The Online Initiative: A Look at the British Geological Survey

The thing about rocks in collections is that there are a lot of questions surrounding them, hanging around like elephants in the room, sheepishly trying to make their bulky form as invisible as possible. At some point someone needs to address those elephants and tell them to scram. In my opinion, now is a perfect time.

At the British Geological Survey (BGS), there are some great initiatives that not only help budge those elephants but also put in place a fantastic source of information about their collections, many of which I am sure no-one even knows exist!

The issue of destructive sampling in museums is ‘touchy’. When it comes to geological collections the boundaries are hazy. We need to sample rocks to learn about them, and who is really there to say that we shouldn’t? But my question is how much is too much, and how can we come to making this decision on a unanimous basis?

The BGS has relatively recently begun making digital archives of their collections, including boreholes, rocks, minerals, fossils and thin sections. Currently they have a search record online at: where you can access onshore borehole records and their associated metadata, along with hydrogeological data from the National Well Archive. This not only allows a larger community to understand and interpret some of the available data but ensures that needless sampling of boreholes does not occur.

In some instances, companies or institutions may ask to sample a particular item the BGS has in its various collections. Either someone is sent to sample it or the BGS will sample a part of it themselves and send it off. The problem in the past with this process is that the company or institution may realise once they have the sample that this is not the correct piece, and request another one. This wastes valuable samples. The online initiative allows users to access a very basic set of information about the specimen in the first place, from which they can then decide on whether this is the right kind of specimen they need in the first place and roughly where and how the best way to sample it could be.

In another instance, the wider availability of this data on the BGS’s collections means that users can find out if the geographical areas they need information on have already been sampled. For example a particular stratigraphic sequence in the North Sea could have already been boreholed and a simple online archive of this could allow the user to not sample that area again.

The other initiatives the BGS have include a database of their collections – from Christmas cards to mineral collections – Suddenly we have an amazing resource of information on collections that I would bet a lot of people didn’t know existed!

They are currently digitally photographing thin sections from their vast collection, a process I have seen first hand (and even taken a few photos!) up in their Edinburgh offices. At present, they have photographed around 30,000 thin sections with the help of several volunteers – from students to retirees.

The topic of online databases and museums is a hot spot of activity in the culture sector, just take a look at: (, (,

the latest from (

or a museum technologists opinion at

Online databases of collections such as the BGS’s initiative, or that of many national and non-national museums are an important modern factor in museums engagement and management. For museums it is more important to make sure that they include their vast quantity of online visitors, but for those who may feel there is no substitute for the ‘real thing’ make sure the institution still entices people with their content.  Not only could these online initiatives help in management issues such as destructive sampling but in gaining more information from the objects and materials themselves using techniques such as crowdsourcing, or purely getting more people inspired and involved with their local or national heritage.

If you have any comments on how online resources are used in the geological or heritage sector, leave a comment below!


2 thoughts on “The Online Initiative: A Look at the British Geological Survey

  1. ‘Elephants in BGS’ a very interesting statement! It reminds me of an old (topographic) map from somewhere in the wilds of West Africa, where the surveyor, deep in the bush and in a moment of humour drew the contours of a hill in the shape of an elephant! This map with the ‘elephant’ endured, wasn’t spotted and was eventually published! BGS may have its own which your readers are invited to ponder, not an elephant but something with a more geological bent!

    OK, back on topic, firstly thank-you very much for your interesting blog post on the BGS collections, as you know, ‘scotfot’ has been interested in and involved in the digital capture and delivery of images, documentary and collections since the beginning of the web (mid 1990’s) though in the early days capture kit was incredibly expensive and slow. However, a start was made and now the capture and delivery have developed into a core activity of BGS with the aim of easy access to the information and knowledge stored in BGS for the public, researchers and business.

    Technology has now advanced to allow us to rapidly capture the most formidable sized collections, the thin sections you mention is a good example. The Scottish Collection has 100,000 thin sections, for years its capture has been put off because of its size but now we have a slick workflow that has captured the 30,000 images you mention in only about six weeks and using ‘volunteers’. They are doing an incredible job and getting great enjoyment out of the task!

    Despite the discrete collections now going on the web – we are still some way from the ‘vision’. The really interesting task is ahead of us, that is to seamlessly integrate the resources irrespective of where they are held.

    Imagine being out in the field smartphone in hand, it recognizes where you are, the geological map pops up, other features indicate information on the stratigraphy, petrology, biostratigraphy, geochemistry etc, up pops images of hand specimens, their thin sections, their descriptions, fossils, other field information appear, images of outcrops, notes and field sketches drawn by the geologist, the texts of the geology of the area appear from a textbase seamlessly integrating BGS data with data from other organizations such as geological society field trip guides for the area you are standing on. The next ‘web’ (sometimes called Web 3.0) has the key technology to making this all happen – the Semantic web, or web of ‘linked data’ So irrespective of location of holdings the information is pulled together from wherever the data is held be it national survey, universities, geological societies etc.

    So yes, the routine imaging of discrete collections has a strong preservation aspect to it – to record the documents and collections in case of disaster or other loss, or indeed a ‘condition’ survey, but for users and society to derive benefit the equally important delivery and in the future ‘integrated or semantic delivery is the a major driver and aim!


    You may be interested to know, that apart from some of the ‘disaster’ images e.g. floods some of the specimen based images are the most heavily viewed – especially the Sowerby images (again, a set captured by our great team of volunteers!)

    • Hi Scotfot, thanks for your fantastic relply – it really adds to the information in the blog post (and also for my knowledge!). Also, the map was very interesting! 🙂

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