Crowd-sourcing of the Natural History Museum bird registers

The Natural History Museum (NHM) began life back in 1753 as part of the British Museum, which was founded in that year. In 1880, the natural history museum departments of the British Museum moved to new, purpose-built buildings in South Kensington, London, becoming known as the British Museum (Natural History) for over a hundred years before it officially adopted its present name towards the end of the 20th century. In 1970, the museum’s bird research collections were moved from London to its out-station in Tring, Hertfordshire, on the site of the former Rothschild Zoological Museum, where they and their associated curatorial staff currently reside.

The bird research collections of the NHM, now probably the largest of their type in the world, have gradually been accumulated since 1753, although relatively little still exists that dates from before 1800. A major step forward in the collections’ documentation occurred in 1837, when a much improved system was adopted that involved entering details of every individual specimen received in standard registers, with each specimen assigned a unique registration number that also appeared on the label attached to it. Since then data on over half a million bird skins, as well as many eggs, nests, skeletons and spirit specimens, were entered into the NHM bird registers up to the 1990s, when a digital registration system was adopted,.

It is this register information for the bird specimens received between 1837 and the 1990s that we now wish to capture by crowd-sourcing, using input from enthusiasts such as yourself. Once acquired, it will form the essential basis for follow-up work, to be conducted by curatorial staff and on-site volunteers, checking each entry against the relevant specimen and its label(s) to confirm and, in many cases, add to the data in what will become a comprehensive specimen data-base. Public availability of this will permit easy access by researchers and others to all information associated with all included specimens held.

Back in the mid-1800s, many of the huge numbers of specimens coming in to the museum were difficult for curators to identify (indeed, some were new to science) and they often had rather limited information accompanying them. This is reflected in the data recorded in the registers for this period, which is often scanty although always comprising a specimen registration number and, almost always, some attempt at identification. By the late 1800s and into the 1900s, more comprehensive data was normally being recorded in a more systematised manner that is clearer to transcribe. Our crowd-sourcing project therefore will begin with the later registers and work backwards. Hopefully the outcome will be that your own skills in transcribing increase in parallel with the challenges that the data present!

Robert Prys – Jones
The Natural History Museum

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8 responses to “Crowd-sourcing of the Natural History Museum bird registers”

  1. Thomas Trombone says :

    Best of luck with the project, Robert!

  2. Brian Young says :

    Since this is a bird lovers’ project, may I suggest that you give us “rewards” from time to time (say, at the completion of a page or five) of actual images of some of the creatures we’re helping to catalogue, although not necessarily the actual ones we worked directly on. We probably will be quite satisfied with not much more than a few images. Otherwise, the dryness of the transcriptions alone my drive us loony.

    • Tim Fox says :

      I look up the species I’m transcribing on Wikipedia. It helps me make sure I’ve spelled the name correctly and I get a nice picture to look at, as well as other information.

      • beewhy2012 says :

        Yes, of course. I guess I had something more like images of the specimens they actually obtain. There was a wonderful series from the BBC about the British Museum (the NMH) with fascinating behind the scenes tidbits of the work that goes on largely unseen by the public. Just a suggestion for a bit greater involvement in the actual process.

  3. Joanna says :

    Is there any way to transcribe only part of a page and then toss it back in the pool for someone else to finish? Transcribing even one page takes more time than I’m sometimes willing to commit.

  4. kate says :

    I have completed transcription for 4 or 5 complete pages, but my profile lists zero for my activity. Am I missing a step?

  5. Libby says :

    Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  6. SarahTheEntwife says :

    This is so much fun! I’ve been looking up the birds in Google Images to see what they are, and to check the spelling while I’m at it. Does each sheet represent a physical area of the archive or something like that? They’re usually a bunch of similar birds from the same area but greatly varying years, but then sometimes it’s much more random.

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