By Emily Hunter, Cataloging Intern
Allen Anderson and Allen Young hold up a Black-footed Albatross.
My introduction to field notes came five short weeks ago, when I started my work as Cataloging Intern for the Field Book Project. I began by cataloging the field notes in the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program in the rather large Smithsonian Institution Archives collection Record Unit 245.
The Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (or POBSP for short), was a Department of Defense grant-funded project led by the Smithsonian Institution to survey plants and animals in an area of the Pacific Ocean dotted with islands and atolls. Much of the project focused on observing and banding pelagic birds.
Working through the loose manuscripts containing the field notes of Smithsonian Institution staff researchers, I began to imagine what life in the field was like. As a budding librarian and archivist, I allowed the records themselves to begin to build the story for me. As I cataloged each item (“items” ranged from a single field book to a folder of manuscripts or photographs) I skimmed, stopping here or there to read full entries and connect the dots. Reading the field notes of over 40 researchers allowed me a window into the daily lives of the researchers, and a taste of the diversity of personalities of the project staff.
From their narrative journal entries to their to-do lists and poetic observations, the researchers came alive as real people doing similar work, but with different outlooks, experiences, and perspectives. Minor differences of opinion made me laugh now and then, for example, while some researchers captured the elegance of birds in pencil sketches, another declared, “this is the ugliest bird I have ever seen!”
Kenneth C. Balcomb banding a young Black-footed albatross on Laysan Island, June 12, 1966.
I began to understand what life in the field in the 1960s was like. Or I like to think so. That’s the beauty of reading primary sources—feeling like you’re in someone else’s shoes.
Surely it isn’t so difficult to relate to these young men—at the time of the survey they were roughly my age, camping on Pacific islands I could only dream of, covered in bird droppings (several field books were plastered with the hard evidence), camping, sweltering in the sun, or spending sleepless, sometimes nauseating, nights at sea. They observed birds at all hours, banded them, collected specimen, and explored burrows looking for eggs, and chicks.
An entry by Patrick Gould, October 1966, was so poetic and descriptive, that I couldn’t help but feel I was on Laysan Island myself:
A large donut lying on its side in the Blue Pacific. It’s edge a broad belt of off-white coral sand, its rim a bright Scaevola green, low and lush greeting abruptly to sand and clumps of bunch grass, to bunch grass and narrow dense covering of Spomoea, to a brackish lagoon. Blue sky, pock-marked with out of focus white clouds, dotted with black Great Frigatebirds, white Red-tailed Tropicbirds and black and white Red-footed and Blue-faced Boobies. In the evening the air is filled with the [calls] of Wedge-tailed Shearwater and Bonin Island Petrel. Black and Common Noddy Terns are everywhere.
(Entry in the field book of Patrick J. Gould Leewards Survey 17, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Laysan Island, October 1966)
Cataloging field notes is challenging and rewarding. I’ve learned a great deal in my attempts to read messy handwriting, decipher cryptic symbols and notations. I’ve experienced several minor “Aha!” moments, one of which was when I realized that “RT” means Ruddy turnstone while “RTTB” means Red-tailed tropicbird. As a non-expert, it was interesting to read observations of bird behaviors, roosting patterns, or nest construction. More than anything though, I liked getting a glimpse of what life was like for these researchers, doing what they love—alternately exciting, boring, hot, serene, difficult, or extremely beautiful—out in the field.