By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
I write this in homage to all the Field Book Project interns who have, in the span of a week or months, turned out such great work.
I have worked in museums, historical societies, libraries, and archives in some manner most of my adult life. Before earning a Master’s in Library and Information Science (MLIS), I had been an intern, volunteer, or paid staff member performing a range of tasks from database design to conservation work. In these jobs I often felt like I was on the edge of the LIS profession, waiting to get into the thick of things. I thought when I got a job necessitating an MLIS, I would end up somewhere in the midst of what I saw in library school as the “norm”.
This has not been the case, which suits my background and interests. What I have come to realize is that the “norm” I envisioned just isn’t or won’t be for long. Much of what seems to be happening in archives, libraries, and museums is an ongoing conversation constantly defining a new norm. Projects like the Field Book Project (FBP) reside on this dynamic edge. This project is the result of ongoing dialog between archivists, librarians, and museum professionals who are striving to figure out new ways to express relationships between their holdings. In this case, we are working to express the relationship between the types of information in field notes in a way useful to a range of natural history disciplines. Additionally, as information management professionals, we do this within the ethics and principles of our professions.
What does this mean? Technology makes connecting and accessing materials increasingly easy. Archives, library, and museum professionals strive to make the new connections consistent, pertinent, accurate, as well as assure the materials will be available for the long haul—in the face of paper deterioration or technological obsolescence.
Initial planning for the FBP was comprised of conversations between staff at Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History, since field books are held by departments across the Smithsonian Institution. The resulting cataloging is a hybrid using Encoded Archival Context (EAC), a standard created for archives; Natural Collections Descriptions (NCD), created for natural history collections; and item level cataloging similar to what libraries use.
Since I’ve been a part of FBP, I’ve seen that the separation between types of institutions is no longer quite so deep. Information about resources is organized less by where the resource is located and increasingly by content and context. Just two years ago, I found few if any descriptions of field books online. Recently, libraries, archives, and museums have put catalog records for field books in Biodiversity Heritage Library; OCLC’s WorldCat; and are preparing to contribute to the Digital Public Library of America. Each of the online field book records offers varying types of description. The conversation about how to best represent a field book is ongoing. We currently have over 6600 field book records in our Field Book Registry (now available on Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center), and we plan to eventually include catalog records from other institutions nationally.
Seeing this play out, I begin to see that lessons I learned in graduate school were the result of previous conversations dealing with challenges of an earlier time. As a student I learned how LIS professionals dealt with challenges in the past and about what they were doing now. Once I started working with the materials, staff, and users, I saw how these examples from school taught me the places to look and the principles to use when I became part of the conversation.
So what does all this mean for the interns? Two points come to mind. First, this “edge” is where internships seem to blossom. Many of the most interesting internships are with projects and programs that are small, innovative, and that deal with how to make information accessible beyond its original confines. The Smithsonian has a lot of these. Secondly, this “edge” will probably be the norm for a while, so be sure to listen to the conversations. For a long time, information resources (e.g. books or primary documents) were mostly defined by where they resided. Now, libraries, archives, and museums are progressing to where content is also a driving force in how their collections are described and accessed.
So interns, listen, watch, ask, and share. Whether it’s a week or a semester, the internship is your chance to hear the conversation first hand. And, thanks for all the great work!