By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
|Edward Alexander Preble and Mollie Harper, ca. 1928. Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA RU007172, Hartley H. T. Jackson Papers, circa 1883-1976, Box 3, Folder 3G. SIA2013-08302.|
Children and field work. It may sound incongruous, yet there are strong connections to children in several of our cataloged collections. You might think that the links would be limited to images or mentions of the children of collectors, colleagues, or local inhabitants. However, Smithsonian Institution’s collections include something you might not expect: children’s field books. As the world celebrates Universal Children’s Day, we thought it a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on these unique items.
What does one find in the field books of children? There is a surprising range of depth and precision. Ornithologist Alexander Wetmore’s first field book “Field notes, Florida, 1894-1895”, written when he was eight, included a few observations and childhood sketches. By the time he was twelve, his field notes, like “Field notes, January 1898 - April 1902,” became far more sophisticated. They included narrative entries, more consistent content, and descriptions of common names of birds observed, their physical characteristics, birdsongs, types of trees in which seen, and sometimes measurements of nests and weather conditions.
Most of the content of these books focus on the collecting. However, every once in a while they shine a light on the challenges of collecting at a young age. Andrew Caudell wrote in his field book at age 17, [November 8, 1889] “Mother and John give me a little rakeing [sic] this evening because I am not educated and John give me a going over for pestering with Entomology. Jess sticks up for me and says I am all right.”
Children’s field books come about for a variety of reasons. Several field books were the result of work with teachers or parents. Some, like those of John Sherman, came about during trips for school-- “Journal and notes of 1st trip to Washington, DC Dec. 26, 1988 - Jan. - 5, 1889.” Others were the product of close relationships with adult collectors. Edgar Mearns who collected with his son Louis Mearns. Louis’s first field book dates back to age nine and is titled “Catalogue of the collection of Louis di Zerega Mearns, 1891-1903”). It seems that parents really can shape lifelong passions in their children - Louis continued to collect with his father into adulthood.
Children’s field books vary in form and content. Some share personal details, others demonstrate an early attention to detail. However, they all document and therefore celebrate the potential of children as they discover a lifelong interest and master the skills to pursue it.