Currently viewing the tag: "CLIR 2010"

Yesterday was supposed to be our last day here at the museum, but we decided to come in today to try and finish up with our Risk Assessment in the Manuscripts collection.  We came very close to doing just that, but didn’t get all the way to the end, unfortunately.   However, we tackled a few big collections over the past two days, and even some unprocessed collections.  Along the way we got to see some pretty interesting collections, including our favorite, Lillian Powers, the Squirrel Lady, one last time.

We began this summer doing a shelf read in the Manuscript collection, comparing the items on the shelves with the catalog spread sheet, and when that was finished we proceeded to the Risk Assessment portion of our project.  Both experiences have taught us a great deal.  The shelf read introduced us to different types of formats that can be present in a manuscript collection and some of the best practices for describing them.  We also gained a little experience with using the Library of Congress authority controls during this process.

This thing is HUGE!

While performing risk assessment for this collection, we began learning about what can physically compromise a collection: red rot on leather, acid migration from newspaper, annotations on photographs, and the dastardly metal paper clip!  Every now and again we stumbled upon something which really caught our preservation attention, like a very unstable nitrate negative or x-ray.  We also got a chance to see the wide variety of formats that can be found in these collections, like specimens, reprints (I never want to see another reprint again), slides, cassette tapes, and giant floppy disks that wouldn’t fit in any computer we’ve ever used.

Otherwise our time was spent counting items of varying formats and then logging them into the LARA Access database, a process which was sometimes slow and required a significant amount of attention to detail and discussion.  We were both happy that we didn’t have to go this alone.

In the end, our experience taught us so much about risk assessment and the organization and maintenance of an archive.  And it allowed us to encounter images of U.S. presidents, species of fish we’d never heard of, and wonderful squirrel loving New Yorkers. So we leave you with this:

Goodbye, Special Collections. Thanks for everything.

Today we worked with a collection of records from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, primarily consisting of correspondence about specimens between AMNH scientists and their colleagues at other institutions. Though the bulk of the collection was from the 1960s – 1980s, we did come across a set of original drawings from 1939 done by George H. Childs, who was a scientific artist for the Museum at the time. According to his biographical file in the AMNH Research Library, Childs created many diagrammatic displays for Museum exhibitions, including those found in the Hall of North American Forests. The drawings in this collection, which are sketches for a proposed exhibition, came with a long letter that Childs wrote from his trip to Santa Catalina, where he was doing research for a possible exhibition on kelp gardens in the water near the island. His letter extensively details the types of species he found on his research trip. It also makes note of the then recent news that World War II has begun, with Childs stating that he feels concerned and distracted by the news.

The drawings appear to have been done using colored pencil and are in very good condition. Below, you can see Childs’ idea of how a diorama of the Santa Catalina Kelp Gardens at the AMNH would appear from the exhibition hall.

View from outside exhibition

Looking at the below drawing, you can see that his vision for the exhibition involved a walk-through, immersive, experience – much like being underwater.

View from inside exhibition

In the below drawing you can see the idea for what would have been the floor plan.

Floor plan of exhibition. You can see the path visitors would walk through.

From what we can tell, this exhibition never came to fruition, but it was fascinating to learn about how the research and conceptualizing process works.

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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Most of our afternoon today was spent with Roger Conant. A museum herpetologist, Conant was a meticulous and precise individual to say the least.  The processed portion of the collection housed in the Manuscript department (which does not include the portions of his collection housed in Herpetology or the unprocessed portions) spans 57 linear feet and is comprised of 117 boxes!  The picture hardly does the immensity of this collection justice.  But you get the idea.

The collection was largely correspondence, which was easy enough to go through as far as risk assessment is concerned.  But as we made our way through all of his boxes, we found ourselves confronted with, and stunned by, the plethora of formats and the sheer volume of it all.

While going through a box containing a handful of miscellaneous notebooks we also found 11 old passports belonging to Roger, his second wife Isabella, and one of third wife.  In older passports (which were not always blue, by the way) there was a section where you were supposed to mention any distinguishing characteristics of the bearer.  Turns out Conant was missing his left thumb. We had to find out how and why, and knew that the answer had to be somewhere in these boxes.

And it was.  And the story makes complete sense in the end.  Conant studied snakes, predominately of the southwest. As a 20 year old student, Conant apparently tried to capture a Crotalus mitchelli, commonly known as a speckled rattlesnake, or Mitchell’s rattlesnake.  Tried, and was bitten in the process.  The photo at left was found among some of Conant’s personal papers towards the end of the collection.  The annotation on the back identifies the top photo as being of Conant’s left hand, after being bitten by the snake in the second photo. Yikes!

Risk assessment wise the collection was in great shape with exception of some mounted oil paintings of snakes, lizards, and frogs.  In color these pictures are still enclosed in non-archival plastic with decaying adhesive.

