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Catalogues and database of scientific collections

Research project DI/05 (Research action DI)

Persons :

  • M.  DANON Eric - Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences ()
    Coordinator of the project
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/11/2005-1/1/2012
  • Prof. dr.  BACKELJAU Thierry - Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences ()
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/11/2005-1/1/2012
  • M.  VANGELUWE Didier - Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences ()
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/11/2005-1/1/2012

Description :

The complexity of the digitising project at the RBINS is not comprehensible if the aim of the collection and the amount and variety of its objects is not accurately taken into account. The objectives that were fixed under the framework of this project represent only a minor part of the RBINS collections that could potentially be digitised. This has also been stated in the results of an external study, performed during 2002-2003, by the firm Bureau Van Dijk that at the time classified not less than 46 different types of RBINS collection depending on the nature of its objects (books, magazines, archives, scientific data consisting of « analogue » records or 3D objects, photographs, plans, etc.).

The objectives chosen in light of the DI/00/05 project were, are and will be in the future years, mainly driven by the number one priority with regard to the RBINS digitising of the scientific patrimony: the digitising of the scientific collections’ catalogues for which the historical amount of objects has been estimated between 35 and 37 million.

The RBINS’ collections, especially those concerning zoology, are some of the most renowned on both a European level and beyond. The number of «type» material within the collections is estimated at about 110.000 objects. The priority has, therefore, been set on digitising the catalogue of these unique samples (holotypes and paratypes, but also allotypes, cotypes, genotypes, lectotypes, neotypes, paralectotypes, plastotypes, plesiotypes, syntypes and topotypes). The basic information as well as the original descriptive references are encoded in DaRWIN, a mutual tool for collection management (a database developed by the RBINS ICT department), by both personnel that could be recruited on project funding, as personnel on RBINS own payroll and that are supported by scientists and collection managers.

The results are excellent: at the end of February 2012, 27.221 records were encoded in DaRWIN, representing the information for 71.687 «type» objects within the collections (or 65,17% of the total historical estimate).

The project also aimed at digitising about 500.000 samples of « Belgian material » (which was also one of the principal objectives). At the beginning of the project only a small part of the «Belgian» collections (recent vertebrates, invertebrates, entomology, paleontology, mineralogy and geological data) were available in a digital format. The purpose of this first phase was to encode a selection of these «Belgian» specimens for which the basic data fields were available in DaRWIN (following the example of the type material).

During the course of the project, the digitising efforts have also been expanded to other specimen collections for which the data was readily available. This by no means undermined the priority efforts placed on the so-called « Belgian » data, but merely helped to keep the work done by the encoders up to speed. At the end of February 2012, 411.408 records were present in DaRWIN (or 82,28% of the initial DI/00/05 objective), which represents the information for 2.449.171 collection objects!

Once encoded, all these data (as also for the type material data) are immediately available via DaRWIN’s web interface:

At the same time, an effort was also made with regard to the encoding of collection data belonging to the anthropology and prehistory department of the Institute. These collections necessitate a different approach with regard to their collection management (due to specific needs). In order to achieve this, all data was encoded in a dedicated platform (« MARS »), which was developed using « open source » solutions in the framework of another project that was financed by the Science Policy PPS (BELSPO).

Not forgetting the 3rd and final objective of the project, being the cataloguing of 500.000 bird ring data: on August 31 2009, we had reached the number of 548.268 records in the bird ring database Papageno (that is EURING format compatible) and thus surpassing the initial objective by nearly 10% ! All data concerning the bird ring work in Belgium has been centralised at the RBINS since 1926. The only database that up till now was completely digitised was the position feedback database which comprises approximately 450.000 records. All other data (more than 15.000.000 records) are for the most part only available on written files. The aim of this objective was to encode but a preselected amount among these 15.000.000 files (the retained selection: large bird species – large rings, 500.000 records) in the software application Papageno that has been used for many years at the RBINS.

In order to bring such a digitising project to a successful conclusion, a lot of time and manpower is needed, as nothing has proven to be more efficient than human interaction to encode catalogue inventories. Especially since the inventories are actively used in research. The rules, as well as the nomenclatura norms, have changed, whereby it no longer avails to simply scan inventory files with character recognition software. Instead the existing data needs to be transcribed in formats recognised by the international scientific community. The digitising is thus accompanied by a verification effort. This implies that the operators (« encoders ») need to be trained en need to be accompanied by scientific personnel, without forgetting the IT aspects, such as ICT personnel for the development part, maintenance and support of this kind of tool.

One can conclude that the first phase of the DI/00/05 project ends on a very high note: apart from the outstanding results, this project has been a catalyst for the implementation of an institutional digitising plan for the collections, not only permitting a common workflow (personnel, objectives, software, etc.) but also permitting the online consultation of our patrimony data in real time to the general public, the researchers and specialists worldwide.

The RBINS now disposes of a platform for the management of its scientific collections (entomology, vertebrates, invertebrates, paleontology and geology), that is operational, common and based on independent technologies outside of the commercial and/or proprietary scope. This platform is also well adapted to the everyday implementation of natural history collection management and allows, by respecting the international standards, that the data is exchanged via other international portals (such as BioCase & GeoCase, for instance). Better still, new synergies between RBINS and other scientific institutions seem to surface in the background of DaRWIN, as common issues as competences, experiences and development capabilities seem to become a point of mutual interest.

But the work of digitising at the RBINS is far from being finished! Only a first tentative step has been taken. This may be, however, a leap towards other digitising objectives, such as the digitising of 2D/3D objects in view of emerging conservation efforts, even if the main focus remains the continuation of the meticulous digitising of our scientific collection data. By widening the span, we would attain a new level in the digitising process of our patrimony. The cross-referencing of these two types of digitising would by any means generate a larger general interest for our data (that would thus be even more accessible), but would also offer complementary scientific information to the specialists in the field.

Documentation :

Catalogi en databank van wetenschappelijke collecties (Phase 1) : eindrapport  Emery, Cathy - Semal, Patrick - Lenglet, Georges ... et al  Brussel : Federaal Wetenschapsbeleid, 2012 (SP2520)
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