I’ve been pondering the utility of publicly available collections as we enter next week’s theme. As promoters of online research tools will say, online archives can transcend physical borders, provide access to rare collections, and connect researchers and students around the world. Archives, such as eskeletons.org, can also be useful in introductory classrooms. Osteology (both human and zooarchaeology) has had a trend for a while of some institutions building online photo repositories of skeletal collections, with the idea that they can used educationally. Here is an example. Others aim for public access to datasets, or to facilitate researchers connecting and sharing data.
Here I would also like to call attention to efforts to make 3D collections available. MorphoSource is a data archive created by Duke University that allows researchers to store and organize, share, and distribute their 3d data. The intentions of this archive is to allow any registered user to immediately search for and download 3d morphological data sets that have been made accessible through the consent of data authors. The stated goal of MorphoSource is to provide rapid access to raw microCt data to as many researchers as possible.
While I have found this open communication and access to datasets to be beneficial, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the potential downsides. With a push to make collections available online, what’s being lost? I can think of how in osteology the feel of the bone (such as smoothness, roughness, etc. Or the infamous “is it bone?” lick-stick test) can, at times, be almost as important as an accurate visual assessment. Even 3D online collections can’t convey that sense of touch. While the online archives are handy, I can't say I would promote them as complete replacements for physical collections. Additionally, while easy access to datasets is generally thought of as a net benefit, what about “armchair anthropologists” using that data to make claims? For example, some “armchair geneticist” blogs have occasionally co-opted public genetic datasets to support claims of racial realism. Should we also worry about such appropriation, or just accept it as something we need to get ahead of? What do you think?