Collection Management

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These links and documents contain information about best practices for collection management of natural science specimens.


Content generated during The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) Annual Joint Meeting - 2016, during an iDigBio sponsored workshop by the following individuals participating in the "Museum Logistics" working group of the aforementioned workshop:

  • Andy Bentley - University of Kansas, Collection Manager - Fishes
  • Brian Sidlauskas - Oregon State University, Curator of Fishes
  • Caleb McMahan - The Field Museum, Collection Manager of Fishes
  • Norma Salcedo - College of Charleston, Professor
  • Dean Hendrickson - The University of Texas at Austin, Curator of Fishes
  • Alexandra Snyder - Museum of Southwestern Biology - Fishes, Collections Manager
  • Randy Singer - Florida Museum of Natural History
  • Gregory Watkins-Colwell - Yale Peabody Museum - Herps and Fishes, Collection Manager

Facility Management

Access and security

  • Restricted access to the collection behind lock and key. Consider badged electronic access, which can provide a record of who is accessing the collection, and when. A move away from physical keys also makes it easier to terminate access when employees or students leave.

Space Planning

  • Prohibit specimen examination in the archives/collections facility. Such activities should take place in a designated laboratory.

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning

  • The collection’s Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems (HVAC) control temperature, humidity and airflow. The settings here must compromise between human comfort and the long-term safety of specimens. Good targets include:
  • 45-50% relative humidity (RH)
  • temperatures between 65 and 70°F (18°C - 21°C)
  • Good air exchange to prevent buildup of vapors. Practices vary here, but many modern collections have a separate ventilation system for the collection that can be controlled independently of the surrounding building. Ideals include air intakes near floor level (to prevent accumulation of heavy vapors) and a complete turnover of the room’s atmosphere every two hours.


  • Lighting should be chosen to minimize exposure of specimens to ultraviolet (UV) light and to reduce the chance of fire. Choose UV shielded bulbs and turn lights off when not in use. Lighting should be spark proof, with switches (which are themselves a spark hazard) located outside the main collection range.


  • Involve your building managers and architects early in the design process and evaluate floor loading to ensure that the floor, foundation and shelves themselves can handle the concentrated weight of the fluid.


  • Compact shelving can double or even triple shelf space. However, compact shelving introduced additional design consideration.
  • Choose manual operation to minimize spark risk (and to save some money), and select units with open top and sides to allow water access in the advent of a fire.
  • Selected perforated or wire-mesh shelves to allow flow through of water from sprinkler system. Ask your shelving provider to provide an example of the shelving in advance, so that you can verify with the fire marshall that it will allow sufficient flow-through.
  • Involve your building managers and architects early in the design process and evaluate floor loading to ensure that the floor, foundation and shelves themselves can handle the concentrated weight of the fluid.
  • Examine plans carefully for obstructions that will interfere with operation of the shelving, particularly if placing tanks on pull-out shelves.
  • Allow enough lateral and vertical space to open tanks and access them from above while working on mobile steps.
  • Move only one shelf at a time to avoid stress on system.
  • Compact shelving systems do break, and need regular maintenance. Consider purchasing a service contract, or budget and save funds for inevitable repairs and adjustments.

Fire Suppression

See Fire Safety and Suppression.

  • Include a fire suppression system in your plans. Water and gas based systems exist; choose a water-based sprinkler system if allowed by your fire marshal and fire code. Gas systems pose threats to occupants.
  • Surround the collection with fire walls of minimum two hour resistance. Your local fire code may mandate a longer duration (likely four-hour).
  • Include fire extinguishers at locations specified by your local fire code and fire marshall. These will be regulated based on floor plan and exits.
  • Some fire marshals recommend/require construction of a retention reservoir with the capacity to store all alcohol if every jar and tank were to rupture simultaneously, along with two to four hours of sprinkler system output. For example, the Oregon State Ichthyology Collection was required to constructed such a system in 2011. The necessity here is debatable, and largely centered on whether it is necessary to try to confine fluid in the advent of a disaster big enough to rupture all the containers, which would likely also destroy the building and have the potential to crack the reservoir (e.g. earthquake). Confining the alcohol will prevent it from entering local waterways and may help minimize the risk of a fire spreading if the alcohol ignites. However, the outflow of the sprinkler system will dilute the alcohol substantially and reduce flammability, so the primary concern may relate to environmental contamination, not fire safety. Work with your fire marshal to evaluate the necessity of this option, and discuss whether construction of a reservoir represents the best use of limited funds (which could be spent on other means to improve fire and earthquake safety, such as firewalls rated for longer durations). The reservoirs are extremely expensive.
  • If possible, design an external wall of the collection that can be breached by the fire department to allow hose access in the case of emergency.

