By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Many of the collections I’ve cataloged have had extensive correspondence and other types of materials documenting the planning of expeditions. I have sometimes found a year’s worth of materials covering negotiations between institutions, companies, and nations. These types of materials do not fall into the scope of what we catalog, but they can be helpful to us for understanding information we find in field books from a collecting trip. They often include details about where collecting occurred, what circumstances affected collecting, and where documenting materials reside.
We often know a lot about the planning before a collecting event, but frequently the more mundane details like meal planning, day-to-day accommodations, and such are not documented except in archival materials created during an expedition. These types of logistics are usually discussed in collector journals or correspondence about shipping specimens to home institutions.
So I was very surprised to find a bound and embossed notebook from the National Geographic Society Yale University Peruvian Expedition, 1915, with information and directions for participants during the trip. The notebook contains official circulars for the expedition, covering almost all aspects of the expedition preparation and execution. Some are instructions for personnel (including local dentistry options), care and purchase of equipment (including mules), weekly menus with recipes, procedures, expedition updates, contact information, and examples of types of pottery discovered. Circulars are numbered and sometimes dated. Some are even in Spanish for the local staff.
Unfortunately this notebook contains no original documentation about specimens collected, so it is not cataloged, but it a fascinating example of supplementary materials that sometimes exist alongside the field books. It struck me as akin to a modern travel guide. Like many of the materials we find, I don’t know the entire history of the item such as whether members had to update their own copies with new memos or if there was even more than one copy. But, it is a fascinating example of how to handle the day-to-day logistics of an expedition. I find this notebook especially fascinating because it seems so unusual compared to the documentation I’ve found for expeditions of the same time period. The kind of consistency of participant documentation it promotes and the wide range of local information it contains seems to correlate with major collecting efforts I’ve cataloged from the 1960s.
I have not found the documents instructing participants for the collecting trips of the 1960s, I’ve only seen the results. The similarity in field book and catalog content from projects like Smithsonian African Mammal Project and Smithsonian Venezuela Project indicate that the projects had explicit instructions about the type of information to be collected and how it should be recorded.
It seems that if documents covering day-to-day logistics exist for collecting events, they are not frequently retained; yet these types of materials provide much needed information about what participants look for and what they are to document. They provide details about daily life in the field that in inspire imagination, and I love the glimpse back in time that this expedition guide represents. Besides, if it were not for these documents, I might never have learned about erbswurst (that’s a hint to read the daily menu!).