Comparative Collections Rock!

                My first week at the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) was exciting for several reasons. I was in a new position, learning not only about my role as an intern, but also about the organization, their work, and remembering all those working-in-an-office skills that had been getting rusty. And there was also the news that they would be adding a bear skull and paws to their comparative collection. By the end of the first week, the specimen had duly arrived, spent some time in the fridge to thaw out, and has since undergone an extensive preparation process. We’re now in week seven and the processing continues, complete with regular updates from the senior collections assistant. I think for some people, this might be too much excitement or even make them question if this was really where they really wanted to spend eight weeks working, but for me, it felt pretty normal.

                I’ve been around research collections for most of my life. My dad was a curator of one, so I grew up thinking it was completely normal to collect specimens, realizing that he had to prepare and preserve them correctly, and understanding that sometimes this was an unappealing and smelly process. Working in the lab, as people around me examine bones, rocks, and other artifacts, has also been a familiar experience and it’s been easy for me to understand the importance of the comparative collection I’m working with as I research ways to make it more digitally accessible. With my past and present experience, it’s easy to forget that many people aren’t familiar with comparative collections, appreciate their importance, or even realize how common they are.

                A comparative collection is pretty much defined by its name. These are collections of known specimens that can be compared against unknown specimens to assist in identification. They’re common in the natural sciences and OSA houses several, from artifacts and botanical samples to bones from amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals and lithics (or rocks). Because each sample needs to come from a known source and be correctly identified, these collections often grow slowly and rely on individual experts to gather specimens. For example, my dad’s collection was built around a donation from ornithologist Carl Richter, who spent much of his life collecting bird eggs. Like other collections or archives, to get access to them, you have to contact the collections manager or curator and explain how and why you want to use them. This means that typically, the general public has no idea that a collection even exists and makes my project this summer even more exciting.

                During my time at OSA, I’ve been researching ways to update the online presence of their comparative lithics collection. The original digitization of the collection was done many years ago and, in many ways, unprecedented. To my knowledge, and according to many of the people I’ve interviewed about the collection, this was the first such collection to be put online, thereby making it available to anyone with internet access. That was over a decade ago and while still useful to many in the field, my internship partnership with the OSA means that the collection will get a much-needed technical update to make it even more accessible to anyone with an interest in Iowa lithics.

                So, the work on the bear continues, as does my work with the comparative lithics collection, and while it’s hard to tell at this point if either will be complete by the time I leave OSA, that’s kind of the point. Collections grow bit by bit and I think that opened-ended growth can be a lesson to us all. Growing is not a process that happens in an instant, but rather through small changes, bit by bit. Or, as a former professor quoting Jim Rohn loved to say, “Make measurable progress in reasonable time.”