Field Book Narratives of Volcanologist James F. Luhr

Specimens collected by James Luhr in Mexico. 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.  

Specimens collected by James Luhr in Russia.

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! 

Related Resources

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 

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