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: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/data/boreholescans/ 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 – http://geoscenic.bgs.ac.uk/asset-bank/action/browseItems?categoryId=1022&categoryTypeId=1. 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:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog),

http://www.futureofmuseums.org/ (http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/digesting-future-of-museum-ethics.html),

the latest from http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012 (http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/blog)

or a museum technologists opinion at http://openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/museum-technologists-redux-its-not.html.

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!

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