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Fossils and geological samples are not as stable as people think. Chemical reactions with the environment, swelling and contracting with humidity and temperature, and poor aging properties of consolidants are among the top offenders for damage of specimens. These are examples of passive damage. Damage resulting from insects, being dropped or other improper handling are examples of active damage.

Conservation at NPL is 3 fold. First, conservation actions deal with the care and maintenance of our specimens and their data. Second, with an eye towards the future, is conservation documentation. Last, and most importantly, is the adherence to current, peer reviewed, and approved conservation methods


The work surface

All conservation and prep work should be done in the Prep Room. This area has been set aside as a 'dirty' workspace.

When doing basic cleaning of specimens and their trays, using a cafeteria tray as a work surface helps keep most of the dirt in one place, as well as keeping the specimen from rolling off the table if dropped.

The workstation should have ample space for the specimen and with all the cleaning materials easily accessible. Attention should also be paid to ergonomics- make sure the workstation you set up is a place where one can sit comfortably for several hours at a time. Start by laying out tweezers, consolidant, paintbrushes, and any other necessary equipment, as well as extra PPE.

The work surface should be covered with a layer of foam to protect any fossils or pieces of fossil that are inadvertently dropped during cleaning.  Also, do not work directly above or too near large cracks or expansion joints in the hard floor surfaces for the same reason.

Workstation set-up

Lamps, or other additional light source:

Desk lamps, clamp lights and lighted articulated magnifiers are located around the prep lab. Gooseneck desk lamps and articulated magnifiers are good for projects where having control over the direction of light is needed.

Microscope and loupe:

Dissecting microscopes that are in the prep lab may be used for work in that room. If all microscopes are in use, or if you need a boom scope, ask the collection manager which microscope from the main room can be moved. Do not remove microscopes from the Research Room.

Loupes are available in the chest of drawers found on the wall with the Flammables cabinet.

Re-use container:

Boxes from the shipping area can be used as receptacles for reusable plastic bags and trays. These will multiply rapidly as the specimens are cleaned, so must be culled regularly. Ask the collection manager for guidance in deciding which trays to re-use and which to send to the recycling center.

Trash can:

Keep a trash can for excess dirt and discarded notes, plastic bags, and trays.  IMPORTANT - DO NOT SET THE TRASH CAN NEAR THE EDGE OF THE TABLE. Labels, tools, and even fossils can inadvertently be brushed into the trash can without being noticed.  Ideally, set the can across the aisle from the work table.

Vacuum cleaner:

In the space below the workstations, a variety of vacuum cleaners are stored. The hyper-vac vacuum cleaners minimizes primary as well as secondary dust. Shop-vacs can be used wet or dry, and are ideal for large messes.



Various horsehair and camelhair brushes for cleaning specimens and labels are found in the chest of drawers on the North wall of the prep lab. They are labeled according to their size.

Pens and ink:

When numbering specimens, or writing notes, please make use of the archival quality ink pens. India ink and quill pens are acceptable, however felt tip pens are easier and less messy to work with. Micron and Pigma pens are archival and come in a variety of tip sizes. Standard label writing pen point sizes are 01 and 02, while 005 is ideal for printing labels for 1/2 dram vials or printing specimen numbers on specimens as small as 1 or 2 mm, 05 or 08 is sometimes preferable for printing numbers on very large specimens or very large labels.


Workstations should include needle tip tweezers and standard tip tweezers for lifting fragile labels or retrieving a specimen stuck in the crevasse of a box.

Sand box and bags:

Sand bags are very useful for propping up a specimen while it is cleaned, and necessary for providing stability when specimens are repaired. Larger specimens should be propped up in the sandbox.


MATERIALS (general)


NPL has disposable white cotton gloves and vinyl gloves available in the PPE cabinet. Either are will suffice to protect the specimens from body oils and perspiration on the hands of the worker, and to protect the worker from the dehydrating and irritating effects of the dust and specimen matrix.

Particle masks

Particle masks for personal protection from airborne irritants can be found in the PPE cabinet. These should always be available. If you can not find any, ask the Collections Manager or Supervisor. There are different styles available, and all but the chemical respirators are approved for everyday use.

Specimen bags

Multiple sizes of archival zip-lock storage bags are available from the filing cabinet near the printing station in the main room. Sizes range from 2x2 inches, up to 13x20 inches. Labels are designed to fit easily into 2x3 inch bags, either flat or folded at the dotted line with information facing out. Zip-less bags are available in 2x2 and 2x3 inch sizes.

Specimen trays

Multiple sizes of specimen trays, the smallest should be 2x3 inches are available in the filing cabinets near door to the prep lab. Isolated specimens or specimens in small vials should be placed in a 2x3 inch tray. This allows for a standardized specimen label that will fit in every size of tray in the collection. Also this prevents the misplacement of very small items inside or between other trays.

Specimen vials

Multiple sizes of plastic vials and lids are found next to the specimen trays. These come in sizes from 1/2 dram, up to 40 or 50 drams. The smallest vial size should be no smaller than 1/2 dram. This is about the smallest size object that will not be lost easily if it accidentally pops out of the tray. Specimens stored in vials should be put in zip-less specimen bags before being placed in the vial.

Writing paper

Always keep pad of writing paper for taking notes near your workstation.





For more information about conservation, see the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections website.

NPL also maintains an extensive Conservation library in the back office as well as digital copies of papers found on our network share, in the 'DocLib/Conservation and prep' folder.


Conservation Tasks: