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Collection agents in the spotlight: Collectors’ Project shows great potential


Information on people can be found everywhere in our collection – as collectors, dealers of naturalia, describers, preparators or illustrators, they are central for linking objects, publications, taxa, archives and much more. Data on people facilitate access, support discovery, help to improve data quality and link (sub-)collections. Stable identifiers and freely accessible data on these collection agents are essential for the attribution of scientific contributions, for linking biodiversity data and contribute to understanding the origin of collections and objects (provenance research). Thus, they increase transparency and visibility, and enable innovative transdisciplinary research.

The so-called Collectors' Project was funded internally through the Innovation Fund. The project was located in the department Science Data Management of the Science programme Collection Future and it was carried out in close collaboration with the Humanities of Nature department, the archive, the library, and the KWP.

The main goal of the project was to make information on collection agents available via Wikidata. Wikidata is a free, open and multilingual knowledge base that provides structured and linked data in human- and machine-readable form. Data can be retrieved using SPARQL queries and then exported in various formats or queried via APIs.

Central for the project were data from the internal MfN Collectors' Wiki, a valuable collection of collector biographies compiled by a project team and other staff members over many years. After data cleaning and deduplication, the exported pilot data set comprised almost 600 entries of collection agents. These entries were systematically checked and compared with existing entries in Wikidata.

For about 460 persons from the initial data set, Wikidata items already existed. These were substantially expanded and enriched with verifiable information. In addition, new Wikidata items were created for 61 people. For the remaining entries, it has not yet been possible to disambiguate the persons and further research is needed. In total, more than 500 people are already directly linked to our museum – as (former) employees, via objects in the collection or archival records in the MfN archive.

Two larger edit-a-thons – one internal for MfN staff and one open for external participants – served to test different versions of this participatory workshop format for its effectiveness and applicability at the MfN. The events reached and trained a diverse group of participants from different countries, institutions and backgrounds including citizen scientists. The success of the events shows the great potential for application in other projects.

The project website documents the activities and results, while the WikiProject specifically addresses the Wikidata community. Currently, project results are further analysed and visualized; a scientific publication is in preparation. In 2023, MfN staff will be offered Wikidata training and all interested (from different areas of the museum) will be more closely involved.

Dr Sabine von Mering