Revision of Preserving a Diatom Collection from Thu, 2014-06-19 23:09

The Natural History Museum houses more than 70 million specimens. They are all valuable and infinitely special in their own ways: some might be big and impressive, like the dinosaurs; others are very small, yet extraordinary, like diatoms.

As you might expect, the conservation and preservation of so many specimens can be quite a challenging task. The Natural History Museum allows volunteers to help preserve the specimens and the important accompanying information.

Thomas Comber collected a vast amount of diatoms in the 19th century. His collection is made up of microscopic specimen slides, lantern slides, bottles with samples, and Comber’s handwritten notes. His notes are extremely valuable for the scientific community. Without the information on Comber’s notes, we would no longer know where the slides and bottles came from; they would loose their value.

There is a slight problem though: around the time Comber would have bought his notebooks, most paper manufacturers started producing machine-made paper. This paper used wood fibres as the main ingredient. Which made the paper manufacture cheaper. However, the high presence of lignin, an organic compound with an acidic nature (part of the basic composition of wood), causes the paper to become yellow and brittle. Consequently, the paper is delicate to handle1.

One task, as a Vfactor volunteer, was to help digitise Comber’s notes and preserve the information written on them. This way, it is completely safe for everyone to check Comber’s delicate notes on a computer without the need to expose them to manual handling.

Another crucial task is to database the information found in the notes and the slides, and link them to their images. This way the collection will be more accessible for researchers and the general public, not only in England, but also around the world.


1) CCI-ICC Canadian Conservation Institute- Institute Canadien de conservation (2002), “How to Care for Paper Documents and Newspaper Clippings”, Canada, [ Available from:] [accessed 10/05/2014]

All pictures taken by Fabiana Portoni 2013-2014

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith