Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Frequently Asked Questions

The questions and answers posted here are designed to help you plan for, evaluate, and manage your scientific collections.

What collections management policy should I follow and where can I find it?  

The policy on scientific working collections to follow is USGS Survey Manual Instructional Memorandum (IM) CSS 2019-01.   In addition, the Guide to Planning for and Managing Scientific Working Collections in the U.S. Geological Survey provides guidance to USGS scientists, and information to the general public, regarding planning for, acquiring, using, evaluating, and releasing USGS scientific working collections and scientific products that may come from those collections. 

What is a working collection?

Working collections are defined in IM CSS 2019-01 as “ organic or inorganic specimens and items maintained by bureau/office programs that are not intended for long-term preservation and care as museum property due to their expendable nature. Working collections are intended for use during education or ongoing research and may be consumed or discarded during the analysis process according to bureau policy. Some specimens and items may subsequently be designated museum property. Working collections will be discarded when it is determined there is no longer a need for the collection for future research or education or upon completion of the ongoing research according to standards set in bureau/office policy”

What are the two types of USGS physical scientific collections and what is the distinction between them?

The two types of physical collections are working collections and museum collections. As defined in IM CSS 2019-01, USGS working collections are samples and specimens that are used for education and ongoing research investigations. When a working collection is no longer needed for ongoing investigations, the USGS will evaluate the collection to determine its value to the mission of the Bureau, the broader scientific community, or the educational community. Disposition of working collections must be approved by the appropriate authority as described in the IM. USGS museum collections consist of items described by a Scope of Collections statement that typically define items of historic significance and/or great scientific value that will continue to meet the mission of USGS in perpetuity. Should a working collection become USGS museum property, it is managed in accordance with requirements in Departmental Manual (DM) chapter 411 DM 1 and other DM Museum Property related directivesWorking collections may be transferred to federal and non-federal repositories and museums as described in Guide to Planning for and Managing Scientific Working Collections in the U.S. Geological Survey.

I’m going to collect samples. What do I need to do?

Any samples collected as part of USGS research are potential federal assets. As such, the IM CSS 2019-01 establishes requirements for the documentation and management of these USGS working collections. As part of the Project Work Plan, USGS scientists must complete a Collection Plan describing the need for, proper care, and planned disposition of all new working collections. The Guide to Planning for and Managing Scientific Working Collections in the U.S. Geological Survey provides more information about the development of a Collection Plan and has a Collection Plan template available for use.

I have a legacy or orphaned collection (a collection from a scientist who is no longer working for the USGS that has been in long-term storage). What do I do with it?

Workflow for legacy or orphaned collections typically begins with the Evaluate step of the lifecycle of a working collection, since the initial planning, acquisition, and use were conducted prior to the implementation of the IM CSS 2019-01. Use the Guide to Planning for and Managing Scientific Working Collections in the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate the collection to determine what should be done with the legacy or orphaned collection. The Evaluate step is used for assessing possible next steps for existing collections or for evaluating working collections once the initial research project is completed. Start answering the evaluation questions about the legacy or orphaned collection and determining if it meets the 5-point Standard. There are five possible outcomes for the evaluation step: destruction of materials that no longer have a value or potential use in USGS science, education, or historical documentation (see Destroy), donation of materials that have educational value (see Donate), transfer of the materials to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History or another institution (see Transfer), retaining the working collection at USGS for further use (see Retain & Catalog), or accessioning as USGS museum property (see Accession as USGS Museum Property). 

What qualifies as a “specimen of general interest”?

When collecting materials for research, USGS scientists should avoid accumulation of artifacts or specimens of general interest. The USGS has no mandate for museum functions and limited resources for the accession, maintenance, display, and curation of museum objects. Specimens of general interest include those that do not support USGS research or the USGS mission and those that were not collected within a scientific context. In many cases, this type of collection occurs when someone collects rocks because they “looked pretty,” not because they support any USGS research.

When is a Collection Plan needed? When is a Collection Plan not needed?

A Collection Plan is needed any time a USGS scientist conducts research activities that involve the use of a new or existing collection of physical materials. A Collection Plan is not needed for research activities that do not involve the use of a new or existing collection of physical materials. Documentation of these activities would be reported in Project Work Plans and scientific products, such as manuscripts and data releases, with reference to the source of the collection where samples were obtained. 

If research activities involve the addition of materials to an existing collection, the existing Collection Plan can just be updated to reflect the new additions. If the existing collection does not have a Collection Plan, a new Collection Plan concerning the evaluation and disposition of the collection can be created.

What if I’m leaving the USGS and want to document my collections and data? 

When leaving the USGS, it is important to leave behind a legacy of well-documented and well-organized collections that can easily be used by other researchers to further scientific investigations and objectives. All working collections should be documented in ReSciColl (see Retain & Catalog and other Frequently asked Questions for more information regarding proper documentation). In addition, fill out the data exit form for USGS employees to capture information on data and collections that you might be leaving behind (See Resources). 

What does it mean for a sample to be completely consumed or destroyed?

During the use of a collection in scientific research activities, there is a possibility that some or all of the collected material may be consumed or destroyed. For example, freshwater invertebrates collected for a biomass study are destroyed when specimens are dried and combusted to determine ash free dry weight. If all the collected material in a collection is consumed during use of the collection and no physical samples remain, the Use stage of the working collection will be the final stage of the lifecycle. If collection materials persist following research, disposition of remaining samples should follow steps established in the Collection Plan or can be evaluated for subsequent steps (see Evaluate).

Does the USGS have a museum?

The USGS does not maintain a museum for the purpose of housing and curating scientific specimens. The Bureau relies on special arrangements with university museums or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to house its scientific specimen collections that are accessioned as museum property. However, the USGS interprets its history through exhibits and displays that are distributed among several of its facilities:

* USGS National Center, Reston, Virginia

* USGS offices, Building 810, Denver Federal Center, Lakewood, Colorado

* USGS National Geospatial Technical Operations Center (NGTOC), Rolla, Missouri

* USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS), Sioux Falls, South Dakota

What are the requirements when considering disposition of USGS collection samples and specimens?

When work on a collection is completed and an evaluation of a collection determines that it or a subset of it is no longer necessary to meet the USGS mission, the collection may be transferred, donated, or destroyed based on the condition, value, and usage of the collection. Disposition of working collections must be approved by the appropriate authority as described in this policy (refer to section 6 of IM CSS 2019-01). For example, disposition of samples from Tribal or Federal lands must be determined in consultation with the responsible Tribe and/or land management agency. Disposition may also need to be in accordance with any special permit or collection agreement requirements and in accordance with USGS policy on obtaining permission to access to private lands and guidance provided at In the case of transfer, ownership will be offered first to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  and, if declined, to another qualified repository (refer to the Guide to Planning for and Managing Scientific Working Collections in the U.S. Geological Survey) to be made publicly available. Archiving collections data and associated documents must conform with USGS data management and records management requirements.

What is the process for offering a collection or any specimens to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)? Is there a form for offering a collection/specimens to the NMNH? Who or what department/group do I contact at the NMNH to initiate offering of a collection/specimens?

The process involves internal USGS reporting for disposing of excess property by using Standard Form (SF) 120 and by making advance arrangements with a Custodian of Collection at the NMNH or a chair of department. To access a directory of staff at the NMNH that work on collections see: 

An example of how to donate a collection to the NMNH is provided here for invertebrate collections as explained on their website entitled, “Donate Collections,” which can be found at:….

