Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Visit with Carolyn Sheffield, Project Manager of the Smithsonian’s Field Book Project

11/23/2011 Update: Carolyn has linked to this story from the Field Book Project blog at http://nmnh.typepad.com/fieldbooks/2011/11/an-archivists-tour-part-two-the-field-book-project.html.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I met Carolyn Sheffield at a MARAC conference and wanted to know all about her job as Project Manager of the Smithsonian Institution’s Field Book Project. She invited me to visit her in D.C., and was very generous with her time, sharing many interesting stories about the field books and her work at the National Museum of Natural History. Below I have included some of the footage I shot of Carolyn explaining the importance of the project, especially when it comes to natural history and botanical research. Accompanying the videos are some close-up photos of the materials she featured in the clips. It was enormously fun to shoot those pieces with Carolyn, and as you’ll see she’s a natural in front of the camera.

About the Field Book Project
Although the project itself only began in June 2010, nearly 2,500 of the estimated 6,000 field books at the Smithsonian have already been cataloged. The bulk of these materials range from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s. It started as a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Museum of Natural History (another arm of the Smithsonian) with the goal of improving access to biodiversity field books. Researchers use these primary source materials to see how biologists documented their discoveries of plants, animals, and cultures in the field.

According to Carolyn, “These materials share a lot of characteristics with archival collections in that they are very much a record of that field work. They also remain an integral part of the specimen collections in the museum because of all the rich supplemental information they provide.” Because the notes (as you’ll see below) are frequently handwritten and later bound when the scientists return from their work, they resemble library items. “What we find is that field books have been managed in each of these contexts—archives, museums, and libraries—and there is a real need for establishing best practices,” she continues.

So, in the future, if a researcher wants to view all of the work done by a certain biologist while he/she worked for different government agencies, the Field Book Project will prevent the researcher from having to visit the Department of Botany, the Archives, and/or a repository outside the Smithsonian to access all that information. In fact, one of the long term goals for the Field Book Registry once it becomes available online, is to link to digitized samples within the Herbarium and other repositories. It’s pretty exciting when you think about how much more connected a huge chunk of biological research will become when the project is completed. In the meantime, though, you can keep track of the great work on the project blog at http://www.mnh.si.edu/rc/fieldbooks/.

This next bit is for the archivists who read this blog. In it, Carolyn does a very good job of explaining the technical aspects of her approach to description and why the methods are important to the end user.

Our approach is to bridge the collection-level description of archives with the item-level description of libraries and to enrich that with authority records for persons, organizations, and exhibitions. We use Natural Collections Description (NCD), which is a natural history metadata schema, for the collection-level access. NCD is a rich schema that lies between Dublin Core and Encoded Archival Description in its breadth. We then use the Metadata Object Description Schema (MODS) for the item-level description. MODS is a Library of Congress standard that includes a subset of MARC tags made available as language-based xml elements. We tie the two together with Encoded Archival Context (EAC) records for describing the persons, organizations, and expeditions involved in the creation of the collections and items. This will be especially important as one of the longer term goals for the project is to extend the Field Book Registry to accept content contributed by repositories beyond the Smithsonian and having those persons, organizations, and expeditions entered and described consistently will help end users find all the relevant materials, regardless of how many institutions physically hold field books from a given collector or expedition.

Here’s a short video of Carolyn explaining the basics of the project, how it is funded, and what its goals are (including preservation efforts).

The materials covered in the project include the disciplines of botany, entomology, vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, and paleobiology. In order to cover such a wide array of fields, the Smithsonian partners with a distinguished group of institutions to share collections and work including the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Botany Libraries and Archives at Harvard University, California Academy of Sciences, Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, LuEsther T. Mertz Library at New York Botanical Garden, and Missouri Botanical Garden. Carolyn says, “We also are involved in the Connecting Content project led by the California Academy of Sciences. Connecting Content examines the relationships between field book content, the specimens, and published taxonomic literature.”

