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This post was originally published on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, July 6, 2017.

The American Museum of Natural History selected two unique sets of material to digitize for the CLIR BHL Field Notes Project: field books from the Whitney South Sea Expedition and the Archbold Expeditions. These were two long-running undertakings to systematically explore and collect the flora and fauna of Oceania. Both contributed invaluable specimens to the scientific research and exhibition collections at AMNH. We recently completed digitization of the Whitney South Sea Expedition field notes and are thrilled to have commenced work on the Archbold material. Arguably, the most rewarding aspect of participating in this project is raising awareness of some rather remarkable individuals and expeditions. One example is the 2nd Archbold Expedition to New Guinea. We recently digitized leader Richard Archbold’s journal from that journey, which helps shine a light on this particularly fascinating story.

Archbold Expeditions is a corporation originally founded and led by Richard Archbold. It funded a research collection and staff at the AMNH Department of Mammalogy and sponsored a series of scientific collecting journeys to New Guinea and northern Australia. Heir to a substantial fortune, Archbold was a collector, explorer, ecologist, photographer, mountaineer, and pilot. As a youth he developed a love of nature and technology which carried over into all his future endeavors. He was a Research Associate at AMNH since his participation as photographer and mammalogist in the Mission zoologique franco-anglo-américaine à Madagascar, an experience which would directly inspire him to continue exploration work. He led the first three of the Archbold New Guinea Expeditions himself, and in 1940 founded the Archbold Biological Station in Florida. This research station and Archbold Expeditions were associated with AMNH until the 1980s. The Archbold Biological Station is still vitally active today.

Archbold excelled at organization and planning, recognizing needs and filling them. He regularly made use of and adapted the most current technology and also sought after the best scientists and personnel for his expeditions.

Some of the 2nd Archbold Expedition participants, including scientific party Austin Rand, G. H. H. Tate and Leonard Brass. All three participated in multiple Archbold Expeditions.
“WH2; Papua, Oroville Camp; Juhlstedt, Rand, Tate, Archbold, Burke, Healy, Brass.” Archbold Expeditions Collection, Department of Mammalogy, AMNH.

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A recent book called, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg was recently brought to my attention by a posting from the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York which will be hosting a discussion group about it in early January.  The title of this post is lifted from the title of the introduction to the book which is a subject of much discussion within both the archival and historical communities. I very much look forward to spending some time with it because it seems particularly relevant to the issues that we’re encountering on an organizational level.  These issues require a more theoretical, conceptual overview of just how archivists’ work determines the kind of historical framework that inevitably result from decisions made during processing and archival description.

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Jinrikusha driver and passenger

This studio image is circa 1900.

Welcome archive browsers. My name is James Rodgers and I am a student at NYU in their Museum Studies program. I have a Master’s Degree in Asian Studies with a concentration in Japanese Culture, so expect a lot of Japanese-themed posts and pictures in the upcoming months. For the current internship, I will be going through the library’s archives and pulling out any images, letters, scrapbooks, and information on two particular topics: The Ainu of Japan and Bashford Dean, early AMNH contributor and curator. For each group, I will be creating finding aids to help other students and researchers and to make sure that whatever information they take away from the library is factual and correct.

Now about why I love the archives. As seen with the image above of a Japanese jinrikusha driver, there really is no telling what one will come across as you pour through the library’s diverse and eclectic collection of photographs, travelogues, correspondences, and other time-lost artifacts. I may not always know the full story behind the images I will post, so if anyone out there has a thing or two to add, feel free to leave behind a response or question.

So enjoy and please look forward to the web site that will contain all the Ainu information I pull together.

James Rodgers

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This is my last blog post on the John Treadwell Nichols’ collection, and I’m hoping to touch hearts with it. Fortunately, I saved the especially personal and sentimental side of Nichols’ records for this purpose.

Today I finished up the last of my finding aid. It was especially messy considering I needed to go through his small pocketbooks, the personal off-the-record pocketbooks. I assumed these small books—approximately the size of matchboxes—would reflect the clinical entries of Nichols’ other stuff.

The journals spanned from the early 1930s deep into the 1950s, ending just months before Nichols’ death. From what I know of Nichols, these last few decades were quiet. Although active in his own research, Nichols’ career had arrived and blossomed. He had the title of Curator Emeritus but that was the extent of his involvement with the Museum, and while he founded some of its most notable societies, the field of Ichythyology had cooled towards Nichols. Most of his colleagues viewed Nichols as a recluse. In one letter, his youngest son observed that his father was a bit of a quiet eccentric at the end of his life who never discussed his research with the family. None of his children knew of their father’s accomplishments until they were adults.

