By Tad Bennicoff, Reference Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives
One of the joys (and perhaps frustrations!) of conducting historical research is the mystery of what might be found upon reviewing original, archival materials. Quite often, one enters into such research with anticipation, hope, and a level of expectation regarding the information being sought. If the focus of consulting a particular historical resource lies solely in unearthing details to further one’s own theory, or confirm an expectation, it can become easy to overlook the fascinating materials encountered along the way, and the destination becomes more important than the journey. Such was the case as I commenced with this article.
My experience working with the Smithsonian’s collection of field books is rather limited, as I am not assigned to the Field Book Project, but rather am a Reference Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. My chief responsibility is to reply to the inquiries we receive related to our holdings. Thus, I do not have the luxury of becoming intimate with a particular collection and spend considerable time breezing past materials that may be of personal interest, but unrelated to a specific research request. This very “businesslike” approach is similar to James A. Peters's style of note taking found in Record Unit 7175: James A. Peters Papers, and Records of the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians, 1927-1973 (Papers), 1927-1966 (Records).
James Arthur Peters (1922-1972) was trained as a biologist. He spent time as a member of the Brown University faculty (1952-1958) and served as Professor of Biology at San Fernando State College (1959-1964) prior to accepting the position Associate Curator in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) in 1964. He became “supervisor and curator” of the division in 1967, a title which he held until his untimely passing in 1972. His field notes are very professional, his handwriting quite legible. Each entry includes careful details, such as the date, location, and circumstances under which a specimen was observed. It is obvious that Dr. Peters valued his field notes, as he added typed pages expressing conclusions formed after extensive observations in the field. His field notes also include tracings of specimens from published works wth citations. Upon reviewing just a few pages, it becomes clear that the field notes of James Arthur Peters would be a valuable resource for an aspiring or established Herpetologist.
Conducting research on another’s behalf can be challenging, especially when you happen upon interesting or curious materials unrelated to the request. This happens quite frequently, as it did upon preparing this post. I was reviewing the field notes of George Sprague Myers (Record Unit 7317: George Sprague Myers Papers, circa 1903-1986 and undated,) a Herpetologist, Ichthyologist, and former Assistant Curator in Charge, Division of Fishes, United States National Museum. Professor Myers left the United States National Museum in 1936 to accept a professorship at his alma mater, Stanford University. Myers was a prolific writer and educator, with more than 600 published papers to his credit (a well-written memorial resolution for George Sprague Myers is available online.)
The Myers Papers are rich with correspondence, research notes, and scientific manuscripts. Included among his papers is a notebook labeled “Period 4 English, Room 307, D.H.S.” (Box 57, Folder 1: High School Notebook). It sparked my curiosity, so I had to have a look. The notebook contains Myers notes on Homer’s Odyssey, long a standard study of a high school English class. Flipping through the pages you will find notes on Greek gods and characters represented in the epic, as well as notes on fish! Adjacent to a page full of notes on the Helvetians (Myers must have used this notebook for a History class one particular day) are drawings of fish! There are similar notes and drawings present throughout the notebook. Thus, even in high school, while others were daydreaming of summer vacation or perhaps their Friday evening hangout, Myers, who had found his calling as an Ichthyologist, was daydreaming of fish!
The field books held by the Smithsonian Institution may be viewed as a microcosm of the Institution itself; there is a little something for everyone, whether it be the seasoned scientist seeking very specific data, a student of history interested in reviewing primary sources, or a researcher hoping to develop a human profile of a field book author who seemingly gathered and processed data with machine-like precision. One of the goals of the Field Book Project is to digitize many of the field books and make them available with only a few strokes of your keyboard. If you are interested, and take the time to review the pages and enjoy the journey, I believe you will find the field books to be much like the totality of the Smithsonian Institution: Seriously Amazing!
More James A. Peters field notes on our blog
More herpetology field notes on our blog