Day in the life of a digitiser |Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Lizzy Devenish

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In preparation of this blog I’ve been asking myself what, exactly, do I do for my job. “Well,” I say, “I’m a digitiser – I assist in the digitisation of specimens.” “Fantastic!” you say, “but what the hell do you do?”

What is digitisation anyway?

Well first, let’s begin with what digitisation actually is:

 Digitisation is the process of converting physical information into a digital record

Sounds simple enough, but to achieve this we need to:

  1. Snap a good photo (no filter necessary) of an object.
  2. Attach accurate, relevant data to that object.

The information recorded is based around the type of object being digitised. For natural history specimens, we’re looking for taxonomy (name and classification of the specimen), geographical location, and date collected, among others. This is usually all available on a specimen’s label and can be copied directly into a digital format.

The more data we collect the merrier, as all of it is valuable when creating a more reliable specimen record. These records in turn can be used by scientists in any research they may do on the collection. For some examples of how our data is used and who by, have a look at our recent blog on Who uses collection data.

We only use specimen data that has been deemed clean and correct by a curator, this is because bad data can lead to bad judgement, and if used for research, could potentially give faulty conclusions. 

So digitisation requires a good photo and accurate data, but the fun part comes from how we collect all this data, so let’s get into my day-to-day.

Who are you, and what are you doing here?

A typical day for me begins as many others do, by grabbing a coffee. Then I set up at my desk, pop to the collections, and pick up the specimens I’ll be working on. Depending on our current project, this can range from insects to plants to fossils. This means that we need to have a good working knowledge of, and handling techniques for a wide variety of items. Since starting at The Museum, I’ve handled thousands upon thousands of insects, which isn’t too bad for someone with a background in Palaeontology who’s used to handling rocks. 

digitisers - blog
The digitisation team have varied backgrounds and interests

Of our six digitisers, the only thing we have in common is an undergraduate degree, otherwise, we’ve all come from different paths and have different interests. It’s due to this large variety of learned skills that means we can work so well on separate collections; We’re Jacks of all trades, and some of us are masters of them too.

How do you do it?

To digitise specimens we follow a ‘workflow’, which is a specific set of instructions to adhere to when working with a series of like objects that all require similar steps. A real life example of this would be how someone makes their tea. Your workflow would consist of getting a cup, popping in a teabag, then adding hot water, milk, and (maybe) sugar. That’s a lot of steps, but the pattern is always the same, and you always put in hot water before the milk (unless you’re one of those people). You repeat this for each cup, or in our case, for each specimen, and you have a consistent workflow that anyone can use.

tea workflow 1
Simple, straightforward steps to a proper cup of tea.

Unlike tea bags, natural history specimens come in all different sizes and shapes and types, which means the ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work too well for us. Each workflow must be adjusted to meet the requirements for each item. For example, some pinned insects may need one workflow, but not all insects are pinned. Luckily, we have the ability to try out a lot of different workflows to find out which one best fits which group of specimens.

One of our current projects involves digitising the Museum’s British and Irish Pyralid and Crambid moth collection, which requires us to follow a workflow specifically designed for pinned insects that need to have their labels removed prior to imaging. 

lepidoptera workflow

To see the illustration above in more detail, you can download the Lepidoptera Workflow PDF.

To digitise these we :

    1. Remove the specimen from its drawer using special forceps and tweezers.
    2. Remove all labels from the specimen and assign a unique identifier barcode.
    3. Place the specimen in an imaging tray alongside all labels.
    4. Put that tray inside the imaging setup.
    5. Focus the camera so that the specimen and labels are clear.
    6. Hit space to take an image.
    7. Voila! A specimen image has been created on the computer.
    8. Pop the labels back on the specimen, and return to its drawer 
    9. Rinse and repeat!

Various software then reads the information encoded in any barcodes present in the original image, and renames the image file accordingly. We perform quality checks during this process to see if the files have been correctly renamed as this is the core data that will populate records in The Museum’s Data Management System. 

Following this workflow, we can image anywhere from 250 to 360 specimens per digitiser per day. This is quite a slow process compared to some of our other workflows, as we have to spend time removing and replacing labels. An much quicker workflow would be for microscope slide digitisation, where we can create up to 1000 specimen images per day.

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Here are a short set of time-lapse videos showing off some of the skills our digitisers possess in handling different sized specimens. In the first, @crowtherrobyn is working on a large #butterfly from the #Nymphalidae family, some of which we can find in the UK through migrant Monarchs and resident Ringlets. The second video shows @styrac handling a much smaller #moth specimen which is part of the Crambidae family; whilst this one is very pale, their colouration can range from bright pinks to pitch blacks. . . . #MuseumWeek #naturalhistorycollections #naturalhistory #naturalhistorymuseum #londonmuseums #digitalcollections #digitisation #entomology #lepidoptera #behindthescenes #ExploreMW #uknature #nature

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After producing all of this specimen data, the files are shared with our data managers, who have the important job of uploading the data so that it can be openly released to the public on the Museum’s Data Portal.

This might seem like quite a repetitive task, and in reality it is; to be a successful digitiser you need to be patient, methodical and very detail-oriented. Having the ability to work on such a vast quantity of different objects, and in turn gaining the trust of a curator to let you work on their collection, is very rewarding. Nevertheless, we also listen to a lot of podcasts to help things go a little more smoothly (and we drink a lot of coffee).

Not just a pretty picture

Being a digitiser isn’t just about taking pictures. We also assist in helping curators re-house objects, and take-part in the creation of brand new workflows for never-before-digitised groups.  To see how we went from a setup of a bucket and six cameras, to the innovative and powerful ALICE, read our post on Digitising the Cooper Collection.

Another important aspect of the job is talking to a variety of people about the ways in which we digitise different sorts of specimens and the importance of doing so, a bit like what I hope this blog has been able to achieve.

So there you have it, my day to day, and a little bit more. Digitisation is a constantly developing field, especially due to the onset of newer, better technologies, and I believe it to be an important means of creating and preserving a timeless, digital record of specimens for our future. To be part of a team at the forefront of this is incredibly exciting and the projects I get to take part in are so varied that I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of my job! With over 75 million specimens still to record, I’m hoping I’ll get to do this for quite a while more.

If you are interested in seeing more of how we digitise collections here at the Museum, or if you have any questions you’d like to ask about digitisation, hop on over to our instagram or our twitter accounts. You can also find out more about the Digital Collections Programme on our website.