How Can I Make My Collection More Useful?

(picture: Michael Hesemann / with databases is one of the core responsibilities of a registrar. Often enough, one becomes upset with insufficiencies of the used system. You can imagine my excitement when I learned about the project of Michael Hesemann. He took the effort to develop a web database for his own field of interest, the foraminifera. Voluntarily, only out of enthusiasm for his field and collection. It provides quick access to all relevant information for scientists and collectors around the world. Now, even well-known institutions like the Smithonian and the Geological Survey Austria provide information about their collections of forams there. Read more about the development of this project.

written by Michael Hesemann, Project, Hamburg

Project Development

In December 2007, I became interested in Foraminifera (aka forams)—not widely known single-cell organisms that have been building delicate internal shells for 540 million years. I was surprised to learn that up to 1/3 of the composition of the cliffs of Dover, Egyptian pyramids, and other examples of stone can be forams. Perhaps just as surprising is the fact that all living forams make up 1% of the earth’s biomass and are therefore more substantial than all mammals.

This is likely the first time you’re hearing about this, which suggests that basic information does not come to light without detailed study, review of the literature, and intense research. Fortunately, I met two foram enthusiasts in Hamburg, who, like Ernst Häkel was back in 1900, had long been interested in the beauty of forams and their rich variety of forms. We decided to photograph our collections and post them on the internet at

Getting our images online, arduously taken through a microscope, went really well at first. But within a few weeks, Fabrizio contacted us, an Italian scientist offering to contribute 100 SEM (scanning electron microscope) images. Suddenly there were 250 images, which meant we had to sort them somehow and make them easily accessible. We realized we would need to develop a concept that could also accommodate 2500 images.

(picture: Michael Hesemann /

Or Own Database Concept Was Inevitable!

The concept of databases used by large museums, scientific institutions, and online databases like EOL or WoRMS turned out to be uni-dimensionally tailored to taxonomy and numbering. Don’t foraminifera have more information to offer? And what did we want from the collection as users? Considerable inconsistencies among datasets, a lack of illustrations, and clumsy interfaces seemed less than satisfactory.

Our Multidimensional Database Concept with Consistent Categories

Our philosophy is that a collection should make its objects easily accessible to everyone, from the absolute layman to the most highly specialized scientist. Every kind of object—in our case, foram shells—carries with it a variety of information. In a database, we’re limited to categories of information that apply to nearly any other object or can be researched with a reasonable amount of effort. For analysis, a high level of data consistency is essential.

With forams, consistent categories are taxonomy, morphology, locality, era (geologic), reference citations, dataset relevance, and collector information. Whether the habitat (ecological niche) can be consistently provided is debatable.

User-oriented Access

The user should be able to easily and reliably retrieve all available information by means of an easy-to-use interface. This necessitates the following:

  • Each object must be represented by realistic illustrations (drawings, photos, 3D objects), and each of the defined fields must be populated (metadata)
  • The interface must allow the user to conduct searches in every field
  • The user must receive a list of search results that includes thumbnail images and essential information from which the user can drill down to more detailed information, including references

Technical and Financial Resources

Because this is not a commercial project, there are no financial resources. Contributions result from enthusiasm for the topic. All contributors cover the cost of their own contributions. All contributors are individually named and receive their own websites and the opportunity for evaluation of their contributions.

Regarding technical issues, only the most simple programs and systems are used: Excel, PHP, SQL, HTML, and a grassroots website hosted by a mass-provider.

A comprehensive collection of literature on forams, journal subscriptions, and good contacts with relevant scientists is available. Collection of sediments and forams are conducted, and detailed how-to’s and tools on processing samples are also available. No-cost access to a scanning electron microscope (SEM) is also available.


Not necessarily planned this way, but looking back, this is how it happened:

Development and promotion of the website; receipt of samples from amateur fossil collectors

Further temporal and geographic coverage through 1200 images; creation of a support community of amateurs and junior scientists

Introduction of the project to 400 scientists at the FORAMS2010 conference in Bonn; support from scientists; aid offered to amateurs and young scientists, particularly those in less-developed countries

Expansion of database criteria to 20; conversion from pure HTML to PHP-SQL; support from senior scientists secured; presentations at international conferences; expansion to 4000 images

Top ranking by Google (SEO; expansion of database criteria to 30; networking; receipt of image rights from publishers and institutions; expansion to 5500 images

Permission to use c. 30,000 foram images (including those of numerous type specimens) from the Smithsonian Institute, the Austrian Federal Geological Agency, and the Brzybowski Foundation; permission from senior scientists to use their life’s works; expansion of the image database to 7700 images; cultivation of the support community; collaboration with WoRMS

Project presentation at the FORAMS2014 conference in Chile; continued collaboration with WoRMS; image rights secured for remaining images; expansion of database to 10,000 images; cultivation of the support community

EOL = Encyclopedia of Life,
WoRMS = World Register of Marine Species,

Translated from German into English by Cindy Opitz.

This article is also available in Italian, translated by Marzia Loddo.


2 thoughts on “How Can I Make My Collection More Useful?”

  1. What an incredibly wonderful project. Thank you so much for showing what can be done when a few people make an effort to share their passion.

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