By Colleen Funkhouser, Field Book Project graduate intern, spring 2015.
As an intern for the Field Book Project, I have spent the past four months cataloging and digitizing field books housed at the Smithsonian Institution. As a master's student in Library and Information Science with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology, I have a great interest in both the organization and access of the information in these field books, as well as the specific scientific information they contain. Cataloging these collections gave me a glimpse into the past of my field of study.
For instance, while cataloging color illustrations and correspondence in Collected Notes, Lists, and Catalogs on Birds, 1839, 1849-1851, 1855-1987, I came across numerous references to the collection and study of bird eggs, known as oology. To a wildlife biologist educated in the 21st century, this collection of bird nests and eggs, and sometimes the killing of the parents for identification, was downright unspeakable. My education heavily emphasized the regulations dictating the collection and study of wild species, particularly the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Endangered Species Act. I clearly lacked the historical perspective of scientific information gathered from this now arcane type of collection. Oology was a mix of professional scientific study and amateur collecting. The Library of Congress has an excellent post titled Oh, Oology!, describing the practice and the Smithsonian Institution’s role in promoting egg collection. In addition to trading and selling egg collections, oologists would share information with other scientists, help identify unknown species, and describe the conditions under which specimens were collected.
One letter in particular struck me as preposterous today, but likely commonplace in 1890. In the June 11, 1890 letter from William C. Avery to Robert Ridgway, the curator of birds at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), Avery describes the location and conditions under which multiple specimens of the Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) were collected at his home in Alabama. He states that it was necessary to kill the adults in order to verify identification and obtain the nest. This left the young unattended. Avery took the young birds home and raised them as pets. He also describes the behavior of the young birds as they mature.
Thankfully, modern day ornithologists are not likely to repeat the practices of the 1800’s, nor should they. But providing access to these original collection details provides an opportunity to continue learning from primary source materials collected and preserved centuries prior.
During my internship, I had the opportunity to assist in nearly every step of the process to make these field books more accessible. I rehoused and labeled three boxes (over 100 individual field books) from a filing cabinet in the paleobiology department to archival-quality folders and storage boxes at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. I assessed nine boxes (over 450 folders) of materials to determine whether the items fit our criteria for inclusion in the project. I created item-level catalog records for nearly 100 items, including color illustrations and correspondence from the 1800’s, field books and travel logs from the 1930’s, and black and white photographs from the 1960-70’s. I also researched biographical histories of more than two dozen individuals identified as creators of materials in our collections in order to more fully reflect their relationships to the collections and to document their scientific contributions and life histories. Lastly, I digitized and applied technical, descriptive, and administrative metadata to 10 field books (more than 2000 individual pages). These images will eventually be searchable via the Smithsonian Collections Search Center, Digital Public Library of America, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
While my contribution to the Field Book Project is only a small piece of the ongoing work, it has both expanded my professional skill set and also shown me the importance of preserving and making accessible the scientific record of those who have gone before me. As Vicky Steeves wrote in The Next Frontier of Stewardship: the Value of Field Books in a Digital Age, “ 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.” Providing access to this historical information will continue to support ongoing research in natural history and add contextual value to specimens already in use at our scientific institutions.