The website states: “The Museum discourages unsolicited shipments. If you are considering making a donation, please contact the collections manager of the appropriate museum department.” If you’re dealing with invertebrate zoological specimens, you can select a custodian from a list of departments at: Otherwise, we recommend starting with the NMNH Chief of Collections. Providing NMNH with advance notice of your desire allows NMNH to exercise their right-of-first refusal and politely decline your offer. If NMNH accepts your offer, the museum would like you to provide an itemized Deed of Gift that can be downloaded from their website: (

Please note, in instances involving material collected on public or Tribal lands, the agency or Tribe may retain ownership rights. Disposition of such materials must be done in accordance with the landowning or governing authority.  

What is the difference between a transfer and a donation?

A donation involves giving materials that do not meet the 5-point standard and do not have iconic, historic, or scientific value for the USGS to a bona fide educational entity that certifies that the items will be used for scientific and/or technological training or research. Collections that are donated are NOT well documented and do not meet the minimum requirements to be useful for any scientific research purposes (the 5-point standard). An example of a collection best-suited for donation, is a box of samples of metamorphic rock with notable metamorphic features but no information about who collected the rocks, where they came from, when they were collected, or how they were collected and brought to the USGS. Those rocks can’t support USGS research, but they can help provide examples of what metamorphic features look like to students at an educational institution.

A transfer involves giving a well-documented collection to another institution when it is no longer needed for USGS research activities or to support the USGS mission. Collections that are transferred are still able to support scientific research done by another institution, but do not support USGS research activities. An example is the transfer of a legacy collection of 1.2 million fossils from the USGS to NMNH completed in 2022. This collection was not being used for USGS research activities, nor could it be used to address any current or future USGS research objectives. It can, however, be used for NMNH research activities to address both current and future NMNH research objectives.

What is a bona fine educational entity?

A bona fide educational entity includes an accredited education institution or a non-profit entity with an active 501(c)(3) number (federal tax exemption).  The Property Management section of the Office of Administration and Policy can assist with verifying tax exemption status.

What forms need to be filled out for each disposition outcome?

Destruction of USGS working collections must be documented through the form DI-103A V.2 (Certificate of Unserviceable Property). Donation of USGS working collections must be documented through either: a) DI-103A V.2 (Certificate of Unserviceable Property) if donated to a public entity in lieu of destruction (and a signed and dated receipt); or form SF-120 for internal screening within the USGS and form 9-064 for donation of collections used for scientific and/or technological training or research pursuant to the American Technological Preeminence (Stevenson-Wydler) Act. The non-profit entity receiving the donation is also required to provide both a signed certification that the property will be used for scientific and/or technological training and/or research pursuant to the American Technology Preeminence (Stevenson-Wylder Act) and a signed and dated receipt.  Transfer of USGS working collections must be documented in the through forms SF-120 for screening within the USGS and DI-104 for transfer within DOI or SF-122 for transfer to another federal agency. Giving custody and ownership from one USGS team/group/individual to another must be documented using form 9-064.

Don’t all collections have the potential to be of further use someday? Why can’t we keep everything?

Collections may have the potential for future use, but the USGS scientific mission should be considered as a driver if the collection is to be kept by USGS. Once a collection has met the needs of the USGS mission and is no longer needed, it may be of value to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History or other repositories.

The Sundry Civil Act of March 3, 1879 (20 U.S.C. 59), as amended, directs that “All collections of rocks, minerals, soils, fossils, and objects of natural history, archaeology, and ethnology, made by the National Ocean Survey, the [United States] Geological Survey, or by any other parties for the Government of the United States, when no longer needed for investigations in progress shall be deposited in the National Museum [Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History].”

Many of the working collections that have accumulated across the USGS were never intended to be preserved for the long-term. In addition, some collections are of minimal scientific value, damaged, of compromised integrity, are no longer needed for investigations in progress, or have irreversible deterioration or infestation that may adversely affect facilities, employees, or the condition of other materials in collections. In those cases, that material does not need to be kept and can be destroyed (see Destroy).

