Field Journals: Past and Present

When you work at a museum, the word “digitization” pops up in a lot of conversations. It can have subtly different definitions, but in the Archive, when we say “digitization” we usually mean creating a digital copy of an object that can be displayed online. Digitization has been happening for decades, and every year we see more and more content — letters, photographs, diaries, newspapers, films, audio recordings, objects and more — all on our computer screens.

Cultural institutions are using digitized records to connect with researchers all over the world, many of whom never would have been able to travel to see certain research materials in person. Those of us who take care of these precious items love that digitization enables countless people to access the same fragile document without wear and tear from handling. And once an archive is online, we can start making connections to other collections within our institution and even to collections at other institutions around the globe. Our field journals are one of the best examples of this.

Field journals are often the first documents created by scientists when they are out in the world making observations or collecting specimens. Our Archive is full of these books dated from 1802 to the present. Field journals follow all sorts of formats: some document observations of the same area over years or decades, some offer detailed information about collections housed in our museums, some are filled with regimented data that can be compared over time and space and others provide a narrative of the history and culture of a field location alongside the science. They are documents rich with potential that could serve many needs and reach many audiences if they are digitized and available online.

The first project that really dug into the potential of digitized field journals was OrthopNet. OrthopNet consists of specimen records from Orthoptera, Phasmatodea and Mantodea in the Academy Entomology Collection. Many of those specimens were collected on trips to the United States southwest by James A.G. Rehn, who left us with many journals of his travels. Through the work of Academy entomologist Greg Cowper, a number of Rehn’s journals were digitized, placed online and are being linked directly to the specimen records. Now, a researcher looking at the record of a grasshopper collected by Rehn can click on a link that takes them to an image of the page in his journal in which he describes collecting that very grasshopper!

We also have added field journals to Biodiversity Heritage Library related to botany, Joseph Leidy and ornithology, and we are working on early 20th-century malacology expeditions. We have a long way to go (several hundred volumes), but as more information makes it into databases and more materials are digitized, we can start tying them together. One day, with just a few clicks, you will be able to read a journal from 1934, see film of the collectors, read a record of the specimen they collected and see a photograph of it!

By Jennifer Vess, Brooke Dolan Archivist

This text appeared in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Academy Frontiers. Learn more about what’s in the Academy Library and Archives.

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