Health & Safety

See Health & Safety

  • Provide hazardous materials signage outside all facilities with appropriate warning for flammables (alcohol) and noxious vapors (formalin). If you at a university, your Environmental Health and Safety unit should be able to provide the appropriate signage after a conversation detailing the scope of your activities.
  • The collections facility should be accessible to first responders for both fire and medical emergency access. This should include access to fire suppression system controls through an external door, including an emergency shutoff for the HVAC system supplying air to the collection facility.
  • Use carts to transport specimens between the collection facility and laboratory or other uses. Hand carrying glass jars creates a breakage and spillage hazard.

Preparatory laboratory

  • Fume hoods - fire code mandated
  • Benchtop extractor fans
  • Formalin and alcohol bulk storage - pre-mixed solutions of 70% ethanol/50% isopropanol and 10% formaldehyde. Carboys.
  • Supplies - (need dedicated supplies section with links) - jars, lids, vials, polyfill, bags and bag sealer, thermal transfer printer, media and ribbon, deionized water supply, shipping boxes, tissue tube labeller, Anton Paar ethanol concentration meter, measuring instruments,
  • Emergency eyewash and shower
  • Chemical listing - EHS
  • Handling protocols and MSDS - EHS
  • First aid kit

Bulk alcohol storage - secure storage of bulk alcohol. Drums are normally stored in a secured (under lock and key), open-air or air-exchanged space.

References (scans linked to my Dropbox):

Simmons 2014 - Fluid Preservation - Fire Prevention (pg 119) Simmons 2015 - Herpetological collecting and collections management. 3rd Edition. The collection storage facility, pg 77 "Health and Safety for Museum Professionals," edited by Hawks et al (2011). Chapter 2 - Facility design and construction. "Health and Safety for Museum Professionals," edited by Hawks et al (2011). Chapter 3 - Fire Program Management. NPS Conser-o-gram -

Specimen metadata storage and curation

Digital products of collection records are more ubiquitous and varied than ever before. They range from specimen, label and locality images to video and sound files to PDF materials of citations, field notes, maps etc to documentation in Word and Excel formats. Relatively new techniques are also producing very large amounts of data associated with 3D, electron microscope and CT scan products. Where possible links to existing products should be provided rather than re-curating these materials as long as the link will remain stable over time.

For long term storage and care of digital materials a robust server system and backup protocols are highly recommended. The use of a formal Digital Asset Management (DAM) system is also highly recommended. Storage requirements should take into consideration the incremental use and growth of digital products and provide for enough storage to accommodate both final products and working copies (RAW, TIFF). A multiple redundancy backup system should also be employed (weekly, monthly and yearly) stored in multiple locations.

iDigBio resources:

Data Management Plan documentation

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has valuable resources for both digital and diverse physical items -

Specimen storage by preparation types

Storage considerations for other preparation types:

  • Skeletal - microclimate in boxes, skeleton cases
  • Cleared and Stained - conditions necessary for glycerin storage
  • Tissue - handled by Genetic Resources best practices
  • Larval - same as alcohol collections
  • Paper based materials - filed (preferably digitally) with the following:
    • Loan/gift/accession files
    • Field notes
    • Maps

Evaluating and documenting collection use

All of these are metrics of collections use that are important in showing utility and need for collections. Numerous different kinds of collection users - researchers, K-12 education, external user groups (environmental impact, modeling, government, ecology etc.). The research use of specimens and data should be covered by specimen loan and data use agreements in order to ensure correct citation of materials and repatriation of research products to facilitate the accumulation of these materials and linking to records in the database. Data use by other external users is a more difficult proposition given the lack of a system for tracking data use by aggregators or web resources. GBIF has recently instituted login requirements (account with name and email address) for downloading data which allows tracking of data usage. Other aggregators (Vertnet, iDigBio, BISON) do not have these requirements.

For NSF grants a data management plan (DMP) is required: “DMPs submitted to BIO programs should describe how PI(s) will manage data (digital and analog) and physical materials (samples and collections) gathered or generated during the time of the award. This should include description of data handling processes to protect the data (e.g. to ensure quality and/or security), as well as preparations for dissemination and access after the period of the award.” Broader impact. Sample DMP wording for specimen digitization, curation and long term storage

Collection usage statistics can be broken down into specimen and data usage

  • Physical specimens - use of physical specimens can be documented through loans and publication citations as well as other research products such as Genbank sequences.
  • Data usage - use of data associated with physical specimens can be documented through aggregators and database web portal usage statistics provided through web infrastructure - number of individual searches, number of specimens searched, number of individual downloads, number of downloaded specimens, location of searches (country, state, IP address). Unfortunately no consistency across aggregators for amalgamation of statistics.
  • Visitors - Both number of visitors and visitor days. Use of a visitor book or electronic means of tracking
  • Tours - metric of collections exposure. Talking points for tours. Number of people and demographic - students (university and K-12), government officials, administrators, funding agency personnel, researchers, other members of the public.
  • In-house loans - see below.
  • Genbank sequences and other digital products (images, 3Di images, CT scans) produced by both internal and external users (students and researchers, others) should be returned to the collection for linking to specimen records and should correctly cite the collections material (should be part of loan protocol).


Consensus Documents

Community Standards

Paleontology Portal Collection Management Module

Review Documents