Testing An Alternative Shelving Arrangement to Optimize Space and Task Efficiency in a Fluid Fish Collection

Cohen, Adam E.
Hendrickson, Dean A.
Casarez, Melissa J.
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For centuries, a taxonomic and alphabetic arrangement (TAA) of objects on shelves prevailed in fluid-preserved natural history collections while they were managed mostly by scientists for their own or vistors’ on-site research using physical specimens. However, most modern collections are now databased and internet-accessible, facilitating diverse forms of research accomplished remotely and decreasing the frequency of need for physical access to specimens, yet the way specimens are shelved and accessed remains nearly universally unchanged. With our fish collection struggling with both severe space limitation and unprecedented rapid growth supporting externally funded research that requires rapid specimen processing and data publication, we started shelving in an object (jar) and catalog number-based arrangement (OCA). To make that possible in our limited and near-full space, without altering our physical shelves in any way, we eliminated all between-jar spaces in our collection, including the customary space between taxa, while keeping it in its original TAA-based order (thus eliminating TAA-based growth capacity. In the resultant empty shelf space, we implemented an OCA shelving system for all newly cataloged jars. Once the OCA contained a relatively large number of jars, we carried out pragmatic, TAA-OCA comparisons. Volumetric jar storage capacity in the OCA is 17% > TAA, and adjusting the OCA’s vertical shelf spacing to optimize for each of our 3 jar sizes (impossible in the TAA), could increase that to 115% > TAA. Ten of 15 routine staff tasks were more efficiently accomplished in the OCA than in the TAA, and the OCA greatly decreases shelving errors (misplacement). We discuss ways to improve efficiency in the OCA for the 5 tasks on which the TAA out-performed it, and report ancillary, unanticipated benefits, such as a way to much more efficiently and quickly monitor fluid levels across all jars. All newly cataloged specimen jars continue going into our OCA, and we have significantly postponed hitting the point of absolutely being unable to continue growing. We are hopeful that eventually, a move to a new space will enable conversion of the entire collection from TAA to a more fully-optimized OCA.

Presentation made by Dean A. Hendrickson to the June 5-10 2022 meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK