Scientific and scholarly pursuit are hindered when primary sources are un-cataloged or accessible only by visiting cultural heritage institutions. The Field Book Project seeks to promote awareness of and access to thousands of scientific field notes in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and holdings at the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Libraries. It began in 2010 as an effort to bring to light these hidden collections with a goal to catalog 5,000 field books and provide online access to those records, a goal graciously funded by the Center for Libraries and Information Resources (CLIR). At this point, the Project has cataloged over 9,500 field books and digitized over 4,000. They are available from the Smithsonian Institution Archives website and the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center, and those that have been digitized are also available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).
The project began as a partnership between Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History led by principal investigators Anne Van Camp, Smithsonian Institution Archives, and Rusty Russell, National Museum of Natural History. The ensuing interest from the research and scholarly communities has since driven our efforts to extend the Project and increase the usefulness of these unique resources. Four years after the Project’s start, the Archives and National Museum of Natural History joined with the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Smithsonian Libraries to increase the visibility of the field notes to the global biodiversity research community through BHL.
What is a field book?
Field books are original records of scientific discovery. As such, they are primary source material that describe a range of information including the activities performed during the observation and collecting of specimens, the native environment for those specimens or events surrounding or related to the field collection of specimens or observations during field research.
The traditionally handwritten field documentation in the nineteenth century began to include other forms as technology advanced. As photography equipment became easier to transport, for example, the documentary value of photography became a useful form of field documentation. The Field Book Project catalog a variety of field note formats include photography, film and audio materials.
Importance and challenges of field books
Field notes are significant sources of information related to scientific discovery. They provide rich data for researchers to understand how biodiversity has changed over time and space. They enhance information associated with specimens by providing details regarding dates, localities (for geo-referencing), and associated event data. For example, field diary entries may describe habitats, meteorological events, personal observations, and emotional declarations. These additional data allow us to assess the intrinsic value of specimens, as well as use information in new ways: reconstructing historical ecologies, clarifying specimen's provenance, and re-discovering localities.
Field books as an object type are located and described in a wide variety of ways. They can be found in rare book collections, libraries, archives, and museum departments. Field book descriptions can range from brief folder level descriptions in finding aids to having no descriptions at all. Regrettably, field book collections are often distributed across departments within an institution or even across multiple institutions with no centralized access point, complicating researcher’s ability to discover and access them. Furthermore, although generally considered archival documents, field books are just as frequently managed in museum collections, science labs, and discipline-specific libraries. These various types of custodianship result in a myriad of descriptive practices with varying levels of detail, further compounding access and usability issues.
To overcome these challenges, we have worked closely with the custodians of these unique materials to identify, catalog, and digitize these hidden collections. Our workflows and practices have been community-developed as we work with the different Smithsonian departments with field book holdings, and collaborate with other institutions through the BHL Field Notes Project.
Additional grants have enabled the Field Book Project to expand its objectives to meet researcher demands including funding from Save America’s Treasures, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the Arcadia Foundation and CLIR. Current funding is the gift of the Arcadia Foundation.
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We are thankful for the other organizations that have helped with this effort:
- Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL)
- Biodiversity Information Standards Group (TDWG)
- Botany Libraries and Archives at Harvard University
- California Academy of Sciences Library
- Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University
- LuEsther T. Mertz Library at New York Botanical Garden
- Missouri Botanical Garden