As a summer pre-program conservation intern with the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a variety of book and paper objects. The Center for Archives Conservation is a treatment laboratory located at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) that provides conservation services for SIA’s permanent collections, as well as for sister archives and special collections within the Smithsonian community. Primarily I have worked on field books, paper objects from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). As my time here is ending, I thought I’d share with you all some of the work I’ve been doing: the field books of Harrison G. Dyar.
Harrison Gray Dyar (1826-1929) was a leading early 20th century entomologist who greatly refined the description of moths and mosquitoes and our understanding of their life cycles. Well known and deeply opinionated, Dyar was able to devise calculations on how to measure the growth of insects, while also discovering new species.
Though to some Dyar’s scientific focus could seem dry, no one could say that of his personal life. Dyar married his first wife, Zella Peabody in 1889, and they had two children, Dorothy and Otis Dyar. By 1914, many suspected Dyar of having two families in Washington, D.C.—one with Zella and one with Wellesca Pollack Allen. Dyar obtained a divorce from his wife Zella in 1916 and married Allen in 1921, adopting Allen’s 3 sons, Wilfred P., Harrison G., and Wallace P. (thought to be his) upon their marriage. Additionally, Dyar dug tunnels beneath his two homes in D.C. These tunnels extended as deep as 32 feet and were multi-level with concrete walls. Discovered in 1924, the press hypothesized their creation by German spies. Dyar publicly claimed them as his pastime. His intriguing personal life, however, did not disrupt his work for the USDA and the National Museum (now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) as the Custodian of the National Lepidoptera Collections from 1897 until his death in 1929.
Dyar was a prolific researcher and created 29 “Blue Books” with notes on the numerous specimens he collected and observed. Dyar was thrifty despite being independently wealthy. Some of these books were new and meant specifically for note taking, whereas others were originally designed for different purposes. The latter included a day planner, numerous grocery store receipt books (where Zella wrote their grocery transactions–Dyar wrote between her script), as well as his mother’s household ledger.
These varied types of books have necessitated a range of treatment types to ensure their readiness for digitization. Some books required simple mends to tears with Japanese paper (thin, long fibered paper known for flexible strength) and wheat starch paste, while making sure all of his inserted notes (such as on the backs of checks) are in their own safe little envelopes. Some inserts even contained beautiful watercolors of the specimens! During this process, I have grown to understand Dyar’s working method. He does not number his pages, but places them in chronological order of his numbered specimens and records his observations. It took working on a few books before both the cataloger and I figured this out!
This knowledge was extremely helpful when working with other books that necessitate more extensive care, for example, those with pages that have ripped free from the binding, are out of order, and are in danger of being lost. These books required more time as I needed to disbind the book into its individual pamphlets and then resew it. (For further details on this process, check out an awesome earlier Field Book Project blog post by conservator Anna Friedman!). This process is particularly satisfying as I know I have improved the longevity of the object, while also aiding in the researcher’s understanding of the object.
As my time here winds down and I finish the Dyar collection, it has reminded me of the many shapes, sizes, and ways field notebooks are created by different scientists. I thought I’d share some of the variety with you all that I have been so fortunate to work with this summer. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I have enjoyed working on them!
Epstein, Marc E. and Pam Henson. (1992). Digging for dyar: The man behind the myth. The American Entomologist, 38(3), 148-169.