Lesley Parilla, Smithsonian Libraries 2015-11-23 13:17:02
Routine can yield intrigue. At the Smithsonian Institution Archives, in specific circumstances, we describe materials at the folder level. One such circumstance is when we are working with field books—primary source documents that describe the events leading up to and including the collection of specimens or observations during field research. With such a dynamic and wide range of content, the Archives and Natural History Museum began the Field Book Project five years ago to systematically catalog at the item level field books found in the archives and natural history departments. Given the quantity of materials the archives processes each year, this might seem surprising. However, as many archivists discover, some materials need more description than others. A Paleontologist’s Records While cataloging our latest collection from paleontologist William A. Oliver, I came upon a surprise. Of 7,500 materials, we have almost nothing documenting Eastern European nations—countries like Poland, Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia), and Russia. Oliver’s collection, however, is a rare gem: It documents field work in Poland, Russia, and other nations during the 1960s and 1970s, arguably some of the most challenging times to collect in Eastern Europe. In general, our field books document specimens from everywhere but Europe. European cultural institutions are well known for their documentation of local natural history. In fact, when researchers describe travel to Europe in their field books, they write about visits to museums to study specimen collections. The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)’s collections and its field books tend to focus on specimens from Asia, the Americas, and Africa. That being said, we still have numerous volumes from Western Europe: seventy-two from France, fifty-eight from England, and twelve from Italy. We had none for several Eastern European nations until Oliver’s collection. Intrigue Sometimes an absence of something can be as informative as the presence of material. I found this to be true, as I began to ask reference staff and our institution historian for background. Our historian informed me that, as one would expect, scientists went to Eastern Europe, but two factors affected the frequency: NMNH didn't focus on collecting in Europe, and there were significant concerns about travel complications (once scientists got there, would they be able to come back?). Several factors made Oliver’s materials even more intriguing. He visited several nations in the Eastern Block, referred to meetings in the area, and his family accompanied him. It made me wonder: Was the travel for diplomatic purposes? Did it spring from a personal relationship with an Eastern European colleague? Oliver’s entries are succinct and offer limited clues, so I started digging in the Smithsonian’s archives and online for publications that might shed light on this period of his life. Context I found two wonderful resources that gave me more insight into Oliver. In 2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives accessioned Oliver's materials as part of a collection of U.S. Geological Survey correspondence and photographs. The last box is organized by country, which corresponds with the locations in the field notes. I also found an article in Palaeoworld written by two of Oliver's colleagues, one of whom was Polish paleontologist Jerzy Fedorowski. The article gives some insight into Oliver's work and his generous nature in regard to supporting others in his field: "Fedorowski profited from his kindness in exchanging Acta Palaeontologica Polonica for journals, the Journal of Paleontology and Paleobiology. Moreover, [Oliver's] recommendation was a main factor for his receiving a year-long postdoctoral Smithsonian Institution award that opened the door for him (Fedorowski) to the 'western' international community of coral students and many other paleontologists at a time of isolation for east European scientists." Though we describe these materials at the item level, they would make little sense without the context provided by collection and creator records made possible through EAD and EAC-CPF. Scientific work, like much of life, is affected and shaped by personal and professional relationships—connections that archives are uniquely equipped to record.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Cold+War+Intrigue/2330635/282045/article.html.