Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Crowdsourcing the Pests

I spent the first two days of this week in New York, attending the annual meeting of the Integrated Pest Management Working Group, otherwise known as IPM-WG. Not a very catchy acronym, I’m afraid, but we couldn’t afford to pay someone to come up with an elegant but meaningless name like “Acela” or “Cialis.” Skipping by the obvious analogies between priapism and high speed trains that arrive several hours late, I should probably explain that people who work in museums and libraries spend a lot of time worrying about pests. You may have noticed that you don’t see a lot of dead animals lying around when you go for a walk in the countryside. This is because evolution has generated a whole army of organisms whose sole purpose is to dispose of dead stuff. Over the course of the last few centuries humans have obligingly built enormous larders of dead stuff called museums, so it’s not surprising that some of these organisms have decided to skip the hard-knock life of the great outdoors and move in with us. When they cease being useful waste-disposal systems and start eating stuff we want to keep, we call them pests and spend enormous amounts of time and effort trying to eradicate them.

Early efforts in stopping the ravages of pests were not very successful, which is why there are very few survivors from the first natural history collections. The few remaining biological specimens from Oxford University’s Tradescant Collection, which dates back to the middle of the 17th Century and has a good claim to being the world’s oldest extant collection of natural history specimens, consist mostly of comparatively inedible bones and horns. By the nineteenth century over 95% of the original collection, including a stuffed dodo, had been consumed by insects. Later efforts, involving the application of enormous volumes of toxic chemicals such as paradichlorobenzene, naphthalene, and arsenic, certainly killed or repelled the insects. Unfortunately, there was a reasonable concern that they might kill or repel people as well and their use in museums has been gradually legislated out of existence. These changes have been bemoaned by many museum curators, who will loudly deny any adverse effects from using these chemicals. This will usually be accompanied by fond reminiscences about “old Smithers,” the museum technician, who spent 50 years scooping PDB crystals into the collection cabinets with his bare hands and lived to the age of 120 (in response to this, I will merely note that it was Smithers rather than the curator who had to actually apply the PDB).

However, long before the chemicals were outlawed, some prescient museum workers realized that there was another way. If you shut your specimens inside well-sealed cabinets, and put the cabinets inside a well-sealed building, then the pests can’t get to them. If you make collection spaces cold and dry, then things that like warm and damp conditions (which include fungi and most insect species) won’t want to live there. If you clean your collection spaces regularly, stop people from eating in them or filling them with pets and house plants, and remove clutter from floors and bench-tops, then you’ll deprive pests of food and shelter. And if you combine all of these approaches, and a few others, then you’ll have a strategy that lets you stop pests eating your collection while not poisoning your staff and visitors. This approach is called integrated pest management, or IPM.

So now you know why pests are important in museum collections and what IPM means and it may be that this is enough for you, in which case you can go and watch this excellent video of Bill O’Reilly losing all control which, frankly, never gets old or stale.

Now that those guys have gone, I can talk a little bit about IPM-WG. It’s weird experience when something that you started takes on a life of its own. Back in 2000, I sat down with a group of colleagues at AMNH to try and build a database that would help us store, analyze, and display the results that we were getting from our regular pest trapping activities around the museum. We had a wild idea that we could plot the distribution of pests on a floorplan of AMNH and then superimpose other factors like the building’s temperature and relative humidity to try and show areas where we should target our pest management activities. In the end we actually built a system that could do some of these things, which was called Pest Manager. Along the way, however, our project grew in ways that we really couldn't predict. First it became a database design collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian. Then it swelled into a multi-institutional group, meeting annually, with a floating membership, and a much wider remit encompassing not just databases, but the development of a whole range of tools and resources that could be used to implement IPM. This was the beginning of IPM-WG.

We got sponsorship from a couple of commercial participants in the group, Insects Limited and Steritech, and a whole lot of priceless technical support from Leon Zak, a software designer who came along to discuss possible IPM applications for the Image Permanance Institute's Climate Notebook system and ended up being bitten by the IPM bug (so to speak). Despite this, we were never able to provide participants with support to attend the meetings. We also did our best to dissuade people by making it very clear that 1) we would not teach them how to do IPM, and 2) we would make them work hard for the group’s (i.e. our) benefit. Despite this, and to our great surprise, people actually wanted to come and still do. This year we even had a waiting list. They have come from as far away as the UK and Sweden. And they have poured their labors into developing an on-line pest management resource, called, which is quite unlike anything else in this area. It is a genuine community resource, developed by the community and for the community.

Over the years, IPM-WG has steered clear of building associations, either with particular institutions or with any one professional society. Although the meetings are hosted at AMNH, this is because the founder members originally worked there and we are all either still there or within easy commuting distance, simplifying the logistics of organizing a meeting once a year. And although we have close links and share membership with societies like SPNHC and AIC, we’ve always felt that formalizing these might run the risk of narrowing the membership of our group, which consists not just of natural historians and conservators, but also librarians, archivists, historic house curators, fine arts curators, and professional pest managers. The breadth of membership is one of the real strengths of IPM-WG (also, we are a cantankerous bunch who prize our independence).

At last year’s SPNHC meeting in Oklahoma City, Lisa Elkin (a fellow founder member) and I co-authored a paper in which we made the rather extravagant boast that IPM-WG could act as a model for the development of best practices in the museum community (if you want to see our presentation – which, if nothing else, has some pretty pictures of insects in it - you can download a copy of the PowerPoint here). My experience of working with the Group this year has only strengthened this feeling. It’s hard for a traditional committee, of the sort that professional societies usually set up, to generate this volume of work. The most “active” members of these societies are often those with the least time to devote to new projects. By “crowdsourcing” the question of pest management to those who actually want to work, giving them 2 days a year to do nothing but work on the project, and taking several years over it, I think we are getting close to a set of best practices for IPM that are applicable to a wide range of heritage institutions.

There is a ritual to the organization of IPM-WG that is as changeless as the seasons. Every year, in the fall, our local organizing committee, currently chaired by Rachael Arenstein, gets together to plan a meeting for the following February. Every year, in the aftermath of this planning meeting, Lisa and I get together and bitch and moan about the amount of work involved, swearing that this will be our last year. And every year, in February, we find ourselves blown away, and more than a little humbled, by the work that the Group’s members put in over the two days of the meeting. At that point, you sit back, look around you, and think “wow, did we really start all this?”

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