The National Biodiversity Network
During the last 30-40 years, there has been an explosion of activity in wildlife recording in Britain. Prior to 1960, the majority of recording was carried out at the local level, except for a few large-scale surveys mainly aimed at birds, and was very often focused on a local or regional museum with natural history collections. These collections acted both as archives of field research, and as resources for identification and further study. Records were compiled manually by local experts, and may or may not have been collated nationally.
The close relationship between data and collections has declined, owing to the increased focus on recording as a separate activity, carried out through new organisations, such as local records centres. The advent of electronic data capture has also increased the potential for recording, and has created new issues for the way records relate to collections, and to natural history archives.
These changes require a re-examination of the role of biological collections and their related archives. Electronic media have also introduced the problem of long-term archiving of digital data.
BIOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS AND RECORDING
Different subject areas have different needs for collecting specimens as vouchers and for identification. Some recording schemes have formal policies on the collection and retention of specimens. Others have a more informal approach, depending to what extent specimens are used as a back-up for data.
Problems with the collection of specimens from an ethical perspective are also increasing, although these concerns are beginning to cause difficulties for the scientific basis of biological recording, and are resulting in some museums being reluctant to give enough profile to biological collections.
The NBN Trust has no direct role in the maintenance of collections, but it is interested in the quality of data. It therefore has concerns about the maintenance of essential voucher material and the use of reference collections for identification and the verification of records.
To date, the NBN Trust itself has not issued guidance on these areas. It is working with the National Forum for Biological Recording and others to examine how to encourage best practice, not only within the museums and other bodies which hold collections, but also among recording organisations. A joint Conference, held in partnership with the Federation(as it was then known), was held in 2004, and its report is “Natural Partners: biodiversity observations and collections”, containing recommendations for the improvement of the role of collections etc., also available through the NFBR website
Particular issues relating to collections and archives include:
- The need for recording organisations to specify when and for what species vouchers are required, including whether photographic records are sufficient.
- The need for voucher collections to be deposited for long-term custody in reliable institutions, and for maintenance agreements to be made for these.
- The need for guidance to be provided to recorders in the use of reference collections, and their locations.
- The need for museum authorities and policy-making bodies to fully recognise their roles in maintaining voucher collections as a resource for biodiversity recording.
- The need to promote the responsible collection of necessary voucher material as an adjunct to biological recording among the wider biodiversity community.
Paper archives and related material concerning the natural environment tend to have been neglected in favour of biological collections or electronic data.
While the scientific papers of eminent biologists may be secured in large institutions, paper archives and documents from field naturalists and societies are often in jeopardy. These are often highly important, and are an especially important source for early information on species and habitats.
The NBN Trust has no direct involvement with paper archives, but is concerned about their long-term survival as a resource, although it has not issued guidance on the subject. Individual institutions may occasionally have documented policies on the retention and curation of material. Some NBN partner organisations, such as the Natural History Museum and the Biological Records Centre, have responsibilities for archives in their care, but published guidelines for the collection and care of these materials are limited.
The issues involved with these are somewhat different from standard archival concerns, as they are often not formal papers derived from institutions. However, some of the principal issues behind their long-term care are similar:
- The need to ensure the continued integrity of collections of papers, particularly recognising and documenting their source (provenance) and relationships (order).
- The need for adequate storage, using archival quality materials.
- The need for proper documentation and access arrangements.
- The need to ensure that links between paper archives and biological collections are maintained.
- The need to encourage institutions that have biological collections to take their parallel responsibilities for related paper archives seriously.
- The need to encourage societies and recording schemes to ensure that the documentary archives held by them and their members are adequately maintained and their future assured.
Similar issues concern the collection and curation of photographic archives, although the issues will also include specific concerns, such as:
- Long-term stability of the photographic materials themselves.
- Specific methods for indexing and using images.
- Copyright issues specific to images.
ELECTRONIC DATA ARCHIVING
The NBN Trust and the National Forum for Biological Recording have begun to look into this issue. Other NBN Trust partners, notably the Natural History Museum, are specifically interested in the subject.
The principal questions concern the long-term survival of electronic data, including images, and the need to ensure adequate maintenance regimes. Principal issues identified include:
- The special documentation needs and methods required (e.g. metadata).
- The problems of technology evolution and maintenance of access to historic data.
- Longevity of electronic data storage media.
- Ensuring digital integrity of transferred or “refreshed” data.
- Lack of resources and technical expertise by organisations managing digital data.
- The perception that digital data not immediately accessible does not exist (and therefore does not merit action).
- More information on this area of concern may be found on the website of the Digital Preservation Coalition (see: www.dpconline.org/graphics/index.html).