The small pocketbooks were messier than his past journals, and scanning their yellowed pages, I wondered if there was any value to them. The script and sketches were smudged, but I noticed that he’d glued a small cut-out picture of his wife on the inside of each cover. The further I examined the books, I noticed there were small poems interspersed with the recorded animal sightings.

I started going through the pages to see if I could find a reference to his family—or his pretty wife. I knew it was unlikely because I’d seen a letter where Nichols’ son insisted that nothing too personal be contained in this public collection. I also doubt that the private and reclusive Nichols might disclose anything about his family in a book of animal observations. He must have considered that his colleagues might one day leaf through them for their own research.

While I saw no references to his family, I found a small folded essay tucked into a pocketbook from 1942. The title “Thesis on Men” made me chuckle. It reminded me of Nichols’ scientific background, and I suppose he’d approach people in the same sort of clinical manner he did to fishes, birds, or amphibians. I couldn’t tell if it was Nichols’ original work, but it had a sense of humor that a few obituaries and profile pieces referred to—a biting sense of humor that I’d had yet to see.

So here is the Entry: “Thesis on Men”
Men are what women marry.

They have two hands, two feet, and sometimes two wives, but never more than one dollar or one idea at one time. Like Turkish cigarettes, they are all made of the same material; the only difference is that some are better disguised than others.

Generally speaking, they may be divided into three classes—husbands, bachelors, and widowers. A bachelor is a negligible mass of obstinacy, entirely surrounded by suspicion. Husbands are three types—prizes, surprises and consolation prizes. Making a husband out of a man is one of the highest forms of plastic art known to civilization. It requires science, sculpture, common sense, faith, hope, and charity. Mostly charity.

It is a psychological marvel that a small, tender, soft, violet-scented thing should enjoy kissing a big, awkward, stubby-chinned, tobacco-smelling, and bay-rum scented thing like a man.

If you flatter a man, you frighten him to death. If you permit him to make love to you, he gets tired of you in the end. If you don’t, he gets tired of you in the beginning.

If you believe in him, you cease to charm him. If you believe all he tells you, he thinks you are a fool. If you wear gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat, he hesitates to take you out; but if you wear a little brown beret and a tailor-made suit, he takes you out and stares all evening at a woman in gay colors, rouge, and a startling hat.

If you join the gaieties and approve of his drinking, he swears you are driving him to the devil. If you don’t approve of his drinking and urge him to give up his gaieties, he knows you are a snob.

If you are a clinging vine type, he doubts whether you have a brain; if you are a modern, advanced, intelligent woman, he doubts whether you have a heart. If you are silly, he longs for a bright mate; if you are brilliant and intellectual, he longs for a playmate.

Man is just a worm in the dust. He comes along, wriggles around for awhile, and finally some chicken gets him.
After I read through the essay, I decided I’d include it in my blog post today. Working with archival materials can be very sad in that the people related to the materials are dead and gone and have been outlived by scraps of paper. I touch the remnants of these people and am reminded that I’ll leave my own scraps—or perhaps emails and text messages—and that will be all that’s left of me.

However, when I read this entry, I realized that Nichols valued the universality of life more deeply than his own individual accomplishments. His essay “Thesis on Men” testifies to how irrational and contradictory life is. Men are all the same—curator or not, researcher or not. We are made from the same material, and we don’t want different things but want what we don’t have. The discussion about finding a wife and being tamed by one is a universal experience that all people go through, and of course death is inevitable.

But here Nichols relishes how all men will have to struggle the same way and die, and this resonated with me. I’ll be graduating in two weeks from college, and I worry what the future holds, will I be successful, am I using my time properly? This essay by Nichols reminded me that—despite the varied details—the nature of life is uniform among all people. We find love and make love and reject love, and then we die.

The essay made me wonder what Nichols would have preferred to leave behind or be known as. I wonder if he’d have wanted his career as a curator and researcher emphasized as his foremost passion, or if he’d have been pleased to have an archival collection full of pictures of his wife and his young children. I wonder if leaving behind the legacy as a generic father would’ve pleased him much more than the 1913 founder of the naturalist magazine, Capoiea. Perhaps he wouldn’t have approved of his son’s request to suppress anything to revealing about the Nichols’ household or his parent’s marriage.

