The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
Hearing the phrase “Now I feel that the space is organized” from a cataloger means a lot. For me, it means that there is an element of clarity in the surrounding reality. While I have worked as a librarian for about five years, I did not have a good understanding of what my colleagues in technical services do. I have a lot of respect for those who leave the path made of “bread crumbs”, an analogy my mentor, the Field Book Project’s Cataloging Coordinator Lesley Parilla, used when she explained how to create an abstract for a field book. As an Intern with the Field Book Project, I learned how to dispense the “bread crumbs” to help the user discover resources. I created item records using Metadata Object Description Schema (MODS), did biographical research for records in Encoded Archival Context - Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF), gained knowledge of new terminology specific to the areas of the field books, and did some translation work.
So, what is a field book? Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “a book in which surveyor or other technician, or scientist writes down measurements, and other technical notes taken in the field.” In addition to documenting the primary research, or presenting relevant scientific findings, field books can also offer valuable insights into the world of science. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can read about their adventures in the field, or learn about scientists’ personal lives. This, in particular, allowed me to connect to the documents on a personal level. Field Book Project, in my opinion, carries an important mission of showing a person behind the data. An example of that is the field books of James Francis Luhr, an enthusiastic geologist who wanted to share his knowledge of volcanology with the wider public.
James Francis Luhr, also known as Jim, was a passionate geologist who would go the distance to gather resources needed for his research. Specimen gathering involved operating under dangerous conditions, like getting lava samples during volcanic eruptions. Volcanologists have to wear special gear, and use a hammer to gather lava samples. The sample goes into a bucket with cold water that instantly boils. This work is necessary to ensure accurate geological analysis. In general, volcanologists are not advised to spend more than 20 minutes scooping the lava samples with hammers, because the temperature of the flowing lava can reach 1000°F and higher. The scientists can get blisters even from a distance. Before I had a chance to work with field books, I definitely could not imagine that it was possible to extract lava samples, let alone have a camp at the foot of an active volcano. Jim Luhr was actively involved in similar projects throughout the world: “Took sample approximately in 350 m from west hook at toe” (Mexico, 1982). In addition to serving a noble cause of science, scientists like Jim put a lot at stake. According to U.S. Geological Survey, volcanic ashes, or tephra, cause more harm than the lava flows. Working under these conditions definitely required a lot of courage and dedication.
One of Jim’s companions in the field was his wife, Karen Prestegaard. They met at the University of California, Los Angeles, during their PhD studies. I often found Karen’s name mentioned in his field books. Not only would she go on a geological mission with her husband, but she also helped him to collect samples: “Karen climbed on roof & scrapped ash w/ computer card for Joop & Rasmussen to analyze leachates. Took photos of Karen.” (Chichon, 1982). Karen would also document some of these moments with the help of the camera: “Still further along a large 5 m. block, Karen took photo of me.” (Mexico, 1983). Somehow, I can imagine them walking together, hand in hand, figuring out the mysteries of the nature.
In addition to being a passionate scientist, Luhr was a musician by avocation. He was a fiddler in an Irish band in Maryland .During his trip to what was then the U.S.S.R, he brought along his violin. It seemed to be his first visit in the country, which he documented with great detail. For example, in the following excerpt Jim Luhr describes his interaction with the custom’s officer: “Customs was a ½ hour wait in long lines. The only thing that caused trouble was my violin. Custom inspector asked if it was Stradivarius. After I laughed, no, he saw the tag inside and went off to seek a higher authority. We finally agreed upon the term 'modern' & he let us go.” (USSR, 1987-1991).
This trip was organized in collaboration with U.S. Geological Survey and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Department of Mineral Sciences. He would return back to Russia several times up until 1998 to carry out more research. Geologists usually revisit collection sites to track any longitudinal changes. In this case, specimens’ location identifier remains the same, but the year and number will change.
I hope I was able to give you a glimpse into Jim Luhr’s research and life. He wanted to share his research with people, and now with the help of Field Book Project, it is possible to read his first-hand research online.
I would like to express my gratitude to my mentors: Bianca Crowley, Digital Collections Manager at Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator of the Field Book Project, for their guidance and help. I would also like to thank MLIS Program Director at Syracuse University – Jill Hurst-Wahl, and my Academic Advisor – Barbara Stripling. I appreciate the assistance of Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program that made it possible for me to intern in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2016. Being a part of the Smithsonian Institution was an unforgettable life experience for me!
James Luhr Field Books, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In memory of James F. Luhr, volcanologist, petrologist, and friend, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Volcanic Ashfall Impacts Working Group, U.S. Geological Survey
Lava Sampling on Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, WGBH, PBS Learning Media
Back in 2010, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives launched the Field Books Project, a joint initiative focused on enriching access to the institution’s collection of field books, notes, images, and journals related to field research. Since then, field books have become a common theme on this blog, as well as popular projects on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. There was just one slight problem:they weren’t searchable on our website. In fact, not only were they not searchable, they weren’t actually anywhere on our website at all.
