Science Museum Creates CD-ROM Catalog of Microscopic Fossils

Established in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City houses one of the largest collections of specimens, including numerous microscopic fossils from around the world. For years, the museum has published catalogs of microscopic fossils, used mainly by scientists employed by the oil industry. These scientists, known as micropaleontologists, utilize microscopes to see what type of fossils are being pulled out of a well and at what frequency. Such information helps engineers determine if, for example, a well contains gas, oil or neither. By 1994, the largest catalog had reached about 75,000 pages, occupying nearly 80 loose-leaf binders. An Avalanche of Paper Each year, the museum would issue between 600 to 1,200 new pages that would have to be alphabetically intercollated with the others. "This got to be quite a pain," notes Dr. John Van Couvering, director of MicroPress. Officials had considered developing a computerized version of the catalog before, but found out that most customers did not want to purchase the mainframes necessary to access it. Next, the museum experimented with storing the pictures on videodisc to eliminate the mass storage problem. Text was imported into the database using optical character recognition (OCR) software. However, project managers abandoned that process when they realized that even the best OCR packages achieved no higher than a 95% accuracy. Preventing errors was further complicated by the fact that the catalog included entries in dozens of languages. With the services of Electro Communication Systems (ECS) of Dallas, Texas, the museum turned around and digitized entire pages, then compressed all 25GB onto four CD-ROMs. ECS accomplished this seemingly painstaking task with the help of an Electronic Filing System from Panasonic Office Automation, Secaucus, N.J. Terry Muncey, CEO of ECS, says that placing the catalog on CD-ROM opens up the information to a broad range of university researchers and students. He personally scanned a mixture of single- and double-sided pages at a rate of 40 sides per minute. Flawless Operation "The Panasonic system has operated flawlessly in scanning the initial catalog," says Muncey. During scanning, ECS software automatically discards blank pages to save space. Digital images are then indexed using a "key" of ASCII data that indicates the page number of the hard-copy catalog. ECS has thus far produced three catalogs in the fossil series: "The Ellis & Messina Catalog of Foraminifera," "The Catalog of Ostracoda" and "The Catalog of Diatoms." The success of the CD-ROM publication has allowed the American Museum of Natural History to discontinue their microfiche edition of the catalogs, which were expensive to produce and difficult to navigate. To view the new digital catalogs, Muncey of ECS recommends a super high-resolution 17" or larger monitor to zoom 2X to view the small text and illustrations. Muncey adds that the Electronic Filing System suits any application in which large amounts of information must be conveniently stored and accessed. Already, ECS is working on its next project, a technical catalog for radio service repair spanning 23 volumes. For Less Ambitious Projects Although ECS's work involves relatively large databases, Panasonic also offers an Electronic Filing System for more basic filing and storage needs. The compact KV-F51 features a 3.5" read/write optical drive; each 128MB disk can store up to 3,000 pages. This plug-and-play system includes a processor, software, 40 ppm scanner/4ppm thermal or plain paper printer, flat panel display, keyboard and mouse. Many legal, medical and accounting departments in educational institutions have adopted the KV-F51 to move toward a "paperless office." Muncey says the technology especially aids the preservation of rare or old works, such as in a library. "There are some real opportunities to do mankind a lot of good."

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.