By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
When I was in graduate school earning my MLIS, one of my favorite courses was on the history of books. One of the more memorable lectures in the class was on illuminated manuscripts and the book curses sometimes written in them. Scribes worked in difficult conditions for months or years at a time to create one-of-a-kind works. As a result, sometimes scribes would write warnings in the books, to discourage individuals from stealing or harming the labor-intensive creations.
The idea of a curse to protect one's texts appears to go back millenia. One of the oldest known curses comes from the library at Ninevah, c. 668 to 627 BCE:
I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it existeth [in writing]. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.
There are few modern works comparable to the medieval texts, but these warnings came to mind when I found notes in some of field books to those who might find or otherwise come into possession of them. Most of these notes look to use positive reinforcement. For example, some offer rewards. Lester F. Ward who worked for the US Geological Survey, wrote in the front cover of his field book (October 29, 1893 to June 4, 1897):
Two dollars reward will be paid to anyone returning this book, if lost, to Lester F. Ward, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington D.C.
Other field books, like those of the US Biological Survey, were issued with return postage on a perforated sheet, so someone could simply mail it back postage paid.
When reading these notes in the field books, I remember learning about the amount of time and conditions in which the medieval scribes worked. They also remind me of quotes in the field books about swarms of insects, adverse weather, and difficult travel conditions. Field books may not be as visually arresting, but they often document the same level of effort, time, and dedication. So if you have the opportunity to handle one, please handle with care.