On the accessibility of collections

“Natural history collections are virtually inaccessible to everyone.”

This statement, in one form or another, can be found in many recent publications, online articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, and many comments on other social media outlets. To be absolutely honest, this irritates me greatly and there’s no better place to vent frustration than in a blog post!

Up until the late 1990’s the term ‘accessibility’ as applied to natural history collections, and insect collections in particular, had two basic components:

  • Collection organization – with millions of specimens and many thousands of species, the material must be carefully organized, labeled, and catalogued so it is accessible when there is a request for information or for a loan.
  • Services to scientists – scientists can access the specimens for the purpose of study, either through loans (upon request our staff selects, packages and ships specimens to scientists for study) or by visiting the collection.

Nowadays, we receive weekly requests that go more or less like this:

  • Can I have the specimen data and images for each species of all your (name of insect group here)?
  • Can you please take photos of the following (30 species) of (name of group here) for my (book, thesis, website, publication, database, etc.)?

Collections have quickly taken advantage of new computer and imaging technologies to provide new services to our user base, but with the advent of the Internet, browsers, most notably Google, and now mobile technology, collections are facing new, and I argue sometimes very unrealistic, expectations of services by our existing users, new users, and even funding agencies.

Augochlorella pomoniella OSUC 128046

Augochlorella pomoniella OSUC 128046

There is a strong and fast-growing demand for high resolution images of specimens and of specimen label data that can be easily plugged into studies of global climate change, evolutionary biology, conservation, etc. Please don’t get me wrong! This is awesome! We have been saying for many years that collections are an enormous resource of precious information and we stand by it! However, this relatively recent demand did not come with funds to support much needed basic collection curation or for hiring and training of permanent curatorial staff.

Accessibility‘ today goes way beyond old-fashioned physical access to specimens or even online catalogs. It includes the expectation (and demand really!) of having all the specimen level data captured and remotely accessible now. Collections continue to incorporate new technologies into our curatorial protocols to provide the best service we can to our users. But what is reasonable? What’s possible, particularly with the reality on the ground?

Collection curation (= maintenance and improvement) takes 1) people, 2) time, and 3) money. Maybe one day technology will eliminate the need for humans handling collection specimens, but that does not look very likely in the near future. In the meantime most collections are chronically underfunded. In our case, we do not have a centrally supplied operating budget.

In university settings, most of our work force are undergraduate students and, as a consequence, highly temporary in nature. No matter how smart and dedicated our undergraduate students are, they usually have no prior curatorial experience and must be trained from scratch. The constant training and management of part-time workers is very time-consuming and stressful for the few permanent staff.

Extra-mural funding options for collections are limited to donations, and, on occasion, grants for special projects. Our day-to-day operations (specimen preparation, loan-related activities, visitor support and infrastructure, and much more) are basically self-funded and therefore done if and when we have money, personnel and time to do it.

We at the Triplehorn Insect Collection continue to be committed to making collection information available online. We were one of the first insect collections in the world to make specimen data remotely available: our website has been on-line since 1994, and dynamic access to specimen data since 1997.  Our state-of-the-art web interface serves all but one of the collections here at the Museum of Biological Diversity as well as various partner institutions across the country and abroad.


Our level of commitment, however, is running up against the limits of our resources. We’re trying to think of new and productive ways to generate financial support, and as much as we dislike it, everything is on the table. Some museums charge “bench fees” to visitors (we don’t yet); perhaps we should consider a virtual bench fee. Can the data and images that we create be monetized in other ways as well, particularly for commercial purposes? So far all our data have been made freely available online, and we like it that way. But how long will we be able to afford it? This is all very complicated and made more difficult by the fact that we work within the context of a taxpayer-supported public university.

Speaking of taxpayers, the general public can help collections by supporting our efforts. Volunteers, donations (our Friends of the Triplehorn Insect Collection fund is 100% used for the care of the collection), and just word-of-mouth are all critical to the cause.

More information about the Triplehorn Insect Collection is available on our (soon to be revamped) website. The collection Facebook page brings recent updates & fun stories. Also, check out our collection blog, Pinning Block, for a view of the collection, our people and the work we do.


About the Authors: Dr. Luciana Musetti is Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at Ohio State University.  Dr. Norman F. Johnson is Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection and Moser Chair in Arthropod Systematics and Biological Diversity in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, & Organismal Biology and Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University.

