19 January 2009

What good is a label if it's unreadable?

I spent most of yesterday afternoon cleaning and rearranging the basement. Three categories of objects account for ~80% of the occupied space: 1. papers and books; 2. specimens; 3. empty containers (miscellaneous plastic or cardboard boxes) for future specimens.

Among the specimens are probably more than 1000 containers of snail shells, about 200 vials of alcohol specimens and about 30 containers of litter and soil samples.


Most of the latter samples are from 2003 and 2006 when I was surveying the Monocacy Natural Resources Area and Belt Woods. Some of the litter samples have already been sieved, but not yet been sorted for snail shells. Others still need to be sieved first.


Each box or bag contains a little piece of card with the station code and the collection date written on it. It is best to keep that information inside the sample container, otherwise the two could get separated. And without that information a sample would be good only for the compost pile in the backyard.

There is no guarantee, however, that what's written on the card will be readable in the future, especially if the litter was slightly damp when the lid was closed.


Luckily in this case, the end of the card where the station code was written was in better shape than the rest and after I removed some of the overlaying filamentous stuff (fungal remains?), the station code appeared: MO-53 from the Monocacy survey. I can figure out the date from my field book.


A sample saved is a sample that needs to be processed. Maybe I should have dumped it into the compost pile right away.


Marvin said...

Finding unlabeled and unidentifiable THINGS that should have gone into the compost long ago while rummaging through the refrigerator is even worse.

Kevin Bonham said...

I recently returned from an expedition where I had forgotten to take labels and had to make labels for wet specimens by chopping up a notebook.

I didn't realise that notebook paper is so thin and flimsy and by the time I got the material home several of the labels had turned into alphabet soup.

A complex operation involving examining labels under the microscope and crossing out items on a grid, followed by a fairly simple logic puzzle at the end, was needed to allocate all the labels to samples correctly.

Thankfully in this case I am confident I got the puzzle right but it was a lesson learned for future attempts at the same sort of thing. Always best to label each container in two different ways (eg paper and marking pen) as an insurance strategy too.


It is also not a good idea to use paper labels if you have live snails in a container, because land snails do eat paper. If there are live snails or if the sample is wet, it is necessary to write the information also on the outside of the container.