By Sonoe Nakasone, Cataloging Coordinator, Field Book Project
It was a sweltering hot summer afternoon when the phone, weak from the D.C. heat, gave a woozy ring.
“Alright, kid, you’re in. You start Monday.” It was the voice of Tammy Peters, Supervisory Archivist at Smithsonian Institution Archives. “Bring your smarts, kid, ‘cause you’re gonna need ‘em.” *Click.*
Surprised, I stood like stone clenching the phone, dial tone droning in the background after Tammy hung up. “Cataloging Coordinator,” I thought. “This should be interesting.”
My first few days working for the Field Book Project flew by in a blur until the day Carolyn Sheffield, Project Manager, decided it was time for an initiation. On that day, she led me deep into the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History through a dark winding hall. We were half way between the ocean floor and the earth’s core when I saw a light beckon from our destination: The Botany and Horticulture Library.
“You get used to the walk,” she smirked.
We crept along the stacks until we reached the rows where field books lay each as strange as the next. I saw one with at least two other books bound inside it. Another was as large as an elephant and filled with photos. Others were small enough to fit into a mouse’s breast pocket. The writing in some was as intricate and decorative as a medieval manuscript, and in others, scratchier than a chicken’s claws. Within the first five minutes of this journey, I could tell smooth sailing wasn’t ahead.
* * *
Okay, so it didn’t really happen like that, but I did become Cataloging Coordinator on the Field Book Project in the uncomfortably hot summer of 2010. At that time, we had zero catalog records and agreements with only the Department of Botany and the Smithsonian Institution Archives to catalog field books. But we also had the hope and the inspiring vision of our Principle Investigators Rusty Russell and Anne Van Camp that if we built it—by “it” we mean the workflows, cataloging infrastructure, and Field Book Registry—they would come.
And they did. We now have nearly 7,000 item level records from the Departments of Botany and Entomology, the Divisions of Birds, Fishes, and Mammals, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. In addition to our item records, we have records describing the collections these items belong to and records describing the persons, organizations, and expeditions that created the field notes.
Two and a half years has not only brought about the realization of our cataloging goals, we’ve also enjoyed sharing with our supporters what we learn from the field notes through our blog, Flickr, Twitter, and our Website. This has enabled us to form partnerships and develop educational and outreach opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.
As interesting as the individual stories that each field book tells are, what I find far more compelling is the overarching story of access to information and building bridges between similar and related information. Although I will no longer be working for the Field Book Project, I look forward to seeing great things to come, for example, crowdsourcing and the Semantic Web.
With so much information and so few resources to make sense of it, crowdsourcing is the way to go. “Citizen Scientists” and enthusiasts can transcribe digitally imaged field notes to make them keyword searchable for researchers. Transcription also enables tools like Taxon Finder to identify and tag scientific names in the field books or similar tools to recognize geographic names and entity names (e.g. persons, organizations, and expeditions). Once these names are recognized, other tools can be built to link those names to existing information (like in Encyclopedia of Life or SNAC) on the web or prompt visitors to annotate transcriptions (e.g. So You Think You Can Digitize), geotag, or create an authority record for entities. Data visualizations such as mappings, word graphs, time lines, and many others will also be made easier by transcription and crowdsourcing. Such visualizations present the data in a way that is easy to grasp at a glance, but also allows us to see trends and relationships we might not otherwise see.
There is also potential for the Field Book Project metadata to become part of the Semantic Web. Natural Collections Description (NCD), which FBP uses for collection level descriptions, and Metadata Objects Description Schema (MODS), which FBP uses for item level data, are being enhanced with Research Description Framework (RDF), one of the key components of the Semantic Web. In a nutshell, the use of the RDF data model will enable connections between data from different schemas, platforms, and applications. More information on RDF is found at http://www.w3.org/RDF/.
Needless to say, I’ll be keeping an eye on the exciting things happening here at the Field Book Project, and I hope you will too because this project is Seriously Amazing.
That said, perhaps I should exit the way I came…
* * *
As the sun set on a cold February Friday, its gold-red light blanketed my badge, lying stoically on my empty desk. I picked up my box of things and headed for the door. A sound from behind made me turn. It was Tammy’s footsteps as she walked out of her office slowly. With half her mouth smiling and a twinkle in her eye she said, “You did good, kid. You did good.”