, we caution the community to not make the mistake of overestimating OR underestimating what ADBC can do.  ADBC should been seen as a starting point for the enormous task of digitizing our natural heritage, not the sole solution.  We argue below that the community must use ADBC to leverage other opportunities and work towards an inclusive view of supporting multiple collections communities.

ADBC came out of a community-led process that has its roots in a set of reports that assess the state of federally held collections.  The Interagency Working Group on the Scientific Collections report determined a compelling need for “the creation of an online clearinghouse of information about Federal scientific collections”.  A subsequent NSF Scientific Collections Survey concluded that a key need is “coordination and interoperability of data networks critical for effective use of collections in research.”  Federal agency support led to two workshops held at NESCent to develop a strategic plan for a national digitization effort. This strategic plan led to ADBC, but the aims and objectives of the plan are much wider and more ambitious.

To be successful, a national digitization effort must do more than just capture collections data.  It must generate tools to access and mobilize these data and build user communities around the data without simultaneously diverting critical resources from the care and maintenance of the collections themselves.  ADBC will address some of these needs, but digitization of biological and paleontological collections will need to be pursued through Biological Research Collections grants and other systematics, survey, and biodiversity-based granting mechanisms.  Existing and new projects funded in programs such as Advances in Biological Informatics and the burgeoning numbers of cyberinfrastructure programs will address the technological pieces of the puzzle needed to increase efficiency rates, data improvements, and data mobilization.

ADBC is not the only game in town at NSF for biological digitization, and NSF is not the only mechanism to support the larger mission of completing the digitizing task.  The Institute for Museum and Library Science (IMLSmay support digitization efforts, as might other federal funding agencies (e.g., National Institute of Health, Department of the Interior via USGS, National Biological Information Infrastructure).  Opportunities abound to use ADBC as a springboard to approach foundations that may want to support such efforts.  Partnerships with private industry are also well worth considering.

Our conclusion is that we should be operating as a community, not only to develop the best set of proposals for ADBC but also to address the ultimate challenge: completing the digitization of all of our nation’s natural heritage in the next ten years. A Home Unifying Biocollections (HUB) and a set of Thematic Collections Networks (TCNs) is a start, but they will not be enough for success.  We need to harness ADBC as a flash point to catalyze our efforts with other agencies and potential funders through which we can begin to assemble a broader view of the potential opportunities for our community.  ADBC is a rare opportunity to leverage a strong federal focus on the digitization of biological collections and, most importantly, to mobilize the community to do it the right way.

We appreciate all the comments, thoughts, etc. that you can muster here.  We want your feedback!

Best regards,

Rob Guralnick, University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Norris, Yale University/SPNHC

David Bloom, VertNet

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3 Responses to An Open Letter About ADBC

  1. Greetings,

    We are a small Natural History museum in a rural location that is difficult to reach. I was wondering if there was a plan to organize a coalition of small, rural, natural history collections under this NSF proposal? The big museums (as you mentioned) constantly rake in the big bucks, but the small museums like ours, are generally left to fend for themselves. I know there are other museums such as this one that may be sitting on research-worthy collections that are unknown to the scientific community. Wouldn’t it make sense to set up a proposal encompassing these smaller, less accessable museum collections? Thanks…

    • nsfadbc says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mary Beth. You are absolutely correct. We definitely want, and need, to find as many ways as possible to include both small and mid-sized museums in this process from start to finish. Several of us were just having this conversation yesterday and it is our intent to make certain that the HUB, regardless of which one is selected, represents and responds to the needs and interests of all museums, not just the ones that happen to be large or well-known.

      To that end, perhaps we can begin a conversation here, or offline if you prefer (but here would be beneficial for everyone). Let me begin by asking you a few questions that we have been asking ourselves. Your answers would be very helpful – you can answer for small museums generally, from your experience at a small museum, and/or from the perspective of your institution. In what ways should/could small museums be involved in HUB activities? Are there specific institutions or organizations that we should contact who are doing innovative things with digitization or that are stable conduits for communicating with in order to stay in touch with the small museum community? What kinds and quantities of communications do you want or need from a HUB? Finally, what ideas do you have about how we might involved small museums in the process and ensure that they are not overlooked or left out?

      Thank you so much for raising this issue. I look forward to your answers.

      Best, Dave Bloom, VertNet

      • Hi Dave,

        I apologize for taking so long to respond to your email. In truth, I am really not part of a “small museum” network, and would not be presumptuous to say that many small museums with Natural History collections, barely know what they have! Here in Vermont, there are a number of libraries throughout the state that have old-odd collections that were given them by a single donor or a variety of donors, with very poor recordkeeping (if any) attached. I recently acquired some birds from the 1800′s that had no provenance other than some Latin notations on their bases. These were being given away by one of the state colleges that had no use for them and we acquired them for education/exhibit use. On the other hand, there are some fine old collections being cared for by librarians or volunteers who know nothing about curation or recordkeeping, but realize they have something unique. Were there records to be found, these caretakers might become more savvy about their collections’ place in the field of Natural History.
        My concern is: how are you going to reach these people? They have no association with organizations like SPNHC, they probably don’t have the resources or staff for digitization of their collections and they usually don’t have a clue as to how to connect with other museums similar to themselves. I would like to know who this “small museum network” is myself! Could HUB do this?
        We do have digitization here thanks to a couple of IMLS grants and many specimens from our insect collection are online on our museum’s website, though they are not hooked into an entomological data portal. Can HUB help us make that transition? Our database at this time has our entire bird collection entered, but again, it is not available through a data portal. I myself do not know what other museum collections are similar to those of my museum and would find it beneficial to learn and compare notes from similar institutions.
        I have spent several years gleaning as much information on our bird collection as possible and I must say the internet provided the most information I could possibly have gotten anywhere else in the short amount of time spent. However, some information was unavailable, such as journal articles on JSTOR, which my museum does not have a subscription to. Could the HUB make this data available to everyone within the Natural Science collection network?
        I seem to be taking up too much space on this blog so I’ll stop there, but I think there is a lot of contact work to be done just to find some of these outlying collections and help them ascertain how significant their collections may be, how to get them digitized and how to connect them with the Natural Science community.

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