By Edward Davis, University of Oregon
Field books are the lifeblood of a natural history collection. It's hard to conceive of a museum without its field notes, but that's exactly what I found when I arrived at the Condon Fossil Collection of the University of Oregon (UO) Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH) in 2007: close to 100 years of collections without original field notes. Digging into the problem revealed that the notebooks weren't gone (a relief) but had just followed collectors when they left the museum.
Our fossil collection traces its history back to the pioneer geologist Thomas Condon, who began collecting in the area that is now John Day National Monument in the 1860s. Condon amassed almost 6000 specimens, with the majority of his collections from the John Day and Fossil Lake fossil mammal faunas. Upon Condon’s death in 1907, UO acquired his collection, forming the basis of the current MNCH, and in 1918 hired Earl Packard to succeed him.
Packard had Condon's notebooks transcribed into a new printed catalog, which has been passed down to me through a series of mimeographs and photocopies of mimeographs. While I haven't yet seen Condon's original notebooks, I do have a good record of the provenance of Condon's fossils. I am still hopeful of finding Condon's original notebooks, and as time allows, I plan to visit the UO archives and other appropriate archives in the state.
Earl Packard’s field notes are a more difficult problem, but we seem to have found a solution. Packard oversaw the Condon Collection through the 1930s, when all natural science research at Oregon public universities (including the Condon Collection) was moved to Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. Shortly after Packard retired in 1950, the Condon Collection returned to UO, but Packard's notes have remained in Corvallis, where they are a part of the OSU archives. Elizabeth Orr, our still very active emeritus collections manager, has been instrumental in hunting down Packard’s missing records. While we don't yet have a complete set of Packard's notes, it is reassuring to know they exist and are protected at the OSU archives.
After Packard retired, the Condon Collection was incorporated into the UO Museum of Natural History under paleontologist J. Arnold Shotwell. Shotwell was a tremendous collector, amassing tens of thousands of specimens over his more than 20 years at UO. Unfortunately, a 1972 disagreement with the UO administration over budget tightening measures lead to Shotwell’s angry departure from the UO; he carried all his field notes with him. In the 2000s, Ted Fremd, then Head Paleontologist at the John Day National Monument, approached Shotwell, and the two developed a friendship. Over the following few years, Shotwell shared many of his notes with Fremd, who in turn has shared copies with us, allowing us to finally fully document Shotwell’s critical paleoecological collections. Unfortunately, Arnold Shotwell died in early 2012, but before he died the paleontologists at UO managed to reconcile with him, even recognizing him with a MNCH lifetime achievement award. His family has graciously agreed to pass on to MNCH the remainder of the notes, photographs, and maps documenting his field collections.
The UO paleontologists after Shotwell are still with the university, either as emeritus or active faculty, and have been contributing their field books to the MNCH archives. For all new collections, we archive digital copies of field books annually and add their printouts to the museum’s physical archives. I hope my story gives you a sense of the frustration I have felt tracking down these notes, knowing that the effort of decades of fieldwork is lost without them. A sense of scientific duty drives my new dedication to the immediate deposit of field notes. As ethical collectors, we must ensure that future workers won’t have to search for our field books; without supporting documentation, the specimens we collect today may as well be paperweights.