Conant’s archive was full of personal and family records including pictures from his childhood in the early 20th century and memorabilia from his time as a boy scout and a math tutor.  Seeing small artifacts such as these just makes you smile, and then wonder how on earth you are supposed to classify them.  Two wooden boats, one metal cannon, 5 award ribbons…

Among the materials we cataloged today was a collection of accession records from the 1930s through the 1950s for materials used in AMNH exhibitions such as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and on the polar expeditions of Amundsen-Ellsworth and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The most interesting part of these materials were the inventory lists of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition equipment. Should you find yourself in need of a reference for what to bring on a trip to Antarctica, I think we might be able to help you.

Sample expedition exhibition inventory list.

Also, it appears that Admiral Byrd’s footwear of choice was made by Thom McAn.

Advertisement for Thom McAn shoes.

Something else we learned today is that the Museum once had a Department of Geography. This department was quite short-lived, starting in 1934 and ending in 1938. According to the documents in the collection we worked with, once the department was closed, its Geographical Exploration collection’s materials were transferred to the Custodial department for storage.

Internal memo about Dept. of Geography's demise and subsequent material transfer.

There are extensive inventory lists from the Dept. of Geography for all items kept by the Museum from various expeditions, such as ones done by Lincoln Ellsworth, Admiral Byrd, and E.O. Hovey. There was also a ledger of geographical collections accession records from the department, which included details about photographs and other materials from expeditions that were once kept by this department.

Page from accession records ledger.

There were plenty of things to explore in this collection. However, one thing that remains a mystery to us is the more recent provenance of these records. They were found in a box with unrelated records from the Office of Public Affairs and seem to have come from the Department of Preparation and Installation. Perhaps they were just misplaced at one time. Hopefully, the data we have gathered will help to place them closer where they belong in the future.

Allow me to be blunt – there is no efficient way to import finding aids created and saved as Microsoft Word documents into Archivists’ Toolkit without the painstaking exercise of copying and pasting lines of data into individual database cells.  For the past eighteen months, we have been writing finding aids for the archival collections in the Library thanks to the CLIR grant.  Twenty one finding aids have been completed and reviewed.  The final Word documents, once approved, are entered into the Toolkit, as mentioned, by copying and pasting data.  It can be a slow and tedious process, especially when dealing with numerous subject headings and name entities.  Entering lengthy container lists is even more dreary – dates must be input into multiple cells, a simple box and folder enumeration containing only two numbers is seven clicks from completion.  Not the best use of anyone’s time.  Not to mention the probability for error!  When your eyes are glazed over from transferring data piece-meal for hours, a “7” could easily look like a “1”.

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As we continue to work through department records, we often stumble upon some interesting materials that have somehow ended up placed in a box with unrelated materials. Today, while cataloging some records from the AMNH VP’s office from the 1970s, we discovered a folder containing scripts for motion picture title cards from the early 1920s. These scripts contain scene descriptions, also known as title cards, to be inserted into silent films as text between images. You can see an example here on a negative that was found in this folder along with the papers:

Example of a title card on film

One conservation issue to consider is that this negative is showing signs of yellowing. It could possibly be nitrate film, so our next steps are to consult with the conservator to see if it needs to be removed and properly stored.

For some of these documents, it was not evident what the direct relationship was between the film and the museum, though the subject matter mostly covered New York City history and science. One could speculate that, perhaps, the museum contributed descriptions for the films or the film itself. However, one very interesting item in the folder was a document listing title cards for a film of the AMNH’s Crocker Land Expedition titled “Life in the Frozen North.”

As indicated by the initials in the upper right corner, the document contains notations made by Edmund Otis Hovey, the leader of the relief expedition sent to rescue the stranded explorers. His notations provide numbering, spelling corrections, and additional titles. The information found here could be a valuable reference to someone working with the Crocker Land photographic collection.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this film on the Crocker Land Expedition exists today. However, it is likely that many of the images from the expedition can be found in the AMNH Library Special Collections.


We worked on several interesting subjects today, such as Hayden Planetarium financial papers and reports related to its development and construction and a collection of materials from the AMNH Department of Education’s Natural Science Center educational exhibits and programs for young people.

Since opening in 1954, the Natural Science Center has provided the opportunity for budding naturalists to learn about plants, animals, and rocks that are native to New York City through exhibitions and educational programs. The collection we worked with today contained scrapbooks of articles and photographs that showed how the children gained new and exciting experiences at the Center. The participating children watched, touched, sensed, and smelled the objects or living animals that were provided by the Center, exploring a unique unknown world.

There is no greater experience comparable to these sorts of programs; they offer unforgettable and intriguing memories, and they would have definitely triggered their further intellectual curiosities. It is one of the ways that the educational programs are supposed to be.

Hey my baby opossum, calm down...

Treating baby owls well

The box contained some negatives and mounted photographs randomly. We will leave them as they are; however, they will need some preservation in near future.



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!