By Carolyn Sheffield, Project Manager, Field Book Project
When the Field Book Project kicked off in 2010, we were setting out to catalog all of the biodiversity field books at the Smithsonian, for a total of 6,000 field books, by the end of 2012. Today, I am excited to share that we have reached that milestone nearly four months ahead of schedule!
Over the last couple of years, we’ve discovered that there are well over 6,000 field books, currently estimated at over 8,000, so we will continue cataloging and blogging about what we find. We’ve discovered a lot of other things as well, and so I can’t help feeling what better time to look back on what we’ve found and look forward to where we’re going.
Field books come in many shapes and sizes
If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you’ve probably come across our musings on just what exactly is a field book. The more obvious formats are handwritten notes and journals. For more visually-oriented scientists, sketches, maps and photographs can comprise a substantial portion of their field notes. Some of my personal favorites are those that combine the textual with the visual such as Moynihan’s illustrated notes or Chapin’s scrapbook approach.
Of course, the shape and size of field books also vary from collector to collector and from year to year. Changes in manufacturing processes for paper, book binding and photographic processes have contributed to the wide variety of note taking materials ranging from quintessential government issued green journals to stereographs and lantern slides. For an overview of these and other formats, see the timeline in Field Books Through the Ages: A Visual Timeline.
Field books provide useful information for many different types of research
There is no “right way” to take field notes and so it’s not surprising that field notes can vary greatly from collector to collector. Anne Van Camp, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and a Principal Investigator on the Field Book Project, notes that:
(Some field books) go way beyond just documenting the collecting and really record a much richer personal description of the whole process of exploration and collecting. It surprised me how rich these things really are. I think the whole process of understanding scientific exploration of the environment is really fascinating on so many levels. I think there’s something exciting in it for everyone.
The purely scientific data and observations which form a large component of field book content are not only extremely interesting, but also useful for answering some big research questions. In his post The Living Legacy of Field Research at the Smithsonian, Secretary Clough discusses how field work can reveal clues about both the causes and effects of climate change through the study of fossils and provide insights into how similar changes might impact us today. More recent notes can also be useful in understanding what changes have occurred over a shorter time space. Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, a graduate student in Boston University’s Biology program, recently guest blogged for us on a set of field notes from the 1880’s, which she’ll use as the basis for a comparative analysis as she re-surveys Mount Desert Island’s contemporary flora. For me, this kind of historical comparison, which field books enable, is one of the most powerful illustrations of the relevance of field notes to contemporary scientific research.
As we continue cataloging the Smithsonian field book collections, we are also moving forward on some of our short and long term goals for making this content widely available. Our larger vision for the Field Book Project is to not only deliver a public facing, online database of all of this rich content but to extend that into a Field Book Registry to accept content from institutions beyond the Smithsonian.
Rusty Russell, Collections Program Manager of the Department of Botany and a Principal Investigator on the Field Book Project describes his vision for the future of the Field Book Project:
Longer term, we will invest in technologies to provide word level access to field book content for a broad range of scholarly study, and to compose triplets [that describe relationships between species, places and dates] to support studies of biological and planetary changes.
Those efforts will involve both existing and emerging technologies and we’re looking forward to collaborating with potential Field Book Registry contributors, technologists, and the researchers who will use the Registry to explore those technologies and make this content widely accessible for a variety of research purposes.
Where would you like to see the project go from here? Let us know in the comments!