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Between 2010 and 2015, Naturalis Biodiversity Center will execute one of the largest projects for natural history collection digitization to date. At least 7 million objects will be digitized in detail from a total collection of 37 million.  

Digitizing the Naturalis collection

Collections to be digitized

for the succesful realization of this complex operation, industrial-like processes and decision-making frameworks were devised. The 7 million objects are grouped in 9 categories  which all require a customized approach due to their differences in material. Therefore, specialized digitization-teams (‘digistreets’) have been formed, which all target one of the categories. This specialization allows for an industrial approach, bringing down both handling time and costs per item.


Number of objects

Realized per July 2013

Wood samples



Geology and paleontology collections



Herbarium sheets



Mollusk collections



Dry mounted (in)vertebrates



Alcohol/formaldehyde samples



Microscopic slides



2-D material                                          Drawings, rare books, photographs, paintings, archives, microfiches



Entomology collections                       Bumblebee collection, Dutch water beetles, Dutch butterflies, Evert beetles collection, type specimens, African bees






These 7 million objects will be digitized at the specimen level. All individual objects are tagged with a barcode, their basic metadata are recorded in a database and a high-resolution photo or scan of both the object and its label(s) is taken. The containers in which the specimens are grouped are allocated a barcode and registered as well, allowing any object to be located quickly.

The project's scope prohibits the registration of all information present on the labels. Instead, a specific set of information is targeted: data required for collection management and data important for research purposes. Although most of this work is done by the specialists in the digistreets, Naturalis has asked the general public for help as well. A crowd sourcing application (in Dutch) has been developed for the microscopic slide collection that volunteers at home can use to transcribe the specimen labels visible on the scans made in the digistreet.

Digitizing 7 million objects on specimen-level leaves 30 million collection items to be registered on another level. These 30 million objects are registered on the level of the container in which they are stored, like drawers and boxes. The numbers of specimens are counted per species to create an overview of all species, their quantity and location(s) in the collections.

Selection of collections for digitization

A selection of 7 million objects for object-level registration needed to be made from the entire collection. As a first step, proposals by scientists and collection managers concerning digitization of specific collections were gathered. Proposals had to state the expected benefits from having that specific collection digitized in regard to current research programs and collection preservation. The submitted proposals exceeded the target set, so a ranking had to be made. Priority was given to collections which have a relation to the institute's own research, public or education programs, are of use in national and international biodiversity projects, are of economic importance, and/or are of good quality. The results of an online survey of stakeholders were taken into account with these decisions.

Some 20% of the target is available for ad-hoc collection digitization, and can be realized in cooperation with other institutions. An example of such cooperation is the African bee collection, which has been digitized at the request of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. Naturalis and SAIAB shared the digitization costs on this project and both have access to the data. Institutions interested in such cooperation are kindly requested to contact Naturalis via expertcentrum@naturalis.nl.

Why digitize collections?

Naturalis hopes to reach several goals with this project. It increases the virtual accessibility of the collection, thereby facilitating research world-wide. Collection management will be more efficient, as the exact location of objects will be known. This will protect specimens from over-handling. The high-resolution photographs or scans allow for detailed on-screen examination of some of the objects, which will also aid the preservation of the actual objects.

Access to the digital collections

One of the goals of this project is increasing accessibility of the collections by making a digital copy available online. A Naturalis portal to the digital collections is currently being developed. It should be available as beta version in the beginning of 2014. Other portals that will give access to (parts of) the collections are Gbif, BHL and Europeana.

Digitizing entomology