Waco Gem and Mineral Club, Waco, Tx

5.2 Cataloging and Labeling Your Collection


5.2: Cataloging and Labeling Your Collection

Properly caring for, or curating, a collection greatly improves both its scientific and economic value. Kids should be taught how best to curate the rocks, minerals, and fossils they collect and the lapidary works they create. Detailed information about the collection as a whole and the specimens contained within it should be kept in a logbook or catalog using 3 X 5 or 5 X 7 notecards, a notebook, a loose-leaf binder, etc., or in an electronic database Then for each specimen, a label should be created.

The Logbook or Catalog

A logbook or catalog provides a systematic resource for recording and retrieving information about the contents of a collection. Collectors are generally encouraged to number their specimens, placing a dab of white paint or typist‘s correction fluid in an inconspicuous spot that won‘t show if the specimen is exhibited, and writing a specimen number in black India ink. Sometimes you can write directly on the specimen without the use of paint. Once the ink has dried, you might coat it with clear nail polish.

There‘s no one, universal way to number a collection, and each collector must choose a system that works best for his or her collection and preferences. The simplest method is starting with the first specimen you‘ve collected and consecutively numbering each subsequent specimen: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. However, it‘s more useful to use a number system that incorporates descriptive information. For instance, I‘ve organized my fossil collection by geological period or epoch and then by locality. So I have trays for the Eocene Epoch that are subdivided by localities. All fossils collected from the Eocene Epoch are given a number starting with E for Eocene. Then they‘re given a locality designation: O for Ojai, California, P for Pender County, North Carolina, K for Kemmerer, Wyoming. Then each fossil from a specific locality is numbered starting with 1. Thus, my Eocene fossils from Kemmerer, Wyoming, are numbered EK1, EK2, EK3, etc., and my Eocene fossils from Ojai, California are numbered EO1, EO2, etc.

A mineral collection might be numbered by a specific locality, county, state, or country. Thus, all your minerals from Brazil might be labeled B1, B2, B3, etc., with B standing for Brazil. Or you might choose to number by type of mineral. Thus, all your quartz specimens might be numbered Q1, Q2, Q3, etc., where Q stands for quartz, while your fluorite specimens are numbered F1, F2, F3, etc.

A collection of lapidary arts might be numbered by the sort of artwork (grouping all cabs together under C, all faceted stones under F, etc. Whether the simple system of just 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., or a more complex system incorporating locality and age information, the important things are to pick a system that proves most useful to you and that records essential information that it‘s all-too-easy to forget years down the road.

Once you‘ve settled on a system and have begun to attach numbers to your specimens, the number for each should be recorded in the logbook or catalog along with other key information. For rocks and minerals, this includes what it is and where it came from. If the specimen is self-collected, you should record detailed information about the collecting site, including written directions and a map for how to get to it. If you purchase a specimen, you should get as much information as you can from the dealer about where the mineral came from, including, if possible, a specific location or mine. (This is one way to separate truly excellent dealers who are interested in the scientific value of minerals from those who are in it just to make a buck and who don‘t take the care to record and keep such information.) You might also record when you collected or purchased the specimen.

Thus, a complete catalog entry for a mineral might include the following fields:

Specimen number assigned to the mineral.

Common name of the mineral.

Locality where the mineral was found.

An indication as to whether it was self-collected, traded, or purchased.

Name of the person who collected it.

Date it was collected or purchased.

If purchased, name of the dealer and the price and any info about previous owners.

Miscellaneous notes, including directions and map to the locality if self-collected, and notes about the collecting site.

For fossils, you should include all of the above as well as information about the scientific name of the fossil and its geological age:

Specimen number assigned to the fossil.

Common name of the fossil.

Taxonomic information, including the scientific name of the fossil. (You may get as detailed as you like with this, but most include at least the Genus and Species.)

Age of the fossil. (The more detail, the better. At the very least, you should record the geological Period or Epoch; at best, you should include the Formation and even the specific horizon within a Formation.)

Locality where the fossil was found.

Name of the person who collected it.

Date it was collected or purchased.

If purchased, name of the dealer and the purchase price.

Miscellaneous notes, including directions and map to the locality if self-collected, and notes about the collecting site.

An entry for a lapidary project might include a specimen number, what it is, what it‘s made from (and the purchase price of the individual components, or information about where you collected or purchased the rough material to use in your project), when it was made, who made it, and estimated value. You might also include notes about any special techniques and equipment used to create your project.

It‘s seldom that any of us are compulsive enough to record all the information I‘ve indicated, but the effort is worth it for enhancing the ultimate value of a collection, and you should encourage kids to make cataloging a routine part of their collecting activity.


A label is simply an abbreviated version of the full catalog entry, capturing only a few key points that will fit on a card small enough to store with a specimen or to show alongside a specimen in a display. For a mineral, at the least you should include the common name of the mineral and its locality. For a fossil, you should include the common name, scientific name (Genus and Species), locality, and age (period or epoch). For a lapidary project, you might include what it is, what it‘s composed of, and who made it (e.g., a Jade Vase, created by Jane Doe.) While the above may be fine for most purposes, if entering competition in an AFMS or a regional federation show, you‘ll find specific requirements for labeling contained within the AFMS Uniform Rules, which should be consulted for different categories of displays.

Electronic Data Keeping

As a collection grows, it can become increasingly difficult to remember and keep track of your specimens, even if recorded in a handwritten logbook. Also, a handwritten logbook can prove inflexible to use. One invaluable alternative is the computer. You can use the database or spreadsheet functions that come packaged with most computers to create your own electronic catalog, or you can turn to commercially available software. For instance The Fredrick Group sells FGCollector custom-made software for cataloging facts about a rock or fossil collection. (The Fredrick Group, Inc., P.O. Box 1698, Cumming, GA 30028, phone 866-679-9284.) Also, Steven Ouderkirk of West Richland, WA, has created a free computer application with which you can catalog specimens along with digital photos, info on collecting sites, GPS coordinates, and purchase and insurance values.

Advantages of a computerized database are the ability to easily edit information and to quickly and easily pull up information about a specific desired field. For instance, if you have a quartz collection from around the world, you might want to pull up the records for just your amethyst specimens. Or perhaps you‘re putting together a display of quartz specimens from a single country or region. A computerized database makes it relatively easy to pull up related files like these. With digital photography, some collectors even incorporate photos of collecting sites and their individual specimens into their databases to make it even easier to match an entry in a catalog with a specimen in a drawer.

Cataloging and Labeling Group Activity

Turn cataloging and labeling into a group activity! Have kids bring parts of their collections to a meeting and work with them to devise numbering systems. Then work further to identify, label, and store specimens, thus giving them hands-on experience before going home to catalog and label the rest of their collections.

Note: Kids who create an electronic catalog can use this activity to satisfy requirements for earning the Rocking on the Computer badge simultaneously (Activity 15.4).