Digitizing the Collection

History of the Collection

The history of the Lake Superior Division collection is a bit murky. We know that the Division was originally headquartered in Science Hall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Some of the hand samples were likely lost when the building burned in 1884. Between that time and 1967, when the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey moved from the UW-Madison campus into a building of its own, we came into possession of the hand samples, thin sections, and paper records. According to a set of handwritten transmittal documents, thin sections and field notebooks were shipped to the USGS facility in Reston, Virginia, by Charles Dutton in 1976. These transmittal documents are vague, though, and make no mention of hand samples.

transmittal paperPart of the transmittal sheets listing the parts of the collection sent to USGS in 1976
hand samplesDrawers of hand samples stored at our Mount Horeb research facility

Though presumably the hand samples had remained in Madison, in fact, parts of that collection had been harvested as teaching samples for university geology departments across Wisconsin. In addition, samples were stored at different times in various locations in Madison and Milwaukee and, with each move, some were lost.

In 1981, William F. Cannon, Chief of the Branch of Eastern Mineral Resources at the USGS, returned the notebooks and thin sections to Madison writing to WGNHS that we would do “a great service if you can reassemble the notes, thin sections, and rock samples into a single collection.” After WGNHS acquired the collection, the pieces sat in storage for 30 years before any work was done. Lack of resources, and a general lack of awareness of the importance as well as the procedures of data preservation meant that we were not yet equipped to give this collection the attention it deserved. This changed with the initiation of the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program at the USGS.

Data Preservation 2012–2017

In 2012, WGNHS applied to the USGS for a grant to do preservation work on the Lake Superior Legacy Collection. The Survey has received subsequent grants in 2013, 2014, and 2016. The first two years of the project were spent inventorying the collection, building a database, and capturing metadata for the hand samples and thin sections from the field notebooks, specimen catalog, and other paper records. Partnering with the UW-Digital Collections, we began scanning the field notebooks and making them available online.

notebook scanPages from notebook 124 showing sample descriptions and location map.
thin section in plane- and cross-polarized lightThin section 15482 photographed in plane- and cross-polarized light

In 2014, with most of the collection inventoried and metadata from the notebooks largely complete, we set out to photograph all of the thin sections in plane- and cross-polarized light. Before being photographed, each thin section was cleaned. We designed and built a frame to hold the thin sections, ensuring that the plane- and cross-polarized light photos would line up exactly.

cleaning a thin sectionCleaning the thin sections
thin section photography setupSetup for photographing thin sections

During those years, we made a complete inventory of the collection, built a database to index all of the elements down to the single sample, photographed nearly all of the thin sections in our possession, and partnered with the UW Digital Collections to scan the field notebooks and lithological descriptions. In the final year of our work on the collection, we built this interactive web viewer, which provides online access to the scanned field notebooks and lithological descriptions, the thin section photographs, and the hand sample records.


Our work on the Lake Superior Legacy Collection data preservation project began in 2010 and is finishing in 2017. Over those years, many people contributed time, expertise, and their best efforts. Most people listed below performed more than one function and all of their work is appreciated.

Principal Investigators: Tom Evans and Carol McCartney
Archivist: Brad Gottschalk
Samples curation: Val Stanley, Ethan Heyrman
Data capture from source documents: Tina Porter, Lauren Lande, Sam Patrick, Yang Shape Lor
Thin section preparation, photography, post processing and database quality control: Mel Reusche, Kayla Gosz, Emily Swenson, Mark Lower, Katherine Krohn, Hanwen Dong
Information systems and database management: Pete Schoephoester, Aaron Smetana
Web development and testing: Caroline Rose, Soren Walljasper, Lisa Kamal, Linda Deith, Val Stanley
Digital preservation: Melissa McLimans, Jesse Henderson and numerous other staff and students at UW Digital Collections Center
Special thanks for expert advice and consultation: Bill Batten (Wisconsin Geological Survey), Pat McLaughlin (Indiana Geological Survey), Bob McIntosh (British Geological Survey), Phil Brown (UW-Madison Geoscience), Brian Hess (UW-Madison Geoscience)


Work on this project has been funded by the US Geological Survey’s National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program (NGGDPP) with matching funds and technical support from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. Read more about data preservation efforts at the US Geological Survey at https://datapreservation.usgs.gov/