Field books are the original records of scientific research and discovery. Typical field books might include scientific data on species, habitats, and environments. They can also take the form of journals and diaries which provide a more personal perspective on field work including accounts of travels, people encountered, and daily events. Some of my personal favorites are ones that talk about the food that was eaten during these travels, some of which even go into detail notes on the ingredients or preparation of local cuisines.
At the Smithsonian, there are more than 6,000 field books covering two centuries of biodiversity field work. Representing the work of historic expeditions, well-known scientists and key moments in the history of biological research, many of these are inextricably linked to field books in other collections across the country. Take the United States Exploring Expedition or Wilkes Expedition as it’s commonly called. With field books from that single expedition now housed at more than a dozen institutions across the country and many not yet available online, finding them all can be a laborious task indeed.
To help improve access to these types of materials, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) came together to form the Field Book Project. Working together with six other leading natural history organizations, the Field Book Project is developing a Field Book Registry which will make it possible to search and locate field book content through one online location.
Over the 18 months that the project has been underway, the Field Book Project has cataloged more than 4,000 of the Smithsonian field books and highlighted many of them on our blog. You can read stories about collecting adventures, world travels, methods used to create field books and some of the conservation treatments we use to ensure that these field books are preserved for future generations. Photographs from these collections are also available on Flickr Commons and give a glimpse into field work conducted over the last century.
Carolyn Sheffield, Project Manager, Field Book Project