Sample Field Books
To begin our sampling of the field books, Carolyn (in the short video below) shows us some of the library-bound journals of Mary Agnes Chase (although in the book shown below, she wrote as “Agnes Chase”), 1869-1963. According to the Smithsonian,

The foremost grass specialist of her time ended her formal education after grammar school. She began collecting and illustrating plants in her twenties, and was hired by Chicago's Field Museum in 1901 and later as a botanical illustrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientific illustration was a way for women to enter science at the turn of the century. Chase studied on her own at the U.S. National Herbarium, and in 1906 published her first scientific paper and secured her first professional position, with Albert S. Hitchcock at the USDA. ... After The North American Species of Panicum, by Chase and Hitchcock was published in 1910, Chase published Tropical North American Species of Panicum in 1915, and Grasses of the West Indies in 1917. Chase was actively involved in the women's suffrage movement and aligned herself with the radical Woman's Party. She was jailed several times for participating in suffrage demonstrations, and continued her radical activity despite threats of dismissal from the USDA. Throughout her career, she demonstrated a special concern for the careers of young women botanists, and maintained a correspondence and specimen exchange network, providing training for young women entering the field as well. ... The First Book of Grasses, the Structure of Grasses Explained for Beginners was published in 1922. ... Chase retired from the USDA in 1939, at the age of seventy, but continued to work five or six days a week on her collections in the Smithsonian's tower.

Here is a close-up of the field book in Carolyn’s hands:

From Smithsonian Tours

Next, Carolyn shows us a field notebook from Edgar Mearns (1856-1916), an army surgeon and field naturalist. Among his many accomplishments, from 1892 to 1894, he explored the El Paso, Texas to San Clemente Island boundary, and collected 30,000 specimens of flora and fauna which were deposited in the United States National Museum (USNM). This notebook has particular significance because it originated during the Smithsonian’s African Expedition led by Theodore Roosevelt from 1909-1910.

Below is a close-up of one of Mearns’ pasted-in notes.

From Smithsonian Tours

As was the case with Mary Agnes Chase, David Griffiths (1867-1935) and Emil F. Lange were researchers who worked for the U.S.D.A. The Smithsonian says, “Griffiths was an authority on cacti, especially the genus Opuntia. His collection of cacti was donated to the United States National Museum in 1935.” The field book Carolyn shows us from 1900 isn’t just important because it describes forage and irrigation soil samples. She explains why in the short video below.

Here is a close up of the photos from the field book shown in the video.

From Smithsonian Tours

And, because you know I love maps, I’m also including a close-up below of a map that Griffiths and Lange annotated that was folded up and enclosed in the back pocket of the field notebook.

From Smithsonian Tours

If you are interested in seeing more close-ups of the map, visit my Picasa site (https://picasaweb.google.com/debra.schiff/SmithsonianTours#5669352078790276674).

In the last short video below, Carolyn shares with us an excerpt of field notes by Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962), a noted botanist who specialized in the flora of Hawaii and China. After moving from Austria to Honolulu, Hawai’i in 1907, he became the state’s first official botanist. He also explored several locations in Southeast Asia, and directed many expeditions during which he collected zoological, ornithological, and botanical specimens. The field notes in Carolyn’s hands are from his journal on Siam, Burma, and Assam in 1920-1921.

Here is a close-up of the excerpt she read:
From Smithsonian Tours

Here is a photo of the map Rock created of his travels:
From Smithsonian Tours

About the Project Manager
Carolyn holds a Master’s of Library Science with a specialization in Archives, Records, and Information Management from the iSchool at the University of Maryland. She became interested in the field because, as she says, she was fascinated with “the stuff.” It later grew into an obsession “with the intersections of information needs and ways of describing the stuff. Add to that the sliding scale of ever-growing online content delivery methods and evolving user expectations, and it’s a stimulating intellectual exercise that you could happily devote a lifetime to (at least I could),” she explains.

