The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
Just recently have I come to deeper appreciate of the importance of Women's History Month. As an information technology archivist and digital services manager, my work centers around preserving historic born digital records, using digitization techniques to help preserve analog holdings, and taking advantage of the Internet to connect researchers and the public to our unique collections. For the past year that's included working with people all over the world over the Internet through crowd-sourcing transcriptions and Wikipedia articles.
My responsibilities didn't expose me to how turn of the 20th century attitudes toward women in the sciences continues to affect us today. Agnes J. Quirk was my wake up call.
In 2012, I participated in the Archives' first Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, aptly themed "She Blinded Me With Science" (join us for our second Women in Science edit-a-thon March 18th.) To be honest, I selected Agnes because of her last name and the fact that I knew nothing about her work. In 1901, Agnes J. Quirk worked in the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Laboratory of Plant Pathology as lab assistant to pathologist-in-charge Erwin Frink Smith. By 1928, she was heading the laboratory and continued to do so for two more decades. She became known for her work on crown gall disease. Fifty years after starting at the USDA, she applied for and was granted US Patent No. 2609322 Production of Penicillin Mold and Jelly.
Thankfully, with the guidance of more experienced Wikipedians at that Edit-a-thon and later on, I'm pleased to say that Agnes now has a Wikipedia article. People starting their research with this online resource can find something about her work as a botanist and find other resources if they want to delve further.
That's my Quirk. But the Chase?
Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963) is another botanist whose personal papers are part of the Archives' collections. She came to my attention through the Archives' and the National Museum of Natural History joint Field Book Project. Chase was a bit more controversial for her time because she was also an active suffragette. While working as a botanist for the USDA, she was jailed for participating in one of the Washington, DC protests. This was deemed unseemly behavior for a federal employee and almost resulted in her dismissal. At another point, she was excluded from an expedition to Panama purportedly because she would be a distraction to the male scientists. All this, despite her field work in many parts of North and Central America.
The Field Book Project brought my attention to Chase. The goal of the Project was to make thousands of previously uncataloged scientific field books and journals discoverable online. Finding useful primary sources on the resulting the Field Book Registry quickly prompted scientists and other scholars to contact us with the very natural question of "Can I see them - online? I'm doing research and can't travel to Washington, DC." The answer is increasingly yes as we continue to digitize these field books.
Most of these field books are handwritten, making it difficult to bring digital analysis and data mining techniques to bear on these materials. So we've turned to the "crowd" on the Internet to help us transcribe these materials to remove this obstacle to e-science research. We've been surprised by the response from people all over the world to this "call to arms" on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Launched just eight months ago, over 3,000 people from 50 different countries around the world are transcribing the materials we've placed there. 23 of 33 projects from the Archives have been completely transcribed and reviewed by these digital volunteers.
Mary Agnes Chase's photography of her field studies were among the first field books digitized and posted to the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Last week, we launched another Chase album project. At the current rate, perhaps with your help, this album might be fully transcribed before March is over.
- The Field Book Project, NMNH and SIA
- Smithsonian Transcription Center
- Agnes J. Quirk, Wikipedia
- Mary Agnes Chase, Wikipedia
- Women in Science Edit-a-Thon, Part II, March 18, 2014
- Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7271 - Rolla Kent Beattie Papers, circa 1928-1947, Smithsonian Institution Archives
There they were, tucked between the pages of a catalog of Alaskan bird skins, and eggs by Edward William Nelson , but . . . what were they? They certainly didn’t look like they belonged to a bird. About five inches long, wavy and coarse, with brown and white banding, the mystery hairs presented themselves as a question and an opportunity. Being a pre-program conservation intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on the Field Book Project has been such a pleasure and the path to discovering the answer to this hairy problem is exactly the kind of thing I love about working with cultural heritage items.
Just looking at the hairs with an unaided eye, my first guess was that they were the guard hairs of a porcupine. The first step to find out if I was right was to head to the microscope. Working first with a stereo microscope and then with a polarized light microscope, I set to work learning more about the hairs. The animated GIF below illustrates how polarized light microscopy works (click on the picture below to see it). As the microscope stage is turned, the hairs change appearance. When viewed through a transmitted light analyzer (a type of filter,) the polarized light allows us to observe different features based on how light is refracted or transmitted through structures differently. The first image in the GIF is the hair under unfiltered polarized light.
