Field books are fascinating. The sheer variety of content and formats can be dizzying. The Smithsonian has field books that document field work on every continent. They not only document natural history but sometimes include personal insights on contemporary events. I would also say that field books suffer from the same problem as archival materials in general. Like most archive collections, users may not initially know what to expect in terms of the kind of information a field book might contain, so users have a difficult time anticipating what they might find useful.
Over the years I’ve seen multiple articles written by archivists about how challenging a visit to an archive can be for a first time user. First time users may be very experienced at research. It’s not uncommon for them to be working on advanced degrees. However their research experience may be limited to utilizing secondary sources like books and journals found in a library or now ever-present on Google.
Archival materials vary dramatically in content and format, and each collection has its own structure. Users may ask what kind of information they can find in an archival collection. The answer is: it depends on the collection creator. All the papers, photographs, emails, even text messages a creator made during a lifetime could end up being housed in an archive collection. That’s a lot of varied and possibly important, unique information. Field documentation can be just as varied in content and format.
So back to my original question: what do you do with a field book?
- Clarify the history of a specimen. A specimen tag may list location information like state or country. The field journal may provide specific details about the specimen when it was alive, and the location/environment where it was collected like nearby rivers, elevation, or the day’s temperature. These additional details can be of use to contemporary methods of scientific study. The ability to revisit the first recording of details about a specimen can be important, especially in cases like the Olinguito. Scientists recently determined it to be a previously unidentified species through research using resources like DNA, natural history specimens, and field documentation .
- Resurvey a site. Field books from a survey can be imperative when resurveying an area. Knowing exactly how and where the collectors were means that the current collector can accurately duplicate the collecting methods and thus make it possible to compare results. Check out the Grinnell Resurvey.
- Information for datamining. Field book information can also be used and aggregated to answer questions unrelated to the original specimen collecting. For instance, many places in the world did not have organized efforts to record local temperatures until the nineteenth and twentieth century. Projects liked Old Weather collect temperature data recorded in logbooks, diaries, etc. and create banks of temperature data.
We often write about the great stories and surprising finds in the field books, but at the heart of it, these documents hold a wealth of information, waiting to be used. The more accessible we make the information, the more ways people will find to use it. Have you used field books in your research? If so, let us know in the comments!