By Tad Bennicoff, Reference Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives
When the folks involved with the Field Book Project http://www.mnh.si.edu/rc/fieldbooks/ asked me to contribute to this blog, I was uncertain of how to approach the task. The study of science and its many disciplines have never been one of my strengths. My background is in History, which has led me into a much enjoyed career as a Reference Archivist. Thus, I resolved to focus on the historic significance of the field notes held by the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. One of the frustrations of a Reference Archivist, especially one who has the good fortune of being surrounded by collections as diverse as those held by the Smithsonian, is that there is little opportunity to really immerse one’s self into a particular collection. The upside of course is the variety of topics and research I am permitted to pursue. Such research, however, is almost entirely dictated by the questions we receive from the public. To this end, I was recently tasked with reviewing Record Unit 7250: C. S. (Constantine Samuel) Rafinesque Papers, 1815-1834 and undated; the finding aid for this collection is available online.
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was a Naturalist and Philologist born on October 22, 1783, in Constantinople (a brief biography is available on the University of Evansville faculty webpage). In the autumn of 1818 Rafinesque undertook a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, where he stayed with John James Audubon for eight days. During his travels south, Rafinesque kept a journal of his plant and animal observations. This journal is part of Record Unit 7250, and it is remarkable. Nearly two hundred years old, the journal is composed of notes (in French) and sketches of plants, shells, fish, and mammals. The sketches are not of Audubonian quality, but then again, they presumably were completed in the field and essentially are a snapshot of select specimens.
Upon applying white cotton gloves to my hands and opening Rafinesque’s leather bound journal, carefully turning each weathered page, I began to contemplate, historically, the nature of Rafinesque’s travels. There were of course no automobiles, so transportation must have been either by horse, perhaps a horse drawn carriage, or by foot. Furthermore, there were few roads and presumably even fewer maps. In fact, Rafinesque drafted his own maps, some of which are noted in the journal.
Technology that we so easily take for granted was absent. There were no cameras to document observations, no laptop or tablet computers to record thoughts, no cell phones, no ballpoint pens, no electric lights, no water resistant rain gear, etc. I can only image that such scientific research was indeed laborious.
Frankly, I find the lack of our modern technology in the Rafinesque journal to be quite appealing, for if there had been digital cameras and iPads, we almost certainly would not have Rafinesque’s hand-written notes and sketches. Historical documents have a way of transporting the reader to the moment in time in which they were created, and as I studied the journal, I marveled not only at its contents, but also the journey it has traveled from the untamed wilderness of 18th century America to the custom made archival box and climate controlled facility where it resides today.
The Rafinesque notebooks continue to be consulted by researchers and scholars, a testament to the significance of their contents. The particular journal described in this post is in the process of being digitized, and may soon be available for researchers to consult through the wonders of technology Rafinesque never could have imagined. Based upon the time, effort, and care Rafinesque invested in recording his observations, I suspect he would applaud not only that his research continues to be valued by scholars, but also it may soon be available to researchers around the globe.
Other Field Book Project articles on Rafinesque: