The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
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
This summer I had the pleasure to intern with Collections Care in the conservation lab under Nora Lockshin, Paper Conservator. As a painting major in undergraduate school, I had no idea what to expect coming into a paper conservation environment. What I thought was going to be all book and paper turned out to be a much different experience and a little more up my alley. Here I’ll briefly explain how I repaired the leather bindings of some of William H. Dall’s field books using Japanese tissue and acrylic paint.
To start things off, I applied a thin adhesive, or 20% Lascaux 498 HV in isopropanol, to consolidate the deteriorated areas of the leather. This keeps the brittle pieces in place while the repair is being executed. When applying the solution of Lascaux, I made sure to keep the immediate area properly ventilated to prevent inhalation of the solvents.
While the Lascaux is drying, tinted Japanese tissue is cut to the size of the damaged space on the book’s spine. In the case of the Dall books, the damage extended past the spine and a little onto the boards. In order to create continuity in the repair and book, I used black and blue acrylic paint to dye the color of the paper to match the color of the book. You want the color to be almost exactly the same so that there is no distraction from the book itself. After a few trials, and with my experience as a painting major, I was able to get the perfect mixture of dark blue that matched the color of the field book.
For these field books, I applied the tissue that reinforces the hinges in a “baggy back” style over the remaining spine fragment. This means instead of exactly replicating the original tight-back construction, the tissue was attached to the hinges and boardswithout adhering directly to the spine so that the spine may arch and flex, as opposed to being very tightly held together. The adhesive used here is also Lascaux 498HV, however the solution is 100% Lascaux as opposed to the dilute 20% used earlier. After the tissue is applied it is placed under weight and left to dry.
Leather repair is a fun process that is much different from other processes in the paper conservation field. While there are more steps taken to repair the leather, this brief explanation gives you the very basics of what it takes to conserve a deteriorating book like Dall’s field books.
- Priscilla Anderson & Alan Puglia. Solvent-Set Book Repair Tissue, 2003, The Book and Paper Group Annual 22
- Record Unit 7073 - William H. Dall Papers, circa 1839-1858, 1862-1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives
These photographs document the field work of explorer, naturalist, and science administrator, Edward William Nelson, and field naturalist and mammalogist, Edward Alphonso Goldman. They worked for the US Biological Survey and collected in the field together for 14 years. These photographs are a stunning look at Mexico during the turn of the twentieth century.
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