By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
After cataloging field books from the Department of Botany for the past 7 months, it was both exciting and daunting to tackle the Robert E. Silberglied Papers collection (RU007316) in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Silberglied was an entomologist, with a passion for Lepidoptera (butterflies). He collected butterflies and other insects in the United States and abroad from about 1960 to 1984 and had a particular interest in UV reflectivity of butterfly wings, insect vision, and insect behavior. While working as a professor at Harvard University, Silberglied spent summers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, making collections and conducting experiments.
I found out early in my research that Robert E. Silberglied died quite young—a mere 36 years old--in the tragic Air Florida plane crash of 1982. I wonder what more he could have contributed if he had not been taken at such a young age.
Silberglied’s field books span 10 years (1965-1975), from when he was just 19 years old until he was 29. The notes seem to incorporate the variety of media that fall into our definition of field books—journals, field data, hand-drawn maps, sketches, photographs, charts. Some of his field books cross the fine line between personal diaries and scientific data books, with entries on parties he attended and opinions of people he met residing alongside tables of data on insects that he observed or collected in the field.
It’s hard to relate just how interesting Silberglied’s books are with a few photos. None of the pages are extraordinary on their own, but together they feel like a scrapbook of an entire collecting trip. Narrative, visual diagrams, renderings, and collected objects (including postcards and a few Mexican beer labels) are all compiled in a single volume.
I have a notion that Silberglied was a bit of an artist, though I can’t find any evidence of formal artistic training in his past. Besides utilizing color in his field books in a variety of ways, he also sketches to document his field observations and lab experiments. In looking through the materials in the collection (both field book and other materials) I found something that seemed to confirm my belief—a folder of tiny stamps depicting a butterfly, a beetle, and other insects. Silberglied carved these stamps out of regular (think Pink Pearl) erasers, with impressive detail and technique. The largest stamp is only about 1 inch square. I’m unsure of what Silberglied used these stamps for, or if he made them simply for fun.
Silberglied was also a talented and inventive photographer. Silberglied’s relationship to photography is so fascinating, in fact, that I will have to promise another blog post dedicated entirely to that topic.
I can’t help but admire Silberglied’s seamless integration of science and creativity. He was obviously a visual soul and an avid observer and documenter. Certainly, the blend makes for an interesting person, an accomplished scientist, and some very cool field notes.