By Ellen Alers, Reference Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), along with the Natural Museum of Natural History, hosts staff from the Field Book Project (FBP) and sometimes helps provide reference for unique field book collections. Field books, however, are not the reference team's only responsibility, and their uniqueness poses special challenges for us.
The SIA is the institutional archives for the whole of the Smithsonian. It collects, preserves and makes accessible records that document the establishment and ongoing work of the institution—19 museums and galleries, nine research centers, the National Zoo, and administrative offices—you get the picture. It's the largest archives collection within the Smithsonian and, I venture to say, one of the best exposed on the web. SIA made a conscious decision to make its holding’s as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience. Virtually all unrestricted finding aids (4265) are searchable and available online. This, as you may guess, is a blessing and a curse.
The volume of requests is high (5000 remote requests last year), international in scope, and the audience diverse—kids, scholars, research scientists, genealogists, etc. So, it is not uncommon for a member of the reference staff—thankfully there are three of us—to hop from researching objects in an exhibition to locating an architectural structures report from the 1970s to investigating the donation of a leather pocketbook in the 1920s to acquiring the skeletal measurements for the elephant in the rotunda of the Museum of Natural History. This makes the team consummate generalists rather than experts in the subtle minutia—think Swiss Army rather than sushi knife.
Because SIA finding aids are well done, a good number of the questions are focused and direct with a fairly clear path to the answer. Field books, however, pose different challenges and make the FBP shine as a reference archivist's dream.
Like any reference request, understanding what a patron hopes/expects us to provide is one thing, and what we actually find is another. Sometimes this shortfall can be disappointing for the researcher. On the one hand, this stems from a researcher's unfulfilled expectation of what they think “should” be there. On the other hand, sometimes the reference staff doesn't have the time to read the notes deeply, copy hundreds of pages from delicate notebooks, or possess the expertise to spot the telltale that solves the mystery.
The FBP staff's careful cataloging, digital scanning of the notebooks and blogging make these hard-to-find treasures available to researchers anywhere in the world. They have identified materials in other parts of the institution, expanding the scope of known resources. They have established connections between collectors, identifying possible resources for filling gaps in one field book by looking at a fellow collector's field book from the same expedition. (For more on this topic check out Tammy Peters’s blog post on historical context and connections.)
The focus of the FBP staff allows them more time than the reference team to delve into the details and personalities behind the notebooks and uncover interesting tidbits—cocktail recipes, poetry and sketches (both visual and textual), brow raising stories of collectors—that really bring these records to life. Bottom line, they could dish some dirt in the 1920s.
In all, the FBP promises a virtual archive that researchers can access from their desks anywhere in the world and that makes this reference archivist very happy.