Lost Data: Reuniting Data from TDA Cockerell’s 1906-1908 Florissant Fossil Beds Expeditions

Authors: Barbara Losoff, Jack Maness, Deborah Hollis, Sean Babbs, Michael Dulock, Andrew Violet

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Field research in the natural sciences often produces a variety of data, including physical specimens, field notebooks, researcher diaries and sketches, correspondence, and published material with underlying analysis. These scientific data are curated and described by a variety of institutions and a resulting disparity of approaches. Museum and library catalogs, archival finding aids, and publisher schematics have all developed over the centuries for good reason, but have led to fractured interoperability in discovery platforms, rendering them ostensibly “lost” to modern researchers. As digital replicas of these data are now being produced, it is possible to reunite analog data in varied formats.

Florissant is a world-famous paleontological site with unique plant and insect fossils that tell the story of Colorado’s prehistory. Through his expeditions in the early twentieth century, University of Colorado Professor TDA Cockerell collected more than 5,000 specimens, many of which are held at CU Boulder’s Museum of Natural History, but are also at Yale, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and elsewhere. In addition to the fossils, Cockerell’s field notebooks, glass lantern slides, correspondences, and photographs are held at CU’s library in the Department of Special Collections and Archives.

To ensure the long-term curation and interoperability of these physical samples, CU librarians, in partnership with Museum curators, are developing a plan to reunite these varied source materials. With the majority of Cockerell’s fossil specimens now available online, our goal is to identify and digitize relevant notebooks, correspondences, glass lantern slides, and photographs. This presentation explores one nascent project to virtually reassemble data produced by a turn of the century scientist at the Florissant Fossil Beds.

Hidden Historical Collections that Support Scientific Discovery

Valuable historical physical data, that support scientific discoveries, are often an untapped resource. Found in library archives and museums, these physical objects are primary source materials that shed light on scientific process and thought. Field notebooks are particularly rich resources, as they “enhance information associated with specimens by providing details regarding dates, localities, and associated event data.”1 The Theodore Dru Alison (TDA) Cockerell Papers held by CU Boulder’s Special Collections and Archives offers a wealth of data with over 60 linear feet of correspondence, general writings, research, and publications on his various research fields of biology, entomology, paleontology and humanism. A subset of this Collection encompasses Cockerell’s expeditions at the Florissant Fossil Beds between 1906 and 1908. Related materials include: many letters of correspondence with professors, museum curators, and naturalists; boxes of research notes; thirty-five glass lantern slides; photographs, and publications.

These materials are invaluable sources of data, and although the fossils themselves are held at CU’s Museum of Natural History, these supporting items are separate from the specimens. An additional complexity of this data is the fragility of the physical objects themselves. The notebooks are written in pencil on acidic paper, the glass lantern slides are vulnerable to scratching and easily chipped or cracked, and the photographs require minimal handling and exposure.

Reuniting “Lost Data”

Scientific analog data is at risk of being forgotten in university archives and museums. It is as good as lost due to the segmentation of a collection that often results in correspondence, papers, and field notebooks located in libraries and actual specimens housed in natural history museums. Our recovery project highlights the importance of rescuing historic scientific data relevant to current research. In fact, many scientists may not be aware that their disciplinary scientific heritage is at risk of being ‘lost.’ This project seeks to identify and reunite primary source materials of an early twentieth-century paleontologist through digital curation.

Figure 1: Florissant Fossils and Archival Material.

Top Left: Bee (Palaeovespa sp.). Specimen FLFO 50, source National Park Service web site.

Top Right: Fossil research notes, TDA Cockerell Collection, CU Boulder Special Collections and Archives.

Bottom Left: Florissant Expedition Photograph, TDA Cockerell Collection.

Bottom Right: Letter from A.I. Melander to Cockerell, 1907, TDA Cockerell Collection.


The authors would like to thank our Museum of Natural History colleagues, Talia Karim, Dena Smith, and David Zelagin; David Hays, Special Collections and Archives; and Herb Meyer, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, for their contributions.

Competing Interests

We, the authors, declare that we have no competing interests.


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University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Special Collections and Archives. “Guide to the Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell Papers, 1878-1948.” Last modified 2006. Accessed May 30, 2016. http://rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=cou2cockerell.xml

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  1. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, “The Field Book Project,” last modified 2016, accessed May 30, 2016, http://naturalhistory.si.edu/rc/fieldbooks/index.html