That recently changed as work was completed that made over 9,000 field book related records available on our website. Those 9,000 records contain collection descriptions, organizations information, collector information, expedition information, and finally the field books themselves. Each of these records contains detailed metadata, which helps our search functionality (and you!) find these field books, much like the large collection of images found on our website. As cool as searching for them by metadata is, the field books contain a lot of information that just won’t show up on a metadata search. To be able to truly search the field books, they really need to be fully text searchable.
Thanks to the contributions by the digital volunteers at the Transcription Center, we are now working on doing just that. As the field books are largely hand written notes, they need to be transcribed into machine-readable text before we can index their content. Once the volunteers at the Transcription Center complete transcribing a field book, we pull the resulting full text and encode it with the field book item on our site. The text is then crawled by our search appliance and indexed with the full text.
The result is that a search for “bipedally” will return James Peters’ Field notes from his 1949 Mexico trip, as the phrase “I saw a very large lizard which stayed too far ahead of me. To get a shot at it, that got up on its hind legs and ran, bipedally” appears in his entry for March 8, 1949.
The really cool thing about all of this is that you can help us with this project and be a part of making our field books searchable and findable. As I mentioned before, none of this would be possible without the work done by the digital volunteers over at the Transcription Center, and they’re always looking for more volunteers.
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This spring Field Book Project began cataloging in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, which holds the field notes of Horton H. Hobbs Jr. His materials are particularly appropriate to discuss for Father’s Day. While processing his field notes and data sheets, and cataloging the materials for the Field Book Project, the references found offer tantalizing glimpses into his life and relationships.
Hobbs not only studied crayfish, he was the leading authority in freshwater crayfishes of North America. This and other qualities earned him the nickname “crawdaddy.” An article by Karen Reed and Raymond B. Manning at the Department of Invertebrate Zoology described him as “the quintessential southern Gentleman” with a mischievous side. The article also includes a wonderful story about a retirement gift that hints at his sense of humor.
…his expression, a mixture of embarrassment and delight, when he was presented with a pair of boxer shorts with two flies at his retirement party-the idea being that having studied entocytherid ostracods so long he might have developed hemipenes.
Hobbs’ career spanned six decades; nearly every year he went into the field, sometimes with his wife Georgia and son Horton Hobbs III. There are numerous references to family field work in his field notes and his publications.
Hobbs’ may not be unique in taking his family into the field, but he is one of only a few to document it clearly in his notes. Hobbs often recorded his observations on preprinted field data sheets and consistently listed the presence and work of his wife and son.
In a Father’s Day piece posted by Springfield News Sun, Horton III, said of his father, “he was one that would let you stumble and not walk you through everything…but he would be there to pick you up.” Horton Hobbs III followed close to his father’s footsteps, studying limnology, and is now a professor in the Department of Biology of Wittenberg University.
To learn more about Horton Hobbs Jr., and his work, we encourage you to check out the following resources, and search his field book records on Collections Search Center that will be available later this summer.
Horton H. Hobbs, Jr. (29 March 1914 – 22 March 1994). Biographical Notes, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington
Dr. Horton H. Hobbs III, Department of Biology, Wittenberg University
Horton Hobbs’ daddy was ‘Crawdaddy’, Springfield News Sun
On National Bird Day, a look at the long and illustrious ornithology career of Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore.
On an October day in Wisconsin, 1899, a young boy heard the call of a Red-headed Woodpecker. The boy laid down in the bank of a ravine to watch as the bird flitted through a tree, searching for acorns. He took note of the bird’s call, its behavior, the way the bird responded to its human observer. When night fell, the boy had to go home—but he returned the next Sunday (and for another several Sundays, months after) to dutifully take notes in his “usual place of study” as the bird gathered acorns and drank water, its plumage turning darker as the season changed.
This curious, thirteen-year-old boy with a notebook and a love of birds grew up to be Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978). Wetmore, a renowned ornithologist, spent his long and successful scientific career studying birds across the globe—but he started with the birds he found in his own childhood backyard in North Freedom, Wisconsin.
Though his first field observation was recorded at age eight, in Florida (where he wrote about seeing a pelican during a family vacation in 1894), a majority of Wetmore’s early bird watching took place as he watched the sky from local plum orchards, marshes, and forests. His experience with the Red-headed Woodpecker marks his first published scientific paper, printed in the “For Young Observers” column in a 1900 issue of Bird-Lore magazine. For the next several years, young “Alick” Wetmore would take detailed notes of bird observations. Kept in neat columns, written in painstakingly careful beginners’ cursive, Wetmore wrote about the birds he saw—if he watched them “singing” or “calling” or “feeding,” their common names, and the dates, sometimes marked daily.
