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Had they been lost or destroyed, Honorary Associate Prof Daphne Lee, formerly of the university’s geology department, said it would have been ‘‘an absolute disaster’’.
In a bid to protect the collection, she and fellow palaeontology expert Prof Ewan Fordyce are working with the department’s fossil collection archivist Dr Jeffrey Robinson to digitise the collection.
Prof Lee instigated the project when she realised she and a handful of others were the only people aware of what was in the collection, and where, among the eight stores across the building, it was.
In addition to what is on display in the Geology Museum, behind other doors, in drawers, on shelves, along corridors and packed into basement enclaves, lie in waiting about 60,000 other items — from big vertebrates such as whales, dolphins and sharks, to penguins, sea turtles, smaller invertebrates, insects and plant fossils.
‘‘We have been working on these old handwritten books which go back nearly a century, and every entry is written in by hand by different people, and sometimes you can’t even read it properly,’’ Prof Lee said.
‘‘Some of it is in pencil and it is fading away.
‘‘This is a globally really important, and nationally extremely important, collection. We have the best South Island material by far.
‘‘Having the records digitised means they will be safe and they will be searchable for people inside and outside the university.’’
Ultimately, the aim was to have all the material — some of which is up to 500million years old — in the same place, she said.
Dr Robinson said the move to a digital catalogue was both a necessary and important next step for the collection.
‘‘The digital resource will enable ease of access to information and facilitate new opportunities for collaboration with researchers and specialists globally.’’