By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
As a librarian, I have a certain appreciation for indices. It might surprise (or appall) non-librarian folk out there, but creating indices can actually be a full-time job. They’re called indexers—those who painstakingly review a document to extract key terms that may be used by readers when searching for topics. I think indexers must be crazy
, yet indices make our lives much easier. Before the internet became the “just Google it” phenomenon it is today, indices were a researcher’s best friend.
There are many types of indices so to be clear, I’m referring to indices in print, specifically ones appended to a document and used as a guide to search for topics within that document. These are typically found in materials intended for publication. I mean, who in their right mind would review messy notes to create an index—OH, oh right...that’s what this article is about….
The first time I saw an index in field notes I was impressed, but it seemed excessive. When I considered the difficulty in skimming (often messy) hand written notes that may or may not clearly label locations or subjects, however, I wondered why more collectors didn’t index their field notes. Eventually I discovered that it wasn’t rare for collectors to provide some kind of guide to their field notes, although the large majority of field notes I’ve seen do not include indices. Field notes that did contain indices made it easier to decipher sometimes unintelligible cursive writing and provided a hint into the information the collector considered most important for navigating his/her field notes.
As you’ll see in the following example of three collector’s field notes from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), each index has a character and utility of its own.
The index in this field book—created by Arthur Wilson Stelfox (SIA RU 7379) while collecting mollusks in Ireland, Scotland, and England—is organized alphabetically by location name. Such an index is particularly useful here because Stelfox created these notes over multiple years and collecting trips. Locations, therefore, do not always follow one route, but instead skip around. Notes on mollusks collected in one particular location maybe located on several pages throughout the book.
Edward Alphonso Goldman’s notebook (from SIA RU 7364) is a journal containing narrative descriptions on collections and observations of mammals, birds, and plants found throughout his trip. Often, Goldman’s notes indicate which animals or plants are common in the locations he visits. Using this index, the reader could get snapshot of the flora and fauna of any of the listed location
Indices in Richard Blackwelder’s journals (SIA Acc. 96-099) are perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen and are the inspiration for this article. Blackwelder’s notes describe every aspect of his collecting trip. It is fitting, then, that he provides both a general index and index of insects. The General Index records place names, names of people, and subjects not related to insects (e.g. birds).
The main purpose of Blackwelder’s field trips, however, was to collect insects. A specialized index for insects is therefore also included. Insects are listed by class, family, or genus. This provides researchers the option of looking for insects (or other things) collected in one particular location or going directly to references for a specific specimen.
If there is any point to this article other than showing off some beautiful and practical indices, it might be that more collectors should index their field notes. It is undoubtedly a time consuming process to index handwritten notes, but the benefits when it comes time to use those notes are enormous.