By 1901, Wetmore was filling out records to send to the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey (succeeded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service). Nine years later, Wetmore got a job with the same department. While still in college at the University of Kansas, Wetmore spent his summer breaks assisting Biological Survey field investigations in Wyoming and Alaska. After graduation, Wetmore was promoted to assistant biologist, where he began studying the eating habits of North American birds. He traveled across the United States observing birds, taking notes with the same practiced skill he exhibited as a boy. Wetmore’s passion for ornithology ultimately took him on field trips across the world—through Europe, to South America and the Pacific Islands, studying everything from bird migration to the agricultural impact of bird life.
During his time with the USDA, Wetmore began his relationship with the Smithsonian. He worked directly with the Division of Birds at the then the US National Museum (now the National Museum for Natural History). He studied the Smithsonian collections so often as a field researcher, he even had his own desk in the museum. In 1924, Wetmore’s affiliation with the Smithsonian became official. He served a short term as superintendent of the National Zoological Park, then became the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the US National Museum. Wetmore held that position for another twenty years, until he was elected the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1945.
Wetmore’s rising administrative ranks at the Smithsonian did not stop him from doing what he loved most—field research. Wetmore continued his expedition trips and research abroad, particularly to Panama. His years of research resulted in the publication of his book The Birds of the Republic of Panama. This book on birding—at over 600 pages—comes a long way from Wetmore’s first published set of observations, looking carefully at a woodpecker in the Wisconsin trees. But for Wetmore, that same curiosity and passion at the heart of all of his research, always stayed the same.
Explore Alexander Wetmore’s early field work and help transcribe it for researchers—both present and aspiring!—at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Wetmore Panama Expeditions Overview, Smithsonian Institution Archives, YouTube
The natural world is riddled with complex mathematics that only adds to nature's allure and depth. Don't fear, no math equations will be used in this post, nor will you be required to prove a theorem after you finished reading. Those attributes can be used to relate the digitization efforts of the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the work transcribers contribute to the Field Book Project. Do I still have you?
Remember what I said about no math being required. The mollusk shell pictured here was drawn by William Healey Dall and is a prime example for this analogy. Each subsequent layer of the shell is dependent on the previous curl’s proportions and formation. Much like the shells collected and cataloged by Dall, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is built on the contributions (or layers) of its digital volunteers. This progressive and symbiotic relationship is best explained by following the progress of the digitization of the William Healey Dall field books.
As part of the Field Book Project, many field books have now been preserved and cataloged. During the course of these activities, if a field book is identified as being a good match for the needs and interests of the digital volunteers of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the materials are then digitized.
In the case of William Healey Dall, there is a plethora of potential candidates for transcription. Most recently his field books from Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection were digitized. This collection spans the course of several years and describes most of the Pacific coastline as well as the specimens Dall collected during his travels. Dall collected mollusk and cephalopod specimens, drew detailed geological accounts of various volcanos and coastlines, as well as documented his daily travels, routines, and remarkable geological and malacological discoveries. The conditions he endured and recorded during his time in Alaska and the Yukon offer a glimpse at the mental fatigue of the Arctic as well as the reverence Dall held for nature.
The fortitude required to keep from becoming fully engrossed with his writing myself is almost comparable to what was required of Dall during his lonely but fulfilling travels. While I didn’t endure weeks in sub zero conditions without respite, digitizing documents does involve long hours scanning hundreds of pages, building spreadsheets, and arduous metadata creation. Yet, in both Dall and my case, our labors were rewarded.
Creating rich metadata for the digitized field book ensures that all documents are properly cataloged and available for users to access as soon as they are made available online. At that point, anyone can see and download the images of the field book. The field books are also simultaneously loaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s database and launched as a transcription project. Digital volunteers can then choose the collection to work on and engage in a collaborative endeavor to decipher the handwritten documents. In some cases, the penmanship is unique but legible. In others, collaboration is involved to figure out the meaning of the scrawled text and how to best catalog the field books in a uniform manner. The conversation to the left illustrates the iterative process of transcribing and building a set of standards for cataloging.
Once a field book is completely transcribed, the second half of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s work begins.
For the second part of this post about the further work of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, check back at the beginning of September. Until then, if this post has sparked your interest in becoming a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian Transcription Center please sign up and start transcribing. If you’d simply like to see the digitized field books, we invite you to browse the collections.
- Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection, 1865-1867, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 95-121 - William Healey Dall Papers, 1871, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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