By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
This summer was filled with milestones, not only for our Project, but for others as well. The exciting news in July that Old Weather, a crowd-sourcing transcription project we admire, completed transcriptions for thousands of ships logs made me reflect on our own logbook collections, particularly the Albatross logbooks, which I am currently cataloging. The Albatross logbooks are part of the United States Bureau of Fisheries Records, circa 1877-1948 (Smithsonian Institution Archives RU7184). Although often seemingly sparse with information, these items contain valuable records of marine collecting, weather conditions, and history.
The Smithsonian obtained the Albatross (and other famous research vessel) logbooks through its close relationship with the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries (later the Bureau of Fisheries, and still later, the Fish and Wildlife Service) established in 1871 by Congress. Congress appointed then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Fullerton Baird, as the new agency’s Commissioner. The Smithsonian became the depository for specimens collected by the commission, and with the specimens came the logbooks. The Albatross, built in 1882 as a United States Bureau of Fisheries vessel, became the first large ship specifically designed for marine research. During a nearly 40 year career, the ship carried out numerous expeditions, most notably in the Arctic, Galapagos Islands, Philippines, Hawaiian Islands, and the West and Pacific Northwest of North America, greatly increasing the natural history collections at the Smithsonian.
One obvious use for the Albatross logbooks is the marine specimen information recorded within. Although not all Albatross logbooks contain notes about what was collected, a large number of them do. Quick notes about the quantities and types of specimens collected, including fish and a variety of marine invertebrates, were often recorded. Over extended periods of time, such information has the potential to help researchers notice patterns, compare marine populations of the past to present populations, and perhaps predict future trends. Such a use for information within logbooks is suggested by Poul Holm in his article “Where are the big fish?”, which discusses the declining populations of big fish evidenced by hundreds of years of fisherman’s logs and archival records.Another promising aspect of the Albatross logbooks is its record of temperature and weather information. Water temperatures at various depths were recorded as well as air temperature, wind, clouds, state of the sea, weather (rain, fog, etc.), direction and force of current, tide, and barometer reading. Daily weather data over long time periods can be useful for understanding past environments, for making predictions, and for understanding the impact of weather on biodiversity. The Old Weather project saw these potential uses of weather information within the Royal Navy logbooks they transcribed, as explained on their blog in the article “The Royal Navy as Weather Observers.”
There is untold potential for researchers to use the information within the Albatross and other ships’ logbooks to discover patterns and linkages within marine ecosystems and also to fill in gaps of our historical knowledge. When looking at the various uses for the important specimen, weather, and historical information within these logbooks, I look forward to being able to emulate the success of projects like Old Weather in order to unlock more of these data in logbooks and other field books.
Logbooks can also be useful records of historical events, which I learned early on when cataloging the Allan Bé Papers. These daily notes contain incredible historic value because they document the precise activities of organizations (i.e. institutions and research vessels) and people (i.e. expedition staff). In this way, logbooks can potentially reconstruct the biography of a research vessel or the people who traveled and collected aboard it. Old Weather noted this potential for regaining historical context, too, in "An Historical Perspective."