The microscopy yielded lots of important information, for instance you can see the striations and the empty space known as the medulla, rather than a central shaft. Along with the scale pattern, this verified that these were not feathers. The particular scale and medulla patterns seen above, when compared to a known example indicated that it wasn’t quite a porcupine. On to the next guess. A deer, perhaps? Nope! The unique ribs on the hairs meant it probably couldn’t be a deer, despite a lot of similarities. What other animals were there in Alaska that might have this type of hair structure?
I was officially stumped, so I turned to the experts. Luckily, being an intern with the Smithsonian has its perks and the experts were right across the National Mall at the National Museum of Natural History. I met with Suzanne Peurach, a Collection Manager on the U. S. Geological Survey staff (a descendent of the same organization Edward William Nelson worked for), in the Division of Mammals. In no time, she and her colleague, Al Gardner, deduced that it was not in fact a deer hair, nor was it that of a porcupine. It turns out I had been looking at animals in the wrong part of the world. Edward William Nelson didn’t just spend time in Alaska, though the book I was working with detailed an Alaskan collection. For nearly a decade, Nelson was a field researcher in Mexico. It was here that he would have picked up the two hairs which had spent so much time puzzling me, not in the cold of Alaska. The hairs turned out to be those of a javelina, a.k.a. collared peccary! Using existing slides to compare, Suzanne found the same ribs that I couldn’t find in any other specimen I had looked at. Furthermore, she pointed to a clue I had not even seen (that’s why she’s the expert). The split ends of the hair, which I had not thought of as special, were the key indicator that it belonged to a member of the family Tayassuidae, which includes the javelina.
As I said, being a conservation intern at the Smithsonian Archives has been a wonderful experience, and the best part of it by far is the opportunity to meet and work with the people who make up the staff and volunteer corps of the Smithsonian. Microscopy had given me a lot of clues, but it was the access to and the spirit of collaboration among experts at the Smithsonian that ultimately guided me to the answer of the mystery hairs.
- Record Unit 7364 - Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-320 - Edward William Nelson Field Notes, 1869-1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives
We just launched a set of images from the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey program which took place in the 1960s/early 1970s and sought to learn about plants and animals occurring on the islands, the seasonal variations in their numbers and reproductive activities, and the distribution and population of the pelagic birds of that area. The images were taken on Sand and Johnston Islands from various vantage points, including from LORAN (Long Range Navigation) towers. Since it was the first time I had heard of a LORAN tower, I did a little digging and found out they are radio towers which helped ships to navigate. They are a thing of the past since they have been replaced by GPS and satellite systems. They did offer up some pretty stunning views from this expedition, however. Enjoy the slideshow!
- Record Unit 245 - National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- LORAN images on Flickr Commons.
- It’s a (Sea) Bird, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Over 50 years ago, a team of over 40 Smithsonian researchers were deployed to survey plants and animals living on the islands and atolls of the Pacific Ocean as part of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program. The major goals of the program were to learn what plants and animals occurred on the islands, the seasonal variations in their numbers and reproductive activities, and the distribution and population of the pelagic birds (birds living over the open ocean) of that area.
During the six and a half years of field work, 1,800,000 birds were banded and approximately 150,000 observations of pelagic birds at sea were made. We hope you enjoy these completely adorable pelagic chicks, all in the name of science!
Last June, I joined the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a pre-Master's program art conservation summer intern. My focus was on the preservation and rehousing of scientist’s exploration journals that are part of the Field Book Project. In September, I was fortunate to remain at the Archives as the conservation technician for the Field Book Project. Over the past year I've flipped through hundreds of field books containing fascinating information that detail collected field data, as well as the author's experiences with indigenous cultures from around the world. Surprisingly, I've even come across an endearing poem or two nestled amongst daily diary entries or numbered lists of technical field data. It's been a pleasure to discover that the scientists who authored these books were quite creative in how they depicted their observations and gathered scientific information while in the field. At the time in which many of these explorations took place (often pre-photography), the noted interactions and observations of the author best depicted life in exotic and foreign locations.
My involvement and contribution to this project wraps up in a couple of months, but I wanted to share some of the more fascinating items I've found pressed between the pages of the field books I've come across; items that are great descriptors of life while away on an exploration.