From the journal of Donald Erdman. Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA RU007428, Box 1 Folder 2. Photograph courtesy of Lesley Parilla.
In 1948, Donald Erdman participated in a fisheries survey of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea under the auspices of the Arabian American Oil Company. Between March and August of 1948 he collected nearly 5,000 fishes for the US National Museum. His journal for the survey is an incredibly rich, daily narrative of collecting events and observations. Though his collecting notes focus mostly on fish, his entries also document collecting or observations of corals, shrimps, crabs, mollusks, sea mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The journal is full of detailed (sometimes colored) renderings of sea life, birds, landscape, activities of local inhabitants and, as seen in the photograph above, subjects that are a little less scientific.
“During the summer months, thoughts often turn to traveling, exploration and adventure.” Perfect time to talk about the high seas. We love that OCLC recently discussed their methods of documenting ships in catalog records. [via OCLC Research]
William M. Mann (1886-1960) began his scientific work as an entomologist and was employed by the Bureau of Entomology, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1916-1925. He is perhaps best known for his work as the fifth Superintendent of the National Zoological Park, 1925-1956. During his years with the National Zoo, Mann worked on the Zoo’s building program and took part in several well publicized expeditions to collect live animals in order to increase the zoo population. Some of these collecting trips were during the years of World War II.
The effects of military conflicts are not often explicitly stated in the field books, though we have come across a few. Mann’s Diary for 1940 is one such document. The diary primarily describes his work and travel during the Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia, but also includes a folded insert. It is a 3 page letter to "Campbell c/o R.H. Weesner Jr" detailing 1939 conditions of zoos in United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Holland, and Belgium, specifically noting damage from the on-going war.
“Diary, 1940”. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Record Unit 007293, Box 7 Folder 4. Picture by Lesley Parilla.
Special thanks to the “volunpeers” at Smithsonian Transcription Center for their assistance with this post.
Specimens and field documentation can come from unexpected sources. We’ve touched on a few of these sources in the past—road kill and expeditions with former presidents to name two. We came across another one that just had to be highlighted, and maybe it will even help you choose your summer reading list! It turns out that some well-known novelists contributed to natural history collections.
The search started after learning about the book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, (University of Chicago Press, 2014). In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday, the author Richard B. Primack discussed how he was able to use information Thoreau recorded in his personal journals to document changes in climate. This was partly due to Thoreau’s strong interest in the natural world; he didn’t just record details about weather but also about plant phenology. I came to wonder, did he limit his interest to recording natural history observations, or did he perhaps collect specimens?
It turns out that Thoreau has botanical specimens deposited in the herbarium at the University of Connecticut! So we began to wonder, are there other writers who may have helped document the natural world? Here are a few we found.
Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, had a well-documented fascination with butterflies. His specimen collection is part of the holdings at Harvard University’s Comparative Zoology department.
John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath,collected with marine biologist Ed Ricketts in the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck describe the trip in his book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941).
In 1934 Ernest Hemingway, author of the The Old Man and the Sea, helped to collect fish with Henry W. Fowler for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Do you know of other novelists that expressed their interest in the natural world through collecting? Let us know in the comments section below!
Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 7364 ,Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated. SIA2014-03597.
The Field Book Project has documented the papers of several scientists who worked closely together for periods of time, or had long associations, but few seem as closely linked as Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman. My first introduction to Nelson and Goldman was while cataloging in the Division of Mammals, at National Museum of Natural History. A researcher was in the archive verifying Nelson and Goldman specimen numbers. I was amazed to realize that for the period of time that they collected together, even their names were combined in their specimen numbering system.
Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 7364, Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated. SIA2014-03202.
Nelson and Goldman worked for the US Biological Survey and together are known for their field work in Mexico, 1892-1906. The partnership that would prove so important to both men began, when Nelson went on a new assignment to the San Joaquin Valley for the US Biological Survey. He had recently completed work on the Expedition to Death Valley, and was heading through California when the singletree on his buckboard wagon broke. Nelson met a rancher (Goldman’s father) who assisted with the repair. As the two talked, they discovered a shared interest in natural sciences. During the course of conversation, Nelson mentioned the need of an assistant. Goldman’s father suggested his 18-year-old son who was working at a vineyard in Fresno, California. Goldman sent for his son. This first meeting must have gone well; Goldman accepted the position as Nelson’s assistant, leaving his current job where he made $56 a month, with board included, to work for Nelson for $30 a month plus board which Nelson paid out of his own salary.
Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU 7364, Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated. SIA2014-03153.
After a trial period collecting together in the San Joaquin Valley proved satisfactory, Nelson and Goldman made their first joint collecting trip into western Mexico. The trip was to take 3 months, but lasted four years. In 1892, Goldman received a federal appointment as assistant field agent, through Nelson’s recommendation. Eventually they would jointly collect for 14 years.
Field books are fascinating. The sheer variety of content and formats can be dizzying. The Smithsonian has field books that document field work on every continent. They not only document natural history but sometimes include personal insights on contemporary events. I would also say that field books suffer from the same problem as archival materials in general. Like most archive collections, users may not initially know what to expect in terms of the kind of information a field book might contain, so users have a difficult time anticipating what they might find useful.
Over the years I’ve seen multiple articles written by archivists about how challenging a visit to an archive can be for a first time user. First time users may be very experienced at research. It’s not uncommon for them to be working on advanced degrees. However their research experience may be limited to utilizing secondary sources like books and journals found in a library or now ever-present on Google.
Archival materials vary dramatically in content and format, and each collection has its own structure. Users may ask what kind of information they can find in an archival collection. The answer is: it depends on the collection creator. All the papers, photographs, emails, even text messages a creator made during a lifetime could end up being housed in an archive collection. That’s a lot of varied and possibly important, unique information. Field documentation can be just as varied in content and format.
So back to my original question: what do you do with a field book?
Clarify the history of a specimen. A specimen tag may list location information like state or country. The field journal may provide specific details about the specimen when it was alive, and the location/environment where it was collected like nearby rivers, elevation, or the day’s temperature. These additional details can be of use to contemporary methods of scientific study. The ability to revisit the first recording of details about a specimen can be important, especially in cases like the Olinguito. Scientists recently determined it to be a previously unidentified species through research using resources like DNA, natural history specimens, and field documentation .
Resurvey a site. Field books from a survey can be imperative when resurveying an area. Knowing exactly how and where the collectors were means that the current collector can accurately duplicate the collecting methods and thus make it possible to compare results. Check out the Grinnell Resurvey.
Information for datamining. Field book information can also be used and aggregated to answer questions unrelated to the original specimen collecting. For instance, many places in the world did not have organized efforts to record local temperatures until the nineteenth and twentieth century. Projects liked Old Weather collect temperature data recorded in logbooks, diaries, etc. and create banks of temperature data.
We often write about the great stories and surprising finds in the field books, but at the heart of it, these documents hold a wealth of information, waiting to be used. The more accessible we make the information, the more ways people will find to use it. Have you used field books in your research? If so, let us know in the comments!
The Field Book Project is an initiative to increase accessibility to field book content that documents natural history. Through ongoing partnerships within and beyond the Smithsonian Institution, the Project is making field books easier to find and available in a digital format for current research, as well as inspiring new ways of utilizing these rich information resources.