Natural history museum collections contain a world of knowledge thatcan be used to support the needs of science and society. We need to develop the infrastructure, technology, and collaborative framework to make these collections electronically available to a worldwide audience.
These museums contain specimens and data collected over hundreds of years. Researchers can use these collections to understand the past and predict future environmental scenarios. At the moment, the collections are underutilized, because much of the data are not easily accessible except through expert curation. The challenge is to find the resources to make these collections available through the Internet.
How these collections can prove their worth was demonstrated a few years ago, when researchers used some specimens to identify a mystery disease that infected and killed people in New Mexico in the 1990s. By analyzing old rodent specimens in museum collections and reviewing ancient Indian stories, scientists determined that the killer was Hanta virus and that it had existed in New Mexico for thousands of years. Without this information from the past, scientists could not have positively affected the present.
Biological information infrastructures are being developed at national and international levels. In the United States, the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) fills that role. The National Academy of Sciences devised the NBII to be a public/private partnership, with the aim of opening up the world of biological information to researchers, educators, natural resource managers, and the public. The US Geological Survey provides program management. NBII is an electronic gateway to the biological data and information products maintained by federal, state, and local government agencies; non-government institutions; and private-sector organizations.
Museums are prime NBII partners. A September 2003 workshop sponsored by NBII and The Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSCA) began the development of an integrated research tool for networking collections. Researchers will use this tool to recognize biodiversity hotspots, identify species in need of having their habitat restored, and identify invasive species and/or emerging diseases and the hosts that carry them.
As a result of this workshop and others like it, more than three million museum specimen records are already available through the NBII and theme-based networks such as the Mammal Network Information System. The National Science Foundation has funded research to help create the Distributed Generic Information Retrieval (DiGIR), a client/server protocol designed to retrieve information from distributed resources.
National networks, such as NBII, are linking to regional networks (such as Inter-American Biodiversity Information Network), and linking these networks to museum collections at hemispheric levels. Worldwide, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) seeks to make data from museums available electronically. Global standards on format and content do not exist yet, but the collections community is widely adopting the Darwin Core and ABCD Schemas.
The NBII, along with GBIF and others, are promoting the adoption and implementation of a global network standard to aid in accessing and retrieving museum specimen collections. To date, more than eight million collection records are available worldwide. These data, which include information such as the institution's name, scientific name of species, collection date, and collection location, can be freely downloaded from the Internet
Publication of analyses will vary with the data's actual use. Most data are just now becoming available in usable electronic formats, so these issues are still being discussed.
The strong partnership between NBII, GBIF, and NSF has made the goal of providing global access to museum specimens a reality. But more work is needed, requiring a commitment of resources. It is hoped that technological advances and strong institutional partnerships within the museum community will accelerate this work. The resulting "virtual museum" will enrich our knowledge of the world and strengthen our scientific capabilities, thus allowing us to manage our resources more wisely.
Gladys A. Cotter is the associate chief biologist for informatics at the US Geological Survey.