Her favorite parts of the work include the collaborative aspects, the access challenges, and the rewards of bringing still-relevant resources to very grateful scientific researchers. For students or recent graduates, her very sound advice should be considered, “Figure out what aspect of the field you are most interested in and work towards getting as much experience in that area as early as possible, whether that means volunteering or interning. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions! We’re a profession of people who love to help people find the answers that they need. Participating in professional organizations and signing up on list servs is a great way to connect with a lot of librarians and archivists who are happy to answer your questions as you get started in the field.”

Contact Information
Carolyn Sheffield
Project Manager, Field Book Project
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of Natural History
Department of Botany
MRC 166 PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
(202) 633-0902

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Tour of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Update #2: The good folks at the Smithsonian Institution Archives' blog, The Bigger Picture, has linked to this story (http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/link-love-11182011)

Update: Since posting this tour, the Smithsonian's Field Notebook Project blog has linked to this story (http://goo.gl/7mvJG).

One of the great things about going to conferences in the field is meeting the remarkable people who work at cultural heritage institutions. One example is Carolyn Sheffield (whom you’ll meet later, in the next blog post), Project Manager of the Field Book Project at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Carolyn and I met at a MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Archives Conference) meeting, and we exchanged cards. When I saw her title, I was instantly intrigued. She invited me to come see her work in person when I told her how I’ve been visiting cultural heritage institutions and writing about their collections here on this blog. She also said that there were parts of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives that she wanted to see, and that my visit was the perfect excuse to take some tours herself.

Carolyn kindly set up a day’s worth of excellent tours for my visit in late September. We began at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), so my series on the visit will begin there. Expect to see other posts on my visit with Carolyn, including short videos examining the field books, an illuminating visit to the Joseph F. Cullman Library of Natural History’s Special Collections; and the fascinating Herbarium.

Note: All the photos that include SIA materials are used courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

About the SIA

Although a chief clerk and the first official archivist were on staff beginning in 1852, the official establishment of the SIA happened a little over a century later in 1964. Since then, the SIA has amassed 36,000 cubic feet of material, but due to space constraints, three-quarters of those records are held at Iron Mountain. Because the James Smithson collections initially resided at the Library of Congress (because the country didn’t quite know how to handle the Englishman’s estate at the time), the SIA still retrieves an item or two from the LoC on occasion. Twenty-six lucky souls work with the archives of the Smithsonian doing everything from appraisal and acquisition to web and social media. To help the staff are 4-5 volunteers per week and up to 15 interns a year.

The SIA’s patrons are primarily private researchers, Smithsonian administrators, university professors, and doctoral students, but the Archives also serve many historians, image researchers, librarians, and research scientists, among others. The daily researcher visits are split between staff and non-Smithsonian staff (more than 850 visits in the period between September 1, 2010 and September 1, 2011), and the majority of inquiries arrive via email (more than 4200 in the same time period).

Collection maintenance at the SIA is funded through federal appropriations, private trust funds, and grants. A portion of those monies go to paying for an in-house paper conservator (who works in the space below), as well as external contractors who work on the film, video, and photographic conservation.

About the SIA Supervisory Archivist

Our terrific host for the SIA tour was its Supervisory Archivist, Tammy L. Peters. A 16-year veteran of SIA, Tammy began her career as an intern and was later hired by the Institution. She arrived with a bachelor’s degree in history from Bethel College and a master’s in American studies from Purdue University. Her suggestion for new grads or young professionals in the field? “Seek out as much experience as possible,” she says. (I just gave the same advice to an archives student at a recent map symposium in Philadelphia. Internships, volunteering, and independent studies are the keys to eventual placement in the field.)

Tammy’s favorite part of her job is “working with all the Smithsonian offices, museums, and research centers, and being allowed to go behind the scenes to meet people and see the work that they do every day,” she says. Currently, she is working to convert HTML finding aids into XML EAD (encoded archival description) format. So far, SIA has over 4,000 finding aids to 5,500 collections, a mammoth effort, to say the least. When it comes to her goals, the biggest is making the collections available to researchers. “That includes proper description, digitization, and reference service. Taking in new records and being stewards of our entire collection also is necessary to prepare us to achieve that goal,” Tammy says. If you would like to explore the SIA collections (and I recommend that you do), visit http://siarchives.si.edu/collections. The Smithsonian has many blogs, but the SIA blog, The Bigger Picture (http://siarchives.si.edu/blog) is definitely worth the visit to see some of their incredible digitized photographs.

About the Collections
The charge of the SIA is to document the history of the Smithsonian. The collections originate from a variety of sources: the Institution itself and personal collections that closely relate to the history or collections of the SI. One of the online elements I most like about SIA is the Frequently Used Collections area of the SIA web site (http://siarchives.si.edu/services/frequently-used-collections-smithsonian-institution-archives). When visitors explore that part of the site, they can see which records were popular and why. Specifically, the content on those pages speak to the types of historical records SIA holds as well as their meaning to the wider world. These pages provide a good example of what all of us who describe collections ought to strive for in terms of making our materials more accessible to the public.

At the start of the tour, Tammy showed Carolyn and me this gorgeous slide case in the entryway of the SIA.

In 2008, the SIA received that slide case above, along with the rest of the Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS) cold vault photo morgue (about 3 million images of the SI’s research photographs from around the world). Next, Tammy took us to the area where the incoming records were held.

The SIA receives records in all kinds of states of preparation and preservation. Here, and during the acquisitions process, the staff makes decisions about how to handle certain records. For instance, anything coming from the Zoo goes immediately into the freezer for two days to prevent pest invasion. Additionally, if records show evidence of water damage, they go directly into the freezer to prevent mold issues.

The records above will be rehoused and processed, mostly by volunteers, in the processing room shown below.

I had to laugh when I saw the poster of “Clip Art or Artifacts of Paper Torture” (below).

Whenever I visit collections, the archivists, curators, and other cultural heritage professionals like to show me their treasures as well as the “hidden gems” that I request. Tammy was no exception. Having access to the records of the Smithsonian, she has some of the most interesting historical documents in the United States at her disposal. A prime example is the handwritten will of James Smithson, which states in no uncertain terms that should he pass, his collections will go to his nephew, and if the nephew were childless (which he was), the collections ought to go to the United States to establish a center of learning (see below).

The reflection in the photo shows that the will has been preserved in mylar to prevent injury while showing it to visitors.

One of the many attractive qualities of the SIA’s collections is that they are so diverse. An example is the correspondence below from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was the Smithsonian’s third Secretary, from 1887 to 1906. Langley had been very interested in aerodynamics and had designed a few failed flying machines. He wanted to see their experiments in North Carolina, but the Wrights told Langley that the weather was bad and his request to visit did not come at a good time. The brothers did not want to admit that they had already made their first flight, however they later gave the Smithsonian their flyer.

The archives world is full of fantastic finds. Tammy told us one SIA amazing story that yielded 900,000 visitors to its images on Flickr. She said that in 2005, the SIA had a visiting researcher who was examining radio records from the Science Service. It’s a frequently used collection comprising about 459 boxes. A volunteer had been processing the collection, and later, the researcher took over where the volunteer had left off. In the very last box was a set of little brown acidic envelopes containing nitrate negatives of photographs of William Jennings Bryant and Brian Darrow during the Scopes Monkey trial (known in legal circles as State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes).

The print above shows Bryant making his case on one of the days when it was too hot to hold the trial inside the courthouse, and it was held outside instead. If you want to see the entire set of photos printed from the negatives, as well as others later added to the collection, visit the Smithsonian Collections Search page at http://collections.si.edu/search/.

“Documenting Smithsonian history and how that intersects with American history, scientific discovery, and the history of museums,” is how Tammy describes the contribution SIA makes to preserving our collective historical memory. I’ve only shared the tiniest bit of that monumental contribution here. I hope that it has encouraged you to explore their online collections as well as pay a visit the next time you are in Washington, D.C.

Contact Information
Smithsonian Institution Archives
MRC 507
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012
(202) 633-5870
http://siarchives.si.edu/services/reference-inquiries or osiaref@si.edu

Next in this tour series will be the Field Books Project at the Smithsonian. Stay tuned!