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Sugar House Journal

Natural History Museum of Utah digitization project seeks at-home scientific help

May 05, 2020 12h00 ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Amanda McGarry, the digitization manager for the museum’s vertebrate zoology collection, scans another page of notes into the computer. (Photo courtesy of NHMU)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

It’s a chance to be a scientist from your living room. 

If you’re stuck at home, the Natural History Museum of Utah’s vertebrate zoology department is looking for help. They’ve spent the last two years digitizing decades worth of field notes, all of which include vital information about various animal species already in the museum’s collection. Once the pages get online, they need the help of volunteers to transcribe the notes so the information is more readable and searchable by people all over the world. 

“If the (museum) building was on fire, what would be the one thing you’d want to grab?” asked Amanda McGarry, the digitization manager for vertebrate zoology collections at the Natural History Museum of Utah. “For the vertebrate zoology department, it would be the field notes.” 

The notes are divided into two categories. Catalogue notes are the quantitative raw data about the different species in the collection. Field notes are the daily records of the scientists who were studying and collecting the different animal species. Both sides together are still referred to as field notes. 

Though some of that information adds important scientific context, there are also some interesting stories mixed in. 

“Back in the day, sometime in the 1930s, one of the grad students actually got shot when they were out in the field,” said McGarry with a laugh. “Two weeks later he was back in the field because he was a grad student.” 

Other notes show the quirks that sometimes show up in the scientific process, such as the scientist who was trying to lure chipmunks with gumdrops. 

“He had a whole page about how orange gumdrops worked better than yellow gumdrops,” she said. 

Even when the stories don’t get that dramatic, they offer a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in different time periods. 

“They’ll say they motored places instead of driving places,” she said. “It confused me at first.”

The notes are being posted to DIGIVOL, a site hosting similar documents from institutions all over the world. The vertebrate zoology collection’s specific site can be found here at, then search institutions for Natural History Museum of Utah – Vertebrate Zoology

Volunteers sign up for a free account, then choose what museum they want to work with. Once they’ve done that, they choose the notes from a specific expedition and get started. 

“There’s a tutorial that gives an example of what the notes are going to look like and how to transcribe them,” McGarry said. 

If a particular page gets too challenging, she said that volunteers don’t need to feel bad. 

“To be honest, the handwriting at times can be hard to read,” she said. “You can always exit a certain page and go to a different one.” 

Even if you do make a mistake, there will be other volunteers on hand to make sure it doesn’t become a permanent part of the collection. 

“After the work gets transcribed, we have some dedicated volunteers go on a validate them,” she said. 

There are several volunteers already working on the project, which means that the notes from some expeditions get transcribed quickly. If you log on and find that all the work has been done for the moment, however, McGarry said not to worry. 

“If people log on and there’s nothing to be done, keep checking back,” she said. “Sometimes people transcribe faster than I can upload things.” 

And if vertebrate zoology isn’t your thing, McGarry said that other collections are starting to follow their lead. 

“This has been an example for other collections to start their own (digitization) projects,” she said, listing the anthropology and herbarium collections as two that are already online. “There’s stuff out there for everyone.”