Using the iPad in museum work

COLUMBUS, OHIO–Earlier this summer my colleagues and I had blog posts describing how we use our iPads in geological fieldwork (with examples from the limestones of Estonia to the basalts of Iceland). Today I used my iPad2 during work in the collections of the Orton Geological Museum at The Ohio State University.

The simple camera utility built into the iPad2 makes recording quick images of specimens in their drawers and trays very easy. The LED backlighting makes the large image on the screen brighter than the actual view, which you can see in the photo above. Combine this with the light weight of the computer and it is actually easier to use the iPad2 for these images than a standard digital camera. The quality of the iPad2 image is not as good as that from a camera (with flash or auxiliary lighting), but we’re just collecting initial views and labels with this process (see below).

As with the images collecting during fieldwork, I can easily annotate the museum photographs with a program like Sketchbook Express. (Circling features for later detailed camera photography is what I do most often — museum staff typically don’t like us drawing on the specimens themselves!) The Boxwave Stylus remains my favorite drawing tool on the iPad2.

The iPad2 is also the most convenient repository of scientific papers I have ever used. It can store thousands of pdfs for quick referencing. The luminous screen makes reading them in the typical dingy light of museum collections easy, and images and text can be expanded for more visual detail. (Try that with paper!) A laptop certainly does these same things, but far more awkwardly while hunched over a museum drawer. The program I use for pdfs is PDFReader Pro (with pdfs transferred through Dropbox), but my friend Bill Ausich at The Ohio State University showed me that iBooks is just as easy to use.

I like to store specimen images from other sources to compare to the fossils in the drawers before me — making identifications this quickly helps me decide which specimens to borrow for later work. I can store the images as jpg files in the iPad2 Photo library or view them as pdfs in PDFReader Pro.

If you can get a wireless connection in the museum (often quirky in old buildings), searching for the meaning of strange stratigraphic terms and archaic species names is obviously of great value. Again, tapping on the iPad2 held in one hand while looking at the specimens themselves is a qualitatively different experience than returning to the laptop in some dark corner. (I could never have guessed that there would be a computer more convenient than my trusty MacBook Pro.)

In summary, the iPad2 has quickly become indispensable for my paleontological work in museums.

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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6 Responses to Using the iPad in museum work

  1. bob davies says:

    Great post, I would have loved to have had the ipad while rummaging through drawers working on my thesis. I love my wife’s ipad2…. soon, i’ll have one to geo out on. 🙂
    Thanks for the info- the Crinoid Tree of life on Prof Ausich’s page is one I’ll refer to students.

  2. Mark Wilson says:

    Thanks, Bob. I love that phrase: “geo out”!

  3. Meagen Pollock says:

    I just learned that the iPad can be used to take images of thin sections (even in crossed polars with polarizing film). Since the iPad is so portable, an iPad thin section library would be a useful reference for lab.

  4. Mark Wilson says:

    I’ll try it, Meagen. How cool will that be?!

  5. Kathy Hollis says:

    I love this! I’ve been thinking of ways to use iPads to quickly catalog, photo, and barcode specimens here at NMNH.

    Our approach to imaging specimens so far is to take the best quality photo possible with DSLRs and copystands. The images are then attached to specimens’ catalog records and can be viewed on our online database:
    This approach is time consuming and expensive especially considering the enormousness of the Paleo collections.

    There are pros and cons to both low quality and high quality imaging approaches. In your opinion, would having specimen images like yours above be just as beneficial to your research as higher quality images? Does it matter that you took them and not someone unfamiliar with the specimens?

  6. Mark Wilson says:

    Hey Kathy! And what great collections you have. For me lower quality images are fine — if the specimen is worth pursuing, I’ll take the higher quality photographs later. It does matter that at least a paleontologist takes the catalog photos. I recall a guide to fossils with museum photos taken by a non-paleontologist who simply didn’t know what was important. The images are mostly unhelpful. (A photo of dozens of tiny spiriferids in a tray isn’t useful for identifying the species!)

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