The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian
Near the turn of the 20th century, ornithologist and naturalist Dr. Edgar A. Mearns set out on expeditions armed with paper and pen to record his findings. Within his field books, Mearns methodically captured details of specimens that were collected using descriptions, scientific classification and sketches.
In 1909, Mearns joined President Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently ended his presidency, and scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History (New York) on an expedition to East Africa. Two field notebooks documenting this trip are found in the Edgar A. Mearns Collection at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Included are handwritten notes about the Suez Canal in Egypt and evidence that from May 2-12, 1909 the expedition party stayed at the farm of Sir Alfred E. Pease in modern-day Kenya. During every expedition, each specimen collected was given an entry; e.g., entry 1299 is reported to be the species Acacia farnesiana, a member of the legume family (Fabaceae). Other collecting expeditions are documented in the Mearns Collection, including the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1855), which set the boundary between the US and Mexico.
Tucked away in offices, laying in backlogged holdings, scattered throughout the country, are items like those field notebooks in the Mearns Collection with the power to enhance our understanding of the world. Languishing in obscurity, these collections are, in effect, “hidden” collections for which little documentation exists.
Currently, the Smithsonian houses thousands of field books, unpublished journals, notes, and images related to field research in biology, most falling into this “hidden” category. Exposing Biodiversity Fieldbooks and Original Expedition Journals at the Smithsonian Institution—or the Field Book Project—is one solution designed to uncover the Smithsonian’s hidden field book collections. Funded by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), this project aims to enrich access to these materials by creating detailed records of them in a searchable database.
The Department of Botany, NMNH, initiated the Field Book Project when research on the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) revealed a need for easier access to original source materials. NMNH Collections Manager Rusty Russell recalls visiting fourteen east coast institutions to research the Expedition. “I remember wishing there was a resource that could provide guidance to the locations of botanists’ field books,” says Russell. And when “Suzanne Pilsk (Smithsonian Institution Libraries) saw this funding opportunity from CLIR—we immediately jumped on it.” The Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) was then called upon for its expertise in handling similar collections. SIA Director Anne Van Camp was a willing partner and joined Russell as a Principal Investigator for the project.
The Field Book Project will improve access to content of significant value to scholarly research. Historical data within the items when cataloged may reveal important information such as environmental changes over time and be useful in investigating events surrounding historic field research. Providing a framework for rich, item-level descriptions and creating aggregated access points for physically dispersed items, assists remote researchers with relevance assessments of collection materials without requiring the expense of travel. In addition, the Field Book Project takes the needs of a broader community into consideration. The metadata framework used to describe Smithsonian collections will build on existing standards and be made available as a downloadable tool kit for other institutions and repositories to use in describing their own field book collections.
A Field Book Project website is under development and a link will be added to this post once it is live. We hope you will follow us as we uncover these valuable and unique materials.
Sonoe Nakasone is the Field Book Project of the Smithsonian Institution Archives/National Museum of Natural History