Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 2, July 1965
A Simple and Flexible Cataloguing System for Biological Collections, Large or Small
A Simple and Flexible Cataloguing System for Biological Collections, Large or Small.
Many of us have had the pleasant task of starting a catalogue to record information pertaining to specimens of plants or animals: almost as many of us have found that the system that was confidently carted grew inefficient, time-consuming or pointless.
A simple and flexible cataloguing system exists that can apply to the wants of the individual or of the institution, of the botanist or the zoologist, the ecologist or the taxonomist: moreover, it has been thoroughly tested by many workers over many years.
The system described below is that established by the author for the collections of the Edward Percival Marine Laboratory. It is simply evolved from that started by Professor T. A. Stephenson for his survey of South African shores and which was subsequently extended by Professor J. H. Day for his survey of South African estuaries with which work the author was associated.
The essence of this system is that information is recorded with the greatest economy in such a way that it is simple subsequently to extract the particular information desired. Two aspects of overwhelming value are that the system will handle unlimited material without confusion; and that there is no need for immediate identification of each species. The system can be started in the field camp by a few workers and filled-out at leisure at the base laboratory by few or many staff.
The system is designed for the current user rather than as a philanthropic enterprise for others to exploit. (Few institutions can really undertake to maintain a card-index of the recorded distribution of each species because of the time involved firstly, in proper identification of each species collected on a field trip and secondly, in tedious writing out of field data onto the cards of all the species taken. The system described below permits all this information, and more, to be available to any visitor but he must do a little, very simple catalogue extraction for himself).
The description of the system is based on the needs of an ecological survey of imperfectly known species, probably the most complex situation with which a catalogue needs to comply. Adaptations to other uses are obvious. All systems are vitiated by faulty execution (slipshod work) but in this one there is no possibility of disaster provided the obvious rules are followed.
The Primary Catalogue
This catalogue is the basic record of all information as it comes to hand. It is permanent and should be kept as neatly as possible because it should never be scrapped in favour of a prettier copy. A properly bound, hard covered book should be chosen, foolscap sized, with lined pages and a margin at the left (e.g. a ‘Minutes Book’).
The Primary Catalogue is a record of the information of a series of collections and the scope of the work contemplated will determine whether one or more Primary Catalogues is desirable.
Example 1: An individual contemplates a three year survey of the faunas of New Zealand marine beaches. For this, one Primary Catalogue would suffice.
Example 2: An institution contemplates starting the following faunal surveys (i) New Zealand beaches; (ii) Australian beaches; (iii) beaches of the Sub-Antarctic Islands; (iv), (v) and (vi) dredgings from the continental shelves of these regions; (vii) deepwater dredgings. For this it would be definitely convenient to keep the seven different series of collections separate and to have seven corresponding Primary Catalogues.
Each Catalogue and the collection of which it refers is characterised by an alphabetical coding. Forethought in constructing this code can offer a definite bonus. Thus a single letter could indicate terrestrial collections, double letters fluviatile collections and triple letters marine collections; and the letters chosen can suggest locality.
e.g.: HND — Hawkes Bay Province, Napier, Dredgings.
NTL — Nelson Province. Tasman Bay, Littoral.
CW — Canterbury Province, Waimakariri River.
E — Mount Egmont region, terrestrial.
The Catalogue records serially all the different ‘stations’ at which material was forthcoming and these ‘stations’ are simply indicated by code numbers starting at ‘1’ (preferably written ‘001’), and rising to infinity. All necessary information is entered into the catalogue for each ‘station’ so as to avoid requiring other notebooks.
The word ‘station’ is used here in default of a better word to signify ‘a collection site and time of significance’. Thus a certain site (e.g. a rock) may be observed on two different dates, or even times of day, and the records would be given different station serial numbers; or the upper surface of the rock might be considered a different station to the undersurface (other examples in Fig. 1).
