By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
As part of the Beyond the Field Book Project section of our blog, we continue our series of interviews to learn more about who uses field books and for what kinds of research. I had the opportunity to interview David Pawson, PhD, with the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. He is a marine biologist, primarily studying sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and sea lilies. Dr. Pawson came to the Smithsonian in 1964. Over the course of his career, he has completed field work in a great variety of marine habitats, which has included more than 100 dives in research submarines, down to depths of more than two miles. Dr. Pawson was kind enough to share with us about his methods of field note documentation and how he has used field books in his research.
What types of information do you find important to record in field notes?
My “field notes” consist of several things—notebook entries describing what is seen during dives, still color images, cassette tape recordings, and videotapes. The cameras record most of the “vital” information; color, size, number of animals seen, and the commentary accompanying video recordings can provide information on behavior and other aspects.
What role do field notes play in the research process?
An absolutely vital role—we couldn’t function without them, of course. And, of course, the “notes” are usually accompanied by specimens we have collected, so we have the best of all worlds—well-documented animals!
Do you ever consult field notes done for another expedition, for example an historic expedition? If so, how do you use the information in those notes for your research?
Again, more recent expeditions, where “field notes” in the form of still and video images were made, can provide an endless amount of information. In the late 1960s and 1970s, at the Lamont Geological Observatory in New York, I studied more than 1 million seafloor photographs that had been taken at great depths in many parts of the world’s oceans. These provided a wealth of extremely valuable information on the animals we study. Older expeditions, where field notes are available, can provide much information of value to accompany the specimens collected. My wife and I have a particular interest in expeditions made by the US Fish Commission Steamer Albatross from 1883 to 1921, and we have consulted field notebooks compiled by various scientists who sailed on this ship—Paul Bartsch, Waldo Schmitt, Austin Clark, and others from the Smithsonian—and other notebooks held in various archives (Harvard University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography). These notebooks provide a lot of information, not only about life aboard a research steamship 100 years ago, but also on the animals caught, the sampling equipment used, and on the laboratory work that was performed. We are writing two books on the work of the Albatross.
If historic field books were available online, how would you want to be able to search them?
It would be most desirable if a keyword search could be made of these field books.
Is there anything else you would like to add…?
Just this: Any field notes are of great actual or potential value to science, not only because of their historic interest, but also because they can provide great scientific information! A friend of mine is studying Monterey Bay in California—learning as much as he can about the marine life in the Bay 50 to 100 years ago. He is trying to document changes that have occurred, and seeking the reasons for changes. Even casual field notes, taken decades ago, are proving to be sources of a great amount of valuable information.
Thank you, Dr. Pawson, for sharing with us about your work process and the use and value of field notes relating to your research. You can learn more about invertebrate zoology field notes on our blog.