By Vicky Steeves, American Museum of Natural History
Hello! My name is Vicky Steeves, and I’m the National Digital Stewardship Resident at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. My project at the AMNH is to survey the scientific curators about how they manage, store, and preserve their digital research and collections data, and provide recommendations to the AMNH on those three facets. This primarily consists of conducting interviews within the science divisions at the Museum so that I can form a baseline metric to compare the Museum’s needs with existing standards and best practices for scientific data management, storage, and preservation.
While the scope of my project is in the digital realm, I am constantly shown the value of field books and older scientific texts through conversations with science staff. All the scientists at the AMNH are as passionate about our historic collections of field notebooks as they are about their own field notes. The curatorial staff recognizes that these notebooks represent important data points not only in the field, as research data, but also in terms of the history of science--these are things that cannot be lost to time or negligence. The work done is too important. During my interviews, many scientists have expressed to me that the most important data from their work are actually their field notes--the majority of which are still done with good old fashioned pencil and paper. A subset of these folks will digitize their field notes as time allows, and an even fewer number of curators record their field notes digitally, though without exception, everyone has expressed a desire to digitize and preserve their notebooks.
One of my most memorable experiences was a tour of the archives in the Mammalogy department in the division of Vertebrate Zoology. I was there interviewing a curator who is exceptionally passionate about the historical science collection, and was surprised I had never been to see these particular archives. He showed me some of the old catalogues of specimens, but I could see his eyes light up as we approached the incredibly massive collection of field books held under lock and key in a “cage.”
|AMNH Mammalogy Division Archives, photo courtesy of Vicky Steeves and the American Museum of Natural History|
As I flipped through some of the newer, less vulnerable books he told me he often comes into this section of the archives to examine old accounts of expeditions, which tend to include species descriptions, and descriptions of environments that have changed drastically in the intervening years. He told me sometimes he visited these books as frequently as once a day because the information within these hundred year old volumes is so helpful to his research.
This was, to me, an awe-inspiring representation about the beauty of natural sciences. In spite of the advances in scientific methodologies and tools, there are vast quantities of information that have yet to be mined from these unpublished notebooks--valuable information about the world that was which helps scientists make strides in explaining the world as it is and what it might become. Its importance cannot be overstated.
|Henry Fairfield Osborn's notes about Hell Creek formation, Montana, 1908, photo courtesy of Vicky Steeves and the American Museum of Natural History|
Take this image from Henry Fairfield Osborn’s field book from his vertebrate paleontology expedition from 1906-1908 as an example. We can see from the image above that he is documenting the sediment layers of this geological formation. Paleontologists often take cues from the chemical makeup of rock and earth layers to look at major changes in the Earth’s environment, which can help glean information about what life was like at that point in our planet’s history.
Images from field books act as “pictures in time,” allowing present-day scientists to work with data in physical locations which have since been altered by weather or other external factors. Close to a hundred years later, these resources are still used in scholarly discourse: This image was used in our AMNH Paleontology Division Chair and Curator-in-Charge Mark Norell’s Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory, published in 2000. This is the true beauty of what we do as science librarians--keep the record of scientific discourse accessible through time.
The AMNH Research Library has taken steps to ensure these field books, both digital and analog, are being taken care of for future use. The Library was recently awarded a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation to catalogue field books across the Museum, the first step towards their digitization. My own project is similarly involved in “cataloguing” what informational assets the Museum has, however it extends beyond field and lab books to all digital data in Science.
|Field book from an African expedition, AMNH Mammalogy Archives, photo courtesy of Vicky Steeves and the American Museum of Natural History|
The final deliverable of my project will be a set of recommendations to the Museum for storage, management, and preservation of digital assets. Undoubtedly, I will include a section specific to preserving digital field notes and books, as it is a huge concern for curators and indeed, the scientific community at large. My most preliminary recommendations in regard to field books are these: first catalogue them, even if only minimally; digitize any that are not already digitized; and stay ahead of the curve and update your file formats to avoid obsolescence.
Taking care of analog materials is a very established discipline at this point--while the tools are being continually refined, there is an abundance of information available to would-be conservators and archivists about taking care of their physical letters, journals, what have you. The next frontier of stewardship lies entirely in the digital realm--so to all the science librarians out there, I would say to get involved with the digital life of your user group and begin discussions about digital preservation of their field and lab books--because their value NEVER depreciates.