The date of the station is recorded in the Catalogue beneath the combined Catalogue-and-station code.page 118
Letters of the alpabet (omitting ‘I’ and ‘0’ which may be confused with numerals) indicate every different species found at each station. If there are more than 24 species then the next station serial number is utilised (see Fig. 1). It is a great convenience (for a reason that will become obvious) to list the species in groups according to the larger taxonomic groups. Note that proper identification is unnecessary for this sorting and recording process, merely the ability to distinguish between different species e.g. in Fig. 1 the sorter of cellection NTL.244 could not identify the worms but he thought that there were three species, and so allocated the letters A to D, thus leaving a letter in hand should a fourth species actually be present. At a later date ‘J.F.C.M.’ examined the specimens, identified and discarded 244A, and found 244B to be identical to specimens 118G, of which several examples had been sent away for specialist identification by ‘Dr. P.Q.R.’, ‘J.F.C.M.’ found a third species to be present, 244C, which was sent to the specialist on 22nd September, 1960. There was no fourth species and so 244D was noted as unused.
As good an identification as possible with, in the case of final identifications, the name or initials of the specialist responsible for seeing the material;
the relative or absolute abundance;
the fate of the specimens: each is assumed to be in the collection under its own code number unless stated otherwise. (Note that there is no need actually to collect all the bulky and familiar species at a site provided that their presence and abundance is noted — these records are then copied into the Primary Catalogue as ‘discarded’ species).
Normally, each species should be allocated three lines on the page to allow for subsequent comments and corrections.
Records should be in waterproof ink (or in pencil for comments of a temporary nature).
Labelling and Arranging the Collection
The date is included as a check on slips of the pen or partial destruction of the label and it has proved very effective in this.
It is sometimes convenient to write the name of the species on the label but this is usually a tedious superfluity.page 119
Figure 1: Sample of entries in a hypothetical Primary Catalogue of the “NTL” collection. In practice two or three lines would be left between the entry for each species, the notes on despatch of material would be written in pencil and the names or initials of authorities who identified species would be in ink of distinctive colour (e.g. red).
When identification is absolutely certain and when there is no point in retaining the same species in separate containers then specimens may be added from one station collection to another, e.g. five large specimens of NTL.243C were added to NTL.118J. This simple process in a convenience in reducing the number of bottles in a collection and in building up a reasonable bulk of preserved specimens for reference: but its dangers must not be overlooked. Note that a container showing a single label, e.g. NTL.118J, may hold specimens from other stations — this information can be obtained from the Secondary Catalogue (described below).
Normally, preserved species are grouped on the shelf into the laeger taxonomic units, and for each group the arrangement of bottles and tubes is in simple numerical series. This makes the finding of a specimen very easy.
Different collections, e.g. ‘NTL’, ‘CPL’, ‘NTD’, ‘CPD’, are housed separately and material is not added from one to another. (This encourages the retention of specimens of a species from different localities so that sub-species, clines, etc., can be recognised by later workers, often visiting specialists).
The Secondary or Synoptic Catalogue
Every single record of a species in the Primary Catalogue is summarised in the Secondary (‘Synoptic’) Catalogue beneath the headings of the major taxonomic groups and other, more general headings that may be useful (e.g. ‘Unidentified Plankton’, ‘Unsorted Dredge Collections’).
a list of species;
a list of code numbers for each species from which not only its distribution but all other field data may be summarised;
a list of the containers on the shelf, with information on which contain additional material;
A list of imperfectly identified material.
Except for the case when this catalogue system is used merely to record museum accessions the Synoptic Catalogue is, in fact, the first stage of analysis of one's work.
Preparation of the Synoptic Catalogue is usually delayed until identification of species has progressed to a reasonable degree. Whereas the Primary Catalogue is in current use the Synoptic Catalogue is compiled at convenience.
A point of importance is that once the Primary Catalogue has been cross referenced by compilation of the Synoptic Catalogue then any alteration of nomenclature and of location of specimens page 121 (i.e. whether kept, added or discarded) must be amended in both catalogues. For this purpose it is convenient to note at the front of both catalogues the latest Primary Catalogue number that has been included in the Synoptic Catalogue.