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Hello everyone!

Today is my last day in the AMNH Library and Archives. I’ve worked on a number of projects under the CLIR and IMLS grants since February and am truly amazed at the new skills I’ve developed in the process. Together with Claire, Becca and Iris, I’ve risk assessed the contents of a department (including everything from administrative files and library books to accession records and field notebooks), created an original finding aid, learned a good deal about a major donor to the museum, and mastered the difficult process of converting container lists into XML code to be imported into Archivists’ Toolkit.

Each of these tasks certainly had their challenges. My most recent work with AT has at times seemed like what Iris called “a slow and tedious process” in one of her latest blog posts. Thankfully, though, no problem was ever too large to overcome and help was always available when I needed it. I’m proud to say I was part of a museum-wide risk assessment effort, personally sorted through amazing primary source materials and imported four (!!) finding aids into AT (Iris and Oxygen XML Editor were especially invaluable to this last task).

It’s been an incredibly exciting and educational experience interning for these two grant-funded projects. It’s even more gratifying to know that the small piece I contributed over seven months is part of a greater whole that will aid the AMNH and all of its present and future researchers. I wish everyone still working on the project the best of luck. I look forward to celebrating its conclusion and to assisting with new projects in the future!
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The George Newbold Lawrence Correspondence Collection

When I first began sorting through the hundreds of letters between Lawrence and his friends and colleagues in this collection, I expected the majority to be highly scientific—difficult for the average person to understand, loaded with terms and concepts foreign to non-ornithologists, and concerned with personal and institutional avifauna collections. Upon deeper inspection, many of the letters confirmed these suspicions. Some of Lawrence’s closest friends, including Baird and Cassin, held important positions in museums just beginning to establish their ornithology departments at the turn of the century. They dedicated their lives to bird study, and much of their correspondence reflects that. Though short, a letter from Robert Ridgway, Curator of Ornithology at the Smithsonian Institution and founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, packs in the scientific names of multiple new specimens found by their mutual friend Frederick A. Ober, discusses and compares the descriptions and habitats of the species, and references the exact pages of a source book to support his research.

Letter from Robert Ridgway to Lawrence, September 20, 1872

In another letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast, a naturalist and collector, a list of bird species is included in dense letter written completely in French. References are made to small differences between scientific names and other ornithologists like Baird are cited in his discussion. Lawrence’s correspondence with John Grant Wells, an ornithologist, contains more of the same highly specialized talk.

Letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast to Lawrence, April 6, 1874

Letter from John Wells Grant to Lawrence, February 22, 1881

But not all of the correspondence in this collection was so serious. In one of many letters to Lawrence, John Porter McCown shares his love of “wandering through the woods and making the acquaintance of the birds.” He talks about eliminating potential predators from his property– “I allow no cats about my shanty and I extend protection to the feathered tribes…The result is that my premises abound in birds – quails raise their young in my yard” — and goes on to note that he refrained from starting a collection of birds as he had “seen none but old friends.”

Letter from John Porter McCown to Lawrence, April 17, 1877

Letters like these display the dual-nature of ornithologists like Lawrence. Fascination with birds, often cultivated from a young age, led many to pursue the science and partake in the rigors of studying, naming and exhibiting species found all around the world. But, when possible, these men also protected birds in their natural habitats and resisted the compulsion to kill and collect for the advancement of science.

Hello everyone! After working through the spring semester with Claire and Becca in Invertebrate Paleontology, I’m two weeks into making my way through the George Newbold Lawrence Correspondence Collection. Lawrence was a nineteenth-century amateur ornithologist and author. His collection of over 8,000 bird skins and 300 new bird species was donated to the American Museum of Natural History in May 1887. The correspondence collection for which I’m currently creating a finding aid was given to the museum in 1929 and comprises hundreds of mostly handwritten letters by Lawrence and his friends and colleagues.

George Newbold Lawrence

Lawrence was born on October 20, 1806 in New York City, but spent a good portion of his childhood at his father’s country home along the Hudson River. As a young man, he enjoyed observing and studying avifauna in their natural habitats across the wooded areas of Manhattan including Fort Washington Point and Manhattanville. Lawrence eventually went into partnership with his father in the wholesale drug business and became head of the firm in 1834. But after being introduced to Spencer Fullerton Baird who would become the first curator at the Smithsonian Institution in 1841, he devoted his life to the study and classification of birds.

