Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dark Data, or What's in Your Closet?

Dark data are collections of objects or information that reside in a business's files, an office, a garage, or home, which could provide important information for researchers, businesses or historians, if they only knew these data exist. There are many stories of finding letters, original music scores, paintings, diaries, buckets of fossils, which provided important information to someone. Dark data have been around ever since humans began collecting objects, and then forgetting about them, a generation or so later. 

We all have family and friends with collections of rocks, butterflies, feathers, fossils, old letters, comic books, diaries or journals, photographs, stamps, ceramics, scrapbooks, and other artifacts of past decades and former lives. In my own family, my father collected mollusk shells and cameras, my grandmother kept family artifacts and letters, and I have stacks of dried plant specimens and a living collection of bulbs. 

Gordon's scrapbook collection now resides at Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum. This and other photos showing his collection were taken by Barbara Minard, courtesy  Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, Ilwaco, Washington. 
Gordon's media varied over the years, but the detailed documentation did not change. Image courtesy of Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, Ilwaco, Washington.   

The problem with collections accelerates when the collector dies. Some collections retain value to the family for generations. Fossils and artifacts of past cultures found on family lands are examples of collections that are often retained for many generations by the descendants of the collectors, because of their pride in and strong connection to the land. Other collections are too often seen as so much trash, to be tossed when the collector is gone. A notable natural historian lived here on the peninsula and collected insects, mammals, shells and other biota for several decades.  When he died, his heirs tossed the lot. Perhaps they did not want the bother of sorting and sending to museums. All that energy, time and information, all those items, were lost to regional natural history museums and future natural historians. 

Two men who died in the past twelve months were lifelong scrapbookers. One was Gordon Schoewe, whose 82 scrapbooks went to the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum. The other was my father in law, who left more than 100 scrapbooks to his family; his father also compiled scrapbooks and left more than 30. These men documented their daily lives in amazing detail, often filling one book per year, with photos, tickets, letters, cards, other paper artifacts, and annotations. Gordon's books also included his artwork. In my father in law's books were cartoons and sketches of maps, diagrams and numerous comments about events and people. As cultural artifacts, these books describe life in the 20th century in amazing detail. It has been said that the past is another country. By describing their lives day by day and year by year, we can visit this richly detailed past in their books. For cultural museums, these books have great value. 

One open page in one of Gordon's books shows clippings about military friends. Courtesy Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, Ilwaco, Washington. 

Not all collections are alike in value, and that value is usually intellectual. The most important are those that have provenance––annotations about when, where and how the objects were obtained. Without this provenance, collections are just assemblages of stuff once the collector is gone. The line between collectors and hoarders can be pretty thin, and well documented provenance is a key difference between them. 

There's a term for the process of losing annotations for collections:  ghost data. Someone put thought and energy into gathering and holding those objects, but unless they also wrote down where, when, who, and other details, and impressed their heirs with the need to pass on these materials with that information, those collections are doomed to become ghosts. On the other hand, when those collections are documented, annotated, and find their ways to appropriate museums, they become a resource for future generations, even when they aren't immediately put on display. 

This dried plant, Rumex pseudonatronalis, is heading for a regional herbarium. I first saw it years ago on the Columbia River, and finally collected it in 2013. 

The stacks of dried plants aren't heading to the trash at my house. I type up my collection information (when I can read my handwritten notes) and send the dried plants off to regional herbaria every couple of years. If those notes get separated from the plants, I have to toss them––herbaria cannot use specimens, no matter how rare or well pressed, if the notes on when, where and what are lost. I have ghost data issues from past decades with my own plant collections!

Recently I learned about a private collection in danger of being lost, a butterfly collection from the mid 20th century. There were journals associated with the specimens, and I hope the current holder of the collection finds them. It is from an under-sampled coastal county and gives lepidopterists a look at butterflies from a time when few people were collecting them, and long before digital photography made butterfly, dragonfly and bumblebee watching so straightforward. For natural history museums, and natural historians who are resampling modern species, this is an important resource to save. 

Then there are old photographs. You know what I'm talking about:  Boxes of them, which may or may not be properly stored. They might be black and white, or color. Negatives or positive images. On glass, film or paper. Photos of communities and landscapes are especially important if the dates and places where they were taken are known. Change is a fact of life. We live the changes almost without noticing, and it's only when we look back that we realize what changes have occurred––and photographs help us see those changes. Unnamed and undated photos of classes, people, places? Already ghosts. But with those dates, places and names written down? Very important to colleges, community and regional museums. 

Slides don't last forever:  I took these slides in the 1980s, and still have over a dozen metal cases of slides. They are starting to fade, and unless I add places, names, and dates, this information, and the usefulness of these slides to someone else will be lost. 

My field companion is a tough plastic notebook with Rite in the Rain waterproof paper, and a sturdy mechanical pencil. The paper is pH stable and archival, and the notes will last for decades, and probably for centuries.
You may notice that I keep coming back to written notes. There's a reason why:  We do not remember all the details we think we do, not from day to day, and not from year to year. Our memories are fluid, repacked every night when we sleep. There's a limit to how many details we can remember; only a few unusual individuals never forget anything. The constant memory repacking means that in a year, or a decade, you might not remember if the rock on the left is from Antarctica and the one on the right from Greenland. Nothing replaces taking notes in durable ink on archival paper, not the digital cloud, not computerized notes, and especially not our our fragile memories. 

If you are a collector, and you keep the details about each item in your collection in your memory right now, please take the time to write those details down. When your heirs sort out your collections, those with provenance can go on to the next generation, or a museum. Without this information, it's more likely to be lost, and to join the vast number of collections that have already gone dark, and joined the ghost data scrap heap. 

In my own family, my maternal grandmother Ruth's family letters about climbing Chilkoot Pass  and the Klondike Gold Rush went to the Alaska State Museum, along with her gold nugget jewelry and infant clothes of elk hide and beads. These objects are far more important in a museum collection than divided up among the grandchildren. Yes, to see all these items today, we have to go to Fairbanks. But we know where they are, and that they are available to historians and society. Not lost, not scattered, not tossed. 

What's in your closet? Or attic? And how well documented is it?