Follow us, @osuc_curator@baeus2 on Twitter for our more personal views & commentary.

Smile!! Imaging in the Acarology collection


Velvet mite, <i>Leptus</i> sp. (photo Rich Bradley)

Velvet mite, Leptus sp. (photo Rich Bradley)

Working with small organisms such as mites presents some interesting problems.  One of those is getting folks interested in just thinking about something they usually cannot see.  Of course a few mites are big enough to see and critters like ticks, velvet mites and water mites do enjoy some “popularity”.  But for most mites we have only fairly bad photographs of crushed specimens on slides (often good for seeing specific characters, but horrible for outreach).  Without nice images, we can still go for gross (I do admit that I occasionally enjoy going that route), with disgusting images of humans with scabies (Sarcoptes scabiei), or sad looking plants covered in spider mite silk, but it is not the same.  And it really does not do much for improving the image of mites.  Plus, most mites do not do any significant damage.  So how should we present the “real” mites?

Let’s start with the high-tech approach.

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was the first good option.  Because of the high depth of field, SEM gives very nice, 3-D images at very high magnification.  It works well for highly sclerotized mites (oribatid adults, uropodids) but it is less successful with small, soft-bodied species because most SEM techniques require critical point drying, which makes those soft bodied mites shrivel into ugly blobs.  Using live mites can alleviate that problem but (a) most SEM operators do not like it (it introduces humidity into the machine and may damage it) and (b) mites are often not cooperative.  As a beginning graduate student I had the option of putting some live sarcoptid mites in an SEM.  The specimens were on sticky tape and everything looked great as the SEM got close to vacuum.  However – there is always a “however” in these stories – just before we could get our first images the last of the great looking mites managed one more spurt of energy, and fell over, exposing nothing but its sticky stuff covered underside.  That took care of my hopes for great pictures.

Leg of <i>Osperalycus tenerphagus</i>, LT-SEM

Leg of Osperalycus tenerphagus, LT-SEM, colorized image

Low Temperature SEM (LT-SEM), uses liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the mites (no critical point drying), allowing views of live mites frozen in time.  This completely bypasses the shriveling problems of standard SEM with stunning results.  The folks at the USDA in Beltsville, MD, have generated some beautiful images of plant feeding mites.  Sam Bolton, graduate student in acarology, worked with them to get the images of his “dragon mite”.  Add some color (based on images of the mite taken before going into the SEM) and we end up with poster-worthy pictures.

Even LT-SEM has limitations, as we can only see surface structures.  We are overcoming that limitation by using confocal laser scanning microscopy.  With this technique you can also see internal structures, and with the right software, you can construct 3-D images that can be sliced any way you wish.  Not quite as detailed as Synchroton X-ray microtomography, but that technique requires a particle accelerator the size of a football field, and at this point only one (in Grenoble, France) seems to be set up to handle images of mites.  Confocal microscopy is great for research, but 3-D printing of the models also makes for excellent teaching tools (or gift store items).

A Confocal 3-D model of <i>Daidalotarsonemus</i> sp.  B 3-D print of the same

A Confocal 3-D model of Daidalotarsonemus sp. B 3-D print of the same

Of course all of those techniques require highly specialized and expensive equipment.  For day-to-day use we use an automated compound microscope and image stacking software to generate images that are both relatively detailed and retain some color.  These tools finally allow generation of well-focused detailed images of very small organisms and structures.  Unfortunately we do lose some of the 3-D effects in the process of image stacking, but on a good day, these images are publication quality.

For more hands-on displays, mites can be viewed on a 40 inch TV-screen using a video camera connected to a compound or dissecting microscope. This is wonderful for teaching (6-12 people can all watch what you are seeing in the microscope), research (sometimes the image on the TV is more detailed than the one you get through the eyepieces of the microscope itself), and of course outreach.  We use that set-up at the annual Museum Open House to show live mites in detail.

Mite on TV as used for teaching

Mite on TV

With enough technology, mites are coming out of the deep and dark, and into the light, where they of course belong.  We are slowly generating more high quality images and making them available through the collection database.  Check it out, the small can be beautiful.

About the Author: Dr. Hans Klompen is professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology and Director of the Ohio State University Acarology Collection.