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  • Writer's pictureDan Russell

Why you need to know about Collections...

The thing about collections is that there are so many of them.  And yet, if you don't think about searching for a collection, you might miss a huge treasure trove of salient content that's exactly on target.  

This leads me to a general SearchResearch heuristic: 

When searching for content        on a particular topic, 

    Be sure to search for        collections and be content!  

In other words, if you're searching for (to give a purely random example) information about BEANS you might want to do a search for [ list of beans ] or [types of beans].  

Collections are often organized by metadata that might not be obvious to you when you start.   For instance, doing this, I learned that a "bean" and a "pulse" are different by reading through some collections about beans!

Example: Although often used interchangeably, the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” all have distinct meanings. A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family, including its leaves, stems, and pods.  By contrast, a pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For instance, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse. (Get it?)  The entire legume plant is often used in agricultural applications (as cover crops or in livestock feed or fertilizers), while the seeds or pulses are what typically end up on our dinner plates, or growing in our gardens.  

Yes, I could have learned this by reading about beans, per se, but there is a richness of metadata contained within a collection... the kind of metadata that's rarely made explicit.

In any case, it's useful to know a few collections, just so you'll have an awareness of what kinds of riches there are in the world.  This kind of background knowledge is incredibly useful.  

So, naturally, I made a list of collections.  I started this as a way of keeping track of collections I keep going back to time and again, but you might find it interesting as a way to see what kinds of things people collection and then make available online.  (And if you have any great suggestions for me, let me know, and I'll add them.  I reserve the right to be the editor, however...)  

My Google Doc is here:  A Collection of Collections (it has pointers to collections of images, videos, 3D models, film, ephemera, news, sounds, maps, and books).  

...And while we're talking about collections...

I happened to be chatting with my friend Gary M. Olson (who is a very smart guy), when I mentioned my interest in collections.  As we talked, he pointed out that Victorian-era collections are not only intrinsically interesting, but also an answer to "what's in the fourth square of Pasteur's Quadrant?"  

As you probably know, Pasteur's Quadrant is a famous 2x2 table introduced by Donald E. Stokes in his book, Pasteur's Quadrant.  (See below for his quadrant + my annotation.)  

The key idea of the table is that each cell of the table describes an approach to research.  The top right quadrant, is what he calls Pasteur’s Quadrant because it describes his approach to science. That is, Pasteur, as a model researcher, never undertook a study that was not applied.  Nevertheless, his work led to fundamental contributions to science and spawned the entire field of microbiology, forever changing the way we view the cause and prevention of disease. 

Likewise, in the lower right quadrant, Edison was primarily driven by research into useful things, while pure basic research, exemplified by the work of Niels Bohr (the atomic physicist) was primarily theory-driven, and appears in the upper left quadrant. 

But there was nothing in the lower left quadrant, which always struck me as odd.  Shouldn't something go in that spot?   

Gary Olson pointed out to me that the great Victorian collections, such as the Tradescant Collection (which became the core of the Ashmolean Museum), were originally "Cabinets of Curiosity" which Victorian ladies and gentlemen would create as a way to show their sophistication, wealth, and intellectual vigor.  That is, they were not created with any particular use in mind, and certainly not created as a way to satisfy a quest for understanding.  Despite this, they became useful as collections of things that THEN became useful for scientists to study.  

In particular, the Tradescant Collection was well known among the literati as a remarkable collection.  It had many kinds of artifacts, books, weapons, coins, paintings, items of costume, shells, stuffed animals and birds (including a stuffed dodo and John Tradescant's pet auk--boy, those were the days of truly eccentric scientists), and countless further curiosities.

The Stokes 2X2 chart of styles of science / research, with annotation...

In those days, when travel was difficult, an earnest scientist might travel to visit a Collection as a substitute for traveling to a distant (and potentially) dangerous land.  

(There's a tremendous article on Cabinets of Curiosity at the Google Art & Culture project:  Check it out.)  

But that Victorian passion for collecting and taxonomizing can be seen in their Cabinets, and the influence they had on the development of the sciences.  

And Gary's insight about the fourth, previously unoccupied quadrant, is a valuable contribution!  

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