By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
This is a story about a very large collection: Record Unit 000245 National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (POBSP), records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923. Ask anyone who has cataloged for the Field Book Project and they will tell you, this is a collection that seems to have no end. We have been cataloging portions of it since 2011. It currently includes over 800 item records. That is an amazing percentage of the total 7000 field book records--and we’re still cataloging part of the collection. Keep in mind, the POBSP project ran for 12 years.
The collection is broken down by format. Diaries and notebooks with day to day collecting information were cataloged first. We are now cataloging the field correspondence.
Over the last two and a half years I’ve cataloged my share of field correspondence. This can be fairly dry material. It is also often filled with descriptions of tribulations and challenges: struggles with expenses, permits, travel, shipments, and personnel. One develops a real appreciation for the challenges that come with field work logistics.
The field correspondence for RU000245 is rather unique. POBSP was a project that required coordination of large numbers of staff spread over the Hawaiian Islands and parts of Alaska. There was also the challenge of coordinating activities and travel with the US Military. Letters seem to indicate these challenges brought along a lot of frustrations when trying to complete field work. Lucky for the men in the field (as far as I can tell it was all men collecting), there was someone in the home office that seemed to be well-organized, willing to read their complaints, and offer some needed levity.
When I started cataloging the Project correspondence, I was soon laughing out-loud at the contents. For all the logistical challenges and frustrations, the correspondents seemed to keep their sense of humor, and then I realized all these letters were being sent to the research secretary. It seems to me that a secretary of a department with so many in the field plays a unique role. References in letters describe her dealing with forwarding personal utility bills, negotiating staffing issues, among other challenges. Her letters indicate she did this well and with a good sense of humor that inspired the same in her correspondents.
Several letters I came across indicate that she was sometimes a field collector’s only correspondent and even made sure to send birthday cards. Collectors’ letters sometimes described painful conditions on islands that were isolated, hot, and dusty. They would band birds hours at a stretch in areas inundated with bird guano. Actually, bird guano is a consistent theme in the letters. These challenges appeared to inspire a great appreciation of her letters and cards by the recipients.
I can only imagine this lessened a little of the field collectors’ stress, knowing someone back home had an eye out for them. For me it makes the cataloging of field materials a lot more enjoyable.
Below are a few examples of the field correspondence.
“We are both hale and hearty and covered with Bonin Island Petrel and Fairy Tern you-know-what. The trunk with my clothes hasn’t arrived as yet so this tends to increase the perfume.” [Box 20, Folder 2]
“Will you please send me your fingerprints? If I can’t have a hand to hold please don’t deprive me of your fingerprints, too. Two sets, each on a standard gov’t form, from your nearest military security office.” [Box 20, Folder 2]
“You ask me ‘why no complaints’. Very simple. By the time I get everything straightened out I’m too tired to complain.” [Box 20, Folder 2]
"As on the first trip, only the term "nil" can describe the Navy's knowledge of our operation. Despite the fact that this was pointed out after the first trip, it needs to be pointed out again." [Box 20, Folder 1]
“Incidentally, why 6 sleeping bags when there are only 5 field team official sleepers? How many unofficial sleepers are there? And who is using all those blankets and sheets from the Surplus Store?” [Box 20, Folder 1]
Field work often seems fascinating. Many of our blogs describe field work in places like Macchu Picchu, newly formed Volcanoes (Paricutin), or the seeming ends of the earth like Antarctica. As captivating as field work appears, there are inherent stresses that come with working in far flung locations. I am glad to know people like this secretary were on the home front, making it a little easier.