Becoming a master of digitisation | Digital Collections

A guest blog from our Summer placement students Janice Wu and Ying Luo

Janice and Ying at work preparing some mollusc shells for digitisation

The digitisation team started a mass approach to digitising our collections nearly a decade ago. At this time, there were very few museum employees around the country who could claim their job title was “digitiser”. Now, ten years on, the Museum has digitised 5.6 million specimens, the digitisation team has nine full-time digitisers and has been able to host two placement students this summer.

As digitisation is a fairly new career option, unlike becoming a curator, it is often not something that students at university are necessarily considering which is something that we really wanted to change.

Larissa Welton, one of our full-time digitisers who has been supervising our summer placements, started her career at the Museum when she was able to take part in an eight-week placement during her master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. This later led to her finding out about digitisation and applying for a job as a digitiser.

‘I’m so glad I found this path. I get to handle our fantastic specimens every day and work to increase digital access to our collections for researchers and the public alike.’ Larissa says

‘Once I got this job, I wanted to offer other students the same opportunity I had, but in the growing field of digitisation.’

Hosting students has been a valuable and rewarding experience and we hope to continue to do this, whether it’s school work experience students or university placements. This blog is by our two 2023 placement students Janice and Ying who are both masters students in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. They will share their experiences as they are introduced to digitisation over their eight-week summer placement at the Museum.

Why should we digitise?

An insect in a lightbox for imaging

Natural history collections that date back hundreds of years are often the only place that contains a baseline of biodiversity from before industrialisation, wide scale intensive farming and mining the ocean for important minerals. Because of this, digitising museum collections and setting this data free is vital for those wanting to understand what change has happened and understand how we can work in the future to conserve our biodiversity so that both people and the planet can thrive.

Janice tells us ‘Over the past few years, we have witnessed a series of events, including the global pandemic, the fire of the National Museum of Brazil and of the Notre Dame de Paris. These events made me realise the vulnerability of our global collections and culture. This made me want to preserve and protect museum and heritage collections.’

Digitisation is an impactful approach to preserving and protecting collections – it can sometimes reduce the amount of handling that specimens are subjected to when people are using them for research, and shares these collections with the world, opening up the collection with scientists, students and artists who can be inspired by and use these collection to better the planet.

What is digitisation?

Digitisation is simply the process of creating a digitally discoverable record. This might or might not include an image, but will include important information about a specimen such as what species it is, where and when it was found and if it is a ‘type’ or example specimen from which a species is named. This is important information to release to the world as it helps scientists track how populations have changed over time, for instance if there are changes in the appearance of a species due to climate warming, or to discover if what they have collected on a field trip is a new species.

The digitisation team often refer to the different methods of digitisation as ‘workflows’ which is a specific set of instructions to adhere to when working with a series of like objects that all require similar steps. You can find out more in this blog on a Day in the life of a digitiser. Each time a digitiser starts a new project they are trained in the workflow and given an introduction to the collection before starting official digitisation. During their eight-week placement, Janice and Ying were able to be trained to digitise microscope slides, pinned insects, molluscs and herbarium sheets.

The first workflow our digitisers learn is the microscope slide workflow. This is the quickest workflow that we have and the highest number one digitiser has ever managed to get through in one day is 1525 slides. The Museum has more than 2.5 million microscope slides, which can contain whole small insects, parts of other specimens or tiny fossils.

‘I was surprised to learn that the slide digitisation workflows that have been developed take an average of 16 seconds to image a slide, and they help me to semi-automate slide capture and data editing. This greatly improves efficiency and reduces the potential for human error.’ Ying

Janice ‘This is a highly efficient workflow and I can get through 400-600 slides per day which is really satisfying. I find that listening to music as I work helps my concentration.’

Expectation vs. Reality — Even Better!

Before the placement, Janice didn’t interact much with nature. ‘During our placement, I have been exposed to so much variety in the natural world. This placement has shown me how incredible nature can be.’

‘My favourite specimen so far is Chan’s megastick. This stick insect measuring 567mm is the second largest insect in the world (it held the world record until 2008) the team had to use a drawer scanner to image this specimen.’

‘After being a digitiser, I realised that each person on the team can contribute a little to the bigger impact every day. I’m really proud that what I do on a daily basis, can benefit society for centuries to come.’

Ying tells us ‘I love how well preserved the specimens are in the collection – the butterflies still have their brilliant colours and fragrant plants like thyme retain their characteristic smell over 100 years later.’

‘My favourite part of the role so far has been being able to meet new people both in the digitisation lab and wider Museum. I enjoy that each project is a collaboration between the digitisation team and the curators. I already know that eight weeks are not enough for me and I will be looking to join the Museum again in the future.’

The Future is Bright and digital

Janice ‘I feel very lucky to have been able to work with such a welcoming team, and our supervisor, Larissa has been amazing. I would be thrilled if I could continue into digitisation work and contributing to make collections accessible to everyone in my future career. If you ever get the opportunity to become a digitiser, seize it!’

Ying ‘I was surprised by the large amount of scientific terminology that needs to be learnt for this role – as a member of the museum’s collections team, you need to have a deep understanding of the collections. Some of our digitisers are themselves experts in insects, fossils or plants. The placement has opened my eyes to the intersection of multiple disciplines in a museum setting and that digitisation is a specialism.’

We want to thank Ying and Janice for spending time with us this Summer, it has been a pleasure to get to know you and see you excel in so many areas during such a short few weeks.

If you want to stay up to date with our digitisation activities, projects and opportunities please follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you are a student or course leader that wants our help to support learning more about digitisation during the life of your course, please reach out to us on either of these channels as we would be happy to hear your ideas.