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System for Storing Small Specimens


This system was originally designed for the inexpensive and compact storage of several thousand small fossils, but it can be used for any small specimens or artifacts. In this context, “small” refers to items too small to be labeled.


James A. Burns
Provincial Museum of Alberta
12845 102nd Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T5N OM6.
Tel (403) 453-9128
Fax (403) 454-6629

Margaret R. Ballantyne
Provincial Museum of Alberta
12845 102nd Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T5N OM6
Tel (403) 453-9184
Fax (403) 454-6629

Figures 1 and 3: Peter Milot
Figure 4: Julio Gisbert and
Rosa García-Perea

Illustration: Karen Ackoff

Publication: 1992



The basic units of the system are clear gelatin capsules such as are used in pharmaceutical preparations. 

The capsules, which can be marked with catalog information in ink, are placed (two at a time) in plastic-stoppered glass vials, with an appropriate label placed either inside the vial or on the outside. The vials are then positioned in polyethylene foam planks drilled to accommodate the rows of vials (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Specimen vials supported in foam base.

The planks are stored in museum quality cabinets or cases. Allowing one specimen per capsule and two capsules per vial, a single case drawer about 59.0 cm x 75.5 cm will hold 2016 specimens in 28 rows of 36 vials (Figs. 2, 3). One case could then hold over 16,000 specimens in eight double-spaced trays.

Materials, Tools & Supplies

  • Drill press and spade bit
  • Filter paper
  • Gelatin capsules, clear, 10 x 25 mm and 6 x 19 mm or polypropylene vials, 1.2 ml capacity
  • Glass vials,.1 dram capacity, 15 mm x 45 mm, with polyethylene plastic stoppers
  • Polyethylene foam plank, 3.2 cm x 61 cm x 274 cm or polycarbonate vial holders
  • Silica gel
  • Utility knife


  1. Cut the plank of polyethylene foam to fit the inside dimensions of the drawer. For large drawers the insert can be divided into two sections for ease of handling.
  2. Drill holes in staggered rows about 3.5 mm apart (or closer if desired) with a drill press, using a spade-type bit corresponding to the diameter of the glass vials. The fit should be snug (Fig. 2).
  3. Arrange the vials numerically in rows, front to back.

Figure 2. Gelatin capsules are placed in glass vials that
                are supported in holes drilled into foam plank.
                Silica gel can be used in bottom of the vial to 
                keep capsules dry.

Figure 3. Small specimen at lower center is placed in gelatin capsules that are stored in glass vials.


A large number of specimens can be arranged and easily maintained in a given order. The capsules are generally soft enough to buffer any shocks from careless handling, thereby eliminating damage to specimens and the need for extra padding. Gelatin capsules are soluble in water and finger perspiration, and produce an acidic solution. However, if kept in the glass vials with the air-tight stoppers, there seems to be little problem, and we have seen no deterioration of specimens or capsules in about 18 years of using the system. If humidity is a problem, a small amount of dried silica gel can be placed in the bottom of the glass vial. Filter paper should be used to separate the silica gel from the gelatin capsules (J. Gisbert, pers. comm.).

If there is to be repeated examination of the specimens, then the gelatin will likely be degraded and will need to be replaced. In the event of repeated access to encapsulated specimens, it may be necessary to use different containers. 

One suggestion is to use polypropylene vials instead of gelatin capsules and glass vials. A polycarbonate vial holder is another alternative (Fig. 4). The drawbacks are static electric charges and the fact that one-specimen-per-vial means that considerably more storage space will be required.

Figure 4. Alternative system using polycarbonate vial holder and polypropylene vials.

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