Martin H. Moynihan’s field book entry with drawings of ring-billed gulls, April 24, 1954. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 01-096, Image no. SIA2017-000426.

Dear Diary…

The Smithsonian Institution Archives has a lot of diaries.  And they offer researchers a glimpse into the daily lives of scientists doing their work in the field and sometimes the joy and tragedy of family life.

Diary, noun: a daily record of events or experiences. 

In honor of “Dear Diary Day,” I did a quick online search of our collections to see how many hits I could get using the keywords “diary” or “diaries,” and came up with 1,251. This doesn’t mean that there are 1,251 individual diaries, but it does suggest that there is a lot of material for research related to expeditions, collecting methods, things collected, hardship, and humor.  

Although there are examples of more traditional diaries in the Archives, many are not digitized and inaccessible at this time. Therefore, I looked slightly outside of the box.

Field books and field notes are kind of like diaries, but with a twist. Frequently, field books from the nineteenth century and early 20th century are often ordinary pocket-sized, leather-bound diaries bought off the shelf.  Later, however, the books themselves change. We have everything from stained spiral-bound notebooks, salt-and-pepper composition books, to government-issued, hard-bound green books with no printed format other than blue lines. Sometimes, they can be rather dry and dull—I looked for examples a little more interesting than: “Cloudy, rainy and cold. Ate meatloaf for dinner.” While most entries are dated and comment on the terrain and weather conditions or list specimens collected, others are enlivened with drawings. 

A good example of illustrated field notes are in the Martin H. Moynihan Papers (Accession 01-096).  Moynihan studied animal behavior in Panama, Canada, and the United States. His primary focus was on the study of communication in birds, primates, and cephalopods (octopus and squid). Moynihan’s entries are so interesting because they are often enhanced with animal drawings, showing postures or other behaviors, or his written impressions of the calls or songs they make. Through his drawings and written observations, it is clear that communication is not confined to sound (calls or songs), but also visual (posture, coloration—think how often an octopus changes color or perfectly blends with its’ surroundings).

: Image of Moynihan's field book entry with a drawing of flame-colored tanager, dated January 11, 19

For instance, above is a page from Moynihan’s field notes on the Flame-colored tanager while doing field work on Barro Colorado Island in Panama in 1958–1959. He also studied the Ring-billed gulls, pictured below, and captured their postures in these notes from his time in Manitoba, Canada in 1954–1955.

Image of Moynihan's field book entry concerning drawings of Ring-billed gulls, dated April 24, 1954.

Moynihan’s work in animal behavior could have been recorded with words alone, but his illustrations really attract the eye and capture the essence of behaviors. It’s always a treat to find sketches or doodles in records. So, if you keep a diary now, or are thinking about trying, sprinkle a few doodles for interest. It may be just the thing spark your memory when you revisit a specific day, years from now.

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