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Unusual Collections Contain the Key to Scientific Discovery

Image: The Agricultural Research Service Culture Collection is one of the largest public collections of bacteria and fungi in the world.

When imagining a library’s collection, it’s natural to visualize volumes on shelves. Books and journals have certainly been central to the dissemination of knowledge for hundreds of years. Today, however, the concept of a “collection of knowledge” goes far beyond just books.

In recent years, the more advanced libraries have expanded to include collections of raw data. With powerful software tools for analysis, it is now possible to acquire new knowledge by uncovering patterns within vast quantities of data.  There is similar potential inside other sorts of collections — not books or even data, but in collections of things.

Scientists have a long tradition of collecting physical items pertaining to their research. Geologist’s rock collections and entomologists’ butterflies are two very common examples. They save such items because as knowledge progresses, scientists can return to original samples and use them build upon existing knowledge.

As any librarian will tell you, preserving collections for future generations is crucial. Members of the federal scientific community face a very similar task – it is only the type of objects differ. The government has repositories of tissue samples, geologic materials, dust from outer space, plant specimens and even microbes. Hidden in these collections may be the cure to cancer, keys to climate change, or hints about cataclysmic events eons ago and light years away.  The preservation of these collections depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is funding.

In an effort to preserve the potential for expanded knowledge made possible by such samples, the federal government has commissioned an Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) to analyze the costs and benefits of collection maintenance.  As a University library, we are interested in this group’s framework for estimating long-term operating costs, and in the five methods they have identified for estimating and documenting the benefits generated by collections. For more information, visit the IWGSC website, and click to watch the short video.