Spencer Fullerton Baird and John Cassin

Lawrence used his wealth and business background to finance several Smithsonian expeditions, and in 1842 published his first scientific paper on the Black Brant (Bernicula nigricans). This began his nearly fifty-year-long career of contributing ornithology papers to natural science periodicals. Together with Baird and American ornithologist John Cassin, Lawrence worked on the ninth volume of the Pacific Railway Reports, government-funded explorations, studies and surveys of the American West intended to discover the best route for the trans-continental railroad. The volume was eventually revised, expanded and republished in 1860 as The Birds of North America encyclopedia.
Throughout his life, Lawrence was an active member of the New York Lyceum of Natural History as well as the New York Historical and Geographical Societies. He eventually also became an Honorary Member of both the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Linnaean Society of New York.  His knowledge of New World ornithology is widely celebrated: one genus and twenty bird species are named after Lawrence in recognition of his contribution to the science. He forms, together with Baird and Cassin, the great triumvirate of the Bairdian Epoch of American Ornithology.
The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology published by the American Ornithologists’ Union
I’m excited to continue working with and learning from the Lawrence collection.  It’s incredibly well-organized with neatly labeled and alphabetized folders. Despite the fact that the majority of letters are from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, moreover, it’s amazing that the collection is in excellent condition. I’ve only just begun constructing its container list, but I’ve already become well-acquainted with Lawrence and his associates. In the coming weeks, I’ll describe some of the most interesting letters in the collection to provide a better sense of this businessman with a real passion for ornithology. Stay tuned!

This was our last day in Invertebrate Paleontology. We spent our morning with Bushra and Becca on the fifth floor checking that our data matched up with the collections and attaching final labels. It was a good decision to begin the day with a full room review because we realized early on that we had somehow skipped over a bay full of IP treatises and catalog ledger duplicates that required new records in our spreadsheets.

In the afternoon, we went over helpful notes Iris sent us for our spreadsheet. Looking forward to when our work will be transformed into MARC records that will eventually become part of the AMNH online research library, we had to make sure our data was neat and consistent. All of this meant deleting terminal periods and uncapitalizing words previously capitalized in all of our records, but we somehow got it all done!

It was definitely sad but also incredibly satisfying to end our work in IP. Claire and I are really proud of all that we’ve accomplished over the semester. We had fun helping Bushra realize new organization techniques for her department and we were happy to learn a lot more about Invertebrate Paleontology than we ever knew before. While it was sometimes dull work to sort through departmental files, the times when we found amazing things in the collection–photographs of the department’s early curators, beautifully handwritten ledgers and unique specimen drawings–made all of our efforts worthwhile.

Claire and I finished up authority work together today. We focused mainly on making sure our records were consistent, and then we entered topical terms into our spreadsheet to ensure that our data will be useful for researchers. Instead of going through the necessary but boring details of what it’s like to search through the Library of Congress and AMNH OPAC authority websites, I thought it would be interesting to introduce the space we’ve been working in this semester instead. Let’s start our tour!

To get to the Invertebrate Paleontology office, Claire and I leave the library, walk through the exhibits and ascend the two staircases on the fourth floor.

Next, we pass through a set of double doors and find ourselves in the fifth floor hallway where our department is located.

The fifth floor hallway is such an interesting space. On either side are ceiling-high storage units full of specimens. Now that Claire and I have spent so much time working with IP’s catalogs, we understand a good deal of the scientific language mentioned on the labels.

Bushra’s office is a few doors down the hallway, and is a great place to work. The room is large and airy, with wood floors, tall ceilings and large windows.

Meet Bushra Hussaini!

Glass cabinets full of IP’s library books line the left wall of the office. We’ve found rare books from the nineteenth century, as well as more modern, twentieth-century loan and accession ledgers behind the glass doors.

Check out the painting of wolves above the cabinets

Floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets occupy the right side of Bushra’s office. They house cardboard boxes full of a variety of materials including card catalogs, field photographs, specimen labels, departmental research and some curator memoirs.

One Post-It-labeled cabinet in IP

One of the most interesting areas of Bushra’s office is the large desk where Claire and I have sorted through our IP material. Underneath clear blotters are photographs and postcards from departmental travel. A few specimens are usually out on display on this desk as well.

Two trilobites in a specimen box

Next week Claire and I will be back in Bushra’s office to finish up our work in IP. Now you know all about the inspiring place we’ve been working in this past semester.

Claire and I are working together in Invertebrate Paleontology, and today was our second day sorting through the Department’s files. After encountering countless loan documents, budgets, annual reports, maintenance schedules, visitor forms and office supply lists, we were ready to move on from filing cabinets full of these necessary but less-exciting departmental records.

Phone bills and shipping forms in a filing cabinet

Half-way through our second day, we began to uncover the really interesting materials we sought. One unassuming box contained over a dozen original sketches of the Museum’s most famous curators signed by the artist James Bowen. Another was full of field trip notebooks and journals from the late nineteenth century featuring drawings of fossils and landscapes with incredibly detailed descriptions of localities explored by scientists from the Department. Nearly a whole cabinet houses bound and unbound accession books cataloging hundreds of thousands of invertebrate specimens.

Sketch of R.P. Whitfield, Curator of Geology

We had the chance to work alongside some of those specimens today, and we are definitely looking forward to learning more about Invertebrate Paleontology as we progress through the Department’s files. Bushra Hussaini, the Senior Scientific Assistant, is helping us along the way and has already enriched the preliminary work we have accomplished.

One of our work stations in Invertebrate Paleontology

Next week will hopefully be a continuation of the exciting and engaging endeavors we began today.