It is important to recognize collections with potential long-term value and make sure they are managed in appropriate repositories. These working collections are federally funded assets with potential scientific value. It is important these collections are accessible to the larger research community. Non-USGS repositories may be more appropriate venues for accessibility, curating and managing of these collections.

Can I give my collection to my collaborators at a university (or other institution)?

After evaluating the collection (see Evaluate), there are two potential outcomes for giving that collection to another institution. When a working collection is no longer needed to meet the USGS mission, it may be donated or transferred. USGS items that may be donated include those that do not meet the 5-point standard, or do not have iconic, historic or scientific value to the USGS (see Donate). Donation is a different process from transfer of a collection.

If the collection is to be transferred, the first step will be to offer the collection to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in accordance with 20 U.S.C. § 59. If the NMNH declines, consider transferring to an appropriate repository for that collection type (see Transfer), including institutions with relevant research interests.  

Do I need to write metadata for each USGS working collection?

Collection metadata records only need to be developed for working collections that will be retained, transferred, or accessioned as museum property. Collections information that can be used to develop a collection metadata record will be captured in the Collection Plan and can be amended over time if necessary. Registration of a collection in the Registry of Scientific Collections (ReSciColl) requires development of a collection metadata record.

Where can I find an example of a collection metadata record? 

For examples in the USGS  Registry of Scientific Collections (ReSciColl), see the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center's Geologic Core and Sample Database describing an individual scientific collection, or the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center Samples Repository metadata record describing multiple working collections maintained within a USGS samples repository.

What kinds of fields are included in a collection metadata record?

Examples of some fields that should be included in a collection metadata record are: name of the collection, name of institution/program that owns the collection, location where collection is housed, dates covered by the collection, description of collection contents, type of content, preservation type, location where the material in the collection was collected from, contact for the collection, URL of collection website.

USGS is in the process of developing guidance on what a USGS collection metadata record should include. That information will be included here at a later point. The metadata fields listed above should be included in USGS metadata documentation. There is no difference in the metadata requirements for collections that are retained, transferred, or retained as museum property.  

What is the difference between a collection metadata record and a dataset metadata record?

A collection metadata record describes physical specimens. A dataset metadata record describes the contents of a dataset, irrespective of whether or not the dataset contains data resulting from the use of specimens or samples in a collection. Some information from a collection metadata record may also be used for some fields of a dataset metadata record. However, these two types of metadata records are not one and the same. They are different because they are meant to describe two different things. One is used to share information about a physical collection, while the other is used to share information about data. The required fields are different for a dataset metadata record (examples of dataset metadata standards: FGDC-CSDGM StandardISO 19115-1:2014 geographic information metadata, Ecological Metadata Language EML; see the Digital Curation Conference list of metadata standards for examples of other metadata standards used in sharing digital data and information) than what is required for a scientific collection metadata record (examples of collection metadata records: National Digital Catalog fields for scientific collections, Registry of Scientific Collections (ReSciColl)  fields).

Where can I find examples of a data release based on data from a working collection?

See O’Neel et al. (2018) for a USGS example of a dataset metadata record with multiple release versions that resulted from use of a collection.

Who can I ask for help?

Contact the USGS Geological Material Repository ( or a collections or data manager within your Center or office may be able to help answer questions about preparing and publishing datasets and metadata records.

What about materials collection on National Park Service land?

Collection of material from and scientific research on National Park Service (NPS) land requires a permit and permission. Anyone conducting scientific research on NPS land must apply for a permit, enter into an agreement between the individual and the NPS, and provide reports regarding the work to the NPS. See the NPS website and Research Permit and Reporting System (RPRS) for more information.  Specimens and samples collected from NPS units remain federal property under the authority of the NPS. The NPS Organic Act, 54 U.S.C. 100101 et seq., provides the basis for the management of national park lands and resources. This makes an exception for resources originating on NPS lands to the right of first refusal outlined in the Sundry Civil Act. Contact the curator in the park where the specimens were collected for guidance regarding sample disposition.