Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Record Problem

As some might know I'm currently serving a stint on the Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club committee, something I think all birders should do at some point or other in order to try and give a bit back (here endeth the sermon). Our AGM last Thursday was livened up a little beyond the usual dull affairs AGM's often are, when Tim Cleeves our current chairman mentioned the issue that the club currently has with historic cards.
Before I explain I should just highlight that anything I write here is purely my own views or opinions and I'm not purporting to represent the committee or any of the views of my peers. I hope however that this might prompt some discussion perhaps from other birders aware of similar issues and solutions across the UK. As it stands a questionnaire to gauge the views of the membership is in draft and the club committee will doubtless take appropriate action with those views forming the basis of it.
Until recently like many bird clubs or societies all of the record submissions were made by observers on cards. The club now has some 420,000 records stored, comprising c.4sq mt of space. The annual cost of storage is close to reaching £500.
The club produces a monthly bulletin and an annual report as well as having a website and more recently a sightings page. As I understand it in recent times no one has accessed the record cards for any purpose. Many of the views expressed at the AGM were that the cards should be retained, or at least that the value of the 'data' contained on the cards was viewed as important to many members. Meanwhile the size of the issue or at least the storage requirements continues to grow, albeit much more slowly since the introduction of electronic submission.
Is the data valuable? It certainly wasn't gathered using scientific methods, at best it may offer a historic perspective, if analysed, about species ocurrence, peak counts or frequency at particular locations. As far as given any indication of the status of common species it represents a very small sample of the county's birds over the last fifty odd years, randomly gathered by the peregrinations of the small band of individuals that formed and maintained the club.
The value though may well lie not in the data itself but what the records represent; the sum total of all the recording of all the birders that followed the same footpaths we do, created some of the sites we visit and observed as the landscape and the impact we have had upon it changed the birds we strive to watch, photograph and enjoy in a myriad of ways.
As always I have an opinion and I'll offer a possible solution, one that some will find unpalatable, though I hope that they will at least engage in the discussion rather than whisper in secret. I would urge the club members to consider allowing the committee to dispose of most of the cards, after a project, for which funding would need to be sort, to extract important data, species, sites, counts, dates etc.
During this I would also see that a number of the cards that highlight moments in the club's recording history and document some of the many fantastic events that members have recorded over the years were retained and either placed in the club archive or better still assembled with other archive material to form a permanent display that could be housed at one of the regions museums such as the Hancock Great North Museum. Such an exhibit would be a fitting tribute to the founding members and all those that have contributed along the way.
With the key data in electronic format, access and research would be made much easier and a public display would both promote the club and celebrate it's heritage, far better than a dusty storage room under lock and key in my humble opinion.

Edit: I've realised after Stewart and Brian's comments that I should have written 'extract all important data' above rather than making it sound as if some species would be ignored.


Anonymous said...

Maybe time to do a new avifauna then the information would go into something tangible?

alan tilmouth said...

The last updated version was c2000 and we currently have an Atlas planned for 2013/14.

Brian Robson said...

Difficult one Alan, who decides what is important and what deserves to be ditched.
Indeed i understood the club were in the process of digitising the records, i also understood the club had refused to share the info as its a source of revenue.

To bin it if others would like to have it would be a shame.

Of course Birds in Northumbria already provides a concise record of a years information, and does so very well indeed so could be used to define what is worthy as committees have already decided on what to include.

Still as someone who ceased to send in records on a point i felt was not representing a true view of birds in Northumberland, im fairly sure whatever is chosen may have supporters and detractors.

In an ideal world keeeping the records and providing a way for others to access the info via the digital world would be ideal.

But i appreciate that would involve a lot of work for some.

regards brian robson.

Stewart said...

Tricky one Alan. How to decide what to bin? As a kid in the 70's I would have binned Corn Buntings as everyday birds around Pegswood and kept the very rarest like Common Buzzard that would have been a once in a lifetime sighting...

What mistakes would we make today?

Coot? Ruddy Duck? Short eared Owl? Spotted Fly? Used to be common enough but numbers have dropped significantly recently. I doubt any of us could make a realistic prediction of what our avifauna will look like in 30 years time...

Mark Newsome said...

We have a similar situation in Durham; a small room on the top floor of the Sunderland museum is bulging with record cards. We've had a meeting with the museum staff and those involved with the ERIC project and they would be overjoyed to see records digitised and put to use instead of gathering dust. I personally would also love that to happen; old annual reports are vague and sketchy to say the least, quite inaccurate in some cases, and contribute little to someone wanting to do some serious research into a particular species.
So, easy solution - just get the records keyed! Er, no...
Not sure about NTBC, but the DBC suffers from a certain level of apathy. Its a well supported club where members enjoys the benefits, but its difficult at times to get anyone other than the same dedicated few to actually get things done. And those that do much of the work find their time is at a real premium. No real solution to offer, just sympathies.


Steve Lowe said...

Mark makes some useful points, which I largely agree with. ERIC has offered to digitise the records, thereby releasing a mass of data into an accessible format. In that way it will be available to assist with bird conservation, surely one of the reasosn why people submit records in the first instance? By adding records to the regional dataset, the club also gets access to other information which sits within that resource, including survey data from surveys undertaken by professional ornithlogists arising from work on windfarms, etc. This means the annual report carries more gravitas at is becomes a better reflection of the avifauna. I am also sure that the majority of members would expect their information to be getting used for positive bird conservation rather than sitting mostly idle.

My understanding is that Tyne & Wear Museums also wish to keep the card resource, as an archive, which has an intrinsic value in itself. I know this to be the case as I went along and raised the issue after the club meeting. They are actively looking into this at the moment. I have emailed the club about the issue (as well as the Merganser question) but haven't heard anything back as yet.

I am sure everybody has found themselves looking for something that somebody threw away thinking it was not useful and was just a nuisance. It always becomes essential once its no longer available! Unfortunately this happens with ecological data as well - English Nature's Great Crested Newt data, derived from licence holders, went the distance when they became Natural England, for example.