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Background

Cheryl is responsible for specimen loans from the Essig collection.  She uses a Microsoft Access database that has been developed by students (and informatics programmers?) over the years.  Database files are stored on a server and are backed up.  (Access file obtained.)

Schema and functionality

  • Essig has about 2000 loans recorded in Access (since about 1947) with about 2500 associated records in the loaned specimen subform.  However, because each loaned specimen line can represent thousands of loaned specimens, the number of loaned specimens is very large.  Note that all loans are also recorded in a physical ledger, and a sizeable number of old loans are not entered into the Access system.
  • The Access system is focused on outgoing loans. 
  • The two main functions are 1) data entry of the loan information and loaned specimens and 2) printing of a form letter (the loan agreement).  The system is also used to search for extant loans and process returns.
  • Core loan information includes the identification of the loanee, the term or due date for the loan (extensions are very common), shipping information, the loan number, the loan type (loan, gift, transfer, loan+gift, and so on), and confirmation of receipt.
  • Core information about the loaned specimens includes: taxonomic identification, quantity borrowed, quantity returned, the specimen preparation (pinned, slide), comments such as permissions and restrictions regarding treatment of the loaned specimen (what can and can not be done), the condition of the object or part, and the extension date.  Most loaned specimens are not catalogued (due to the vast size of the physical collection), but if a specimen number does exist, it is recorded in a comments field.
  • Most fields are optional, and data quality will be an issue if migrating data is performed.
  • There are other tables that support the system.  For example, loanees are identified in a separate table.  Essig has tables with taxonomic information that can be used in the loaned specimen subform to identify the taxon.  Because these taxonomic dropdowns are not refreshed with new data, Cheryl can enter free text in the identification fields.
  • It is very common for loans to be extended.  It is unusual for loanees to request these explicitly, and in fact one of the main challenges is keeping track of which loanees need to be contacted regarding extensions.  It is also common for parts of loans to come back.  An Extension Date field does exist though it is blank for all but 30 records.
  • Essig loans pinned and unpinned specimens, specimens in alcohol, and so on.
  • Essig is challenged by institutions, loanees, and contact information.  The Access system does not track email addresses.  Institutions undergo reorganization.  Loanees move from one institution to another, often taking loans with them.  Loanees sometimes pass away, and their collections (even loans) often transfer to someone else or to the institution.  Collection managers know their communities quite well and have to track this kind of thing.
  • When specimens are returned, it is common to have new identification information or new derivatives (slides, dissections, and so on).
  • Most loans are for specimens that are not in the specimen database.  However, Cheryl does use the Essig's species database while processing loans.  The species database is separate from their specimen database, and it records the identity of taxa in the collection.  The species database is being built up over time to help researchers, the public, and museum staff know what is in the collection at the level of scientific taxa.
  • Essig can record more detailed identification information (class, order, family, subfamily, tribe, and genus-species).  However, in most cases, this is just the information that is included with the physical specimen (e.g., on the label); identification might be at the family/genus level.
  • One line item in the loaned specimens table can have counts greater than one (e.g., 45 pinned aphids of a specific taxa).  It is not unusual to loan out thousands of specimens in one loan.
  • It is common practice amongst entomologists that the loanee can keep a certain number of the loaned specimens unless otherwise specified.
  • Cheryl has to complete reports annually or for grants (e.g., number of loaned specimens, number of individuals or institutions borrowing from Essig).
  • If a return comes in with new identification information, Cheryl makes sure the taxon is in the species database (but not necessarily the specimen database).
  • In house loans are not very common.  Students can come in and examine specimens, and a checkout sheet can be used if someone borrows a specimen.  However, for entomology students (and researchers generally), common practice is to go to the field and collect new specimens.
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