While we're on the subject of a depressing start to 2010, here's another story to make that hangover feel even worse. The Deseret News (wow, how diligent am I at tracking down stuff for you?) reports that the US Department of Interior, which is responsible for tens of millions of specimens, artifacts, and documents collected by its various agencies, and whose museum holdings are second in size only to the Smithsonian, largely doesn't know what is in its collections. According to a US inspector general's report, the backlog of uncataloged material is around 78 million specimens, 60 million of which are in the collections of the National Park Service.
This is a pretty shocking state of affairs for the Nation's heritage and reflects a long history of inadequate funding on the part of the Federal Government (it certainly does not reflect the efforts of the federal collections staff, who are a diligent, hardworking group of professionals who achieve an awful lot with not very much). It's also unfortunate because the Park Service in particular has been proactive in setting standards for collections care, and for promoting these to other, non governmental organizations that act as repositories for their material. They need to be given the support necessary to apply the same standards of care to federal collections.
However, the first step towards addressing the problems is to recognize that the problems are there and to begin to document them. This inspector general's report joins a growing corpus of evidence on both utility and need, which also includes recent reports by the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections, the National Science Foundation, the Natural Science Collections Alliance, and Heritage Preservation. The IWGSC report in particular elicted broad-based statements of support from the natural history collections community, including offers to provide assistance in tackling some of these problems. Historically, federal agencies have tended to look to their own resources to address issues, but it is clear from these reports that the scale of the problems requires a more community-based approach.