This blog entry makes me wonder what I’d fill my own archival collection with, what I’d want to be known for, etc. Success and proper titles paint a distinct picture, but I wonder if they convey a real person or a personality? I knew Nichols’ history and I knew the skill and precision of his observation and scientific writings, but these small personal details, the pictures of his wife and this small essay, gives me a much better and interesting grasp of his character.

Regardless, I’ve had an amazing time here at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve enjoyed every second of it and am grateful to Iris Lee for mentoring me and helping me figure out the protocol. This has been a wonderful experience.

Today I spent some time looking into the box marked Biographical Materials. This is only one of the eighteen boxes of the John Treadwell Nichols’ collection that I’ve been cataloguing this spring. The Biographical Materials section generally takes up a folder or two in collections that center around an individual, and it generally consists of letters between the individual’s relatives and the institution acquiring the personal materials. Although it’s surprising to see the difference in the font, the speech, and the tone, the most jarring thing about the Biographical Materials is realizing how the world really saw the person. In the case of John Treadwell Nichols, the majority of the folder was devoted to the correspondence between his youngest son, David G. Nichols, and various naturalists around the United States.

During his career here at the Museum, John Treadwell Nichols not only over-saw the development of the Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology when it was organized in 1909, but he became the first curator of the newly separated Department of Ichthyology in 1919 after Bashford Dean stepped down. In addition, Nichols founded the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) and its journal, Copeia, out of his small office here in 1913 while still in his twenties.

The letters in this box between David G. Nichols and the zoologists around the United States date from the early to mid-eighties. Interest in the founding of Copeia had begun to emerge among the zoologist community as the ASIH publication approached its 75th Anniversary. However, in the letters addressed to David, the members confess that they haven’t found any information relating to Nichols and the journal’s founding. A zoologist from Ohio State University observed that even the Museum of Natural History didn’t have a collection of Nichols’ records and “kn[e]w nothing of his files” or their whereabouts. This lack of information on John Treadwell Nichols was shocking, when he contributed hundreds of articles and was President of ASIH during the early thirties in addition to his position as curator for the Museum.

The responses from David G. Nichols introduced a portion of his father’s life that his personal journals and letters hadn’t conveyed. In one letter David, the youngest of Nichols’ four children, recalled his childhood and the relationship with his father. Whereas his siblings had lost their interest in zoology and instead “emerged into the business world” after college, David was removed from high school during his sophomore year and spent the next few years collecting mammals for the Museum throughout North America and Europe. On the outset of World War II, David didn’t even have a high school diploma but had traveled extensively around the world. Despite that his father and he “were unusually close along a number of dimensions…spending much field time together studying mammals and birds,” he never knew about his father’s involvement with ASIH or the journal until a Museum lecturer took him aside and told him.

In addition to his father’s modesty however, letters also alluded to an “isolation” between John Treadwell Nichols and his peers in the fields of Ichthyology or Herpetology. One especially sad letter dated November 18, 1987 from James W. Atz, a Curator Emeritus of the Museum, apologized to Nichols’ son for “these slights and neglect” by the scientific community to his father’s memory. Atz went on to observe that despite Nichols’ accomplishments, “your Father became increasingly isolated” from the two fields he’d been so instrumental in organizing. The entire field, including Charles Breder Jr. a fellow ichthyologist whom Nichols co-authored many articles with and Carl Hubbs who took over as editor of Nichols’ journal, he concluded, “rather discounted your Father’s accomplishments.” It was sad to think that the isolation of his waning years should obscure the rest of his career.

The saddest part—conveyed by the various requests made by zoologists and other scientists on David G. Nichols for his father’s personal records—was that Nichols had become relatively unknown and undocumented after his death, despite how successful and esteemed ASIH and Copeia had become. At the end of the letter, Atz made a revealing analogy when he compared the legacies of Nichols and his peer, Breder. Both of these men became isolated for the field of ichthyology in the years preceding their deaths, but Breder made sure a friend wrote his obituary so he would “not suffer the final dishonor of having that duty performed” by a stranger or a competitor in his field.

This observation illustrates the importance of archives. In the case of John Treadwell Nichols, his life and contributions could’ve been contained in a bibliography or an obituary. The American Museum of Natural History has a brief file on him consisting of a few newspaper articles, printed interviews, and various copies of his obituary. So why can’t this replace a collection of Nichols’ personal materials?

This file is a collection of people writing on Nichols’ life. That’s history, but is it enough? The file doesn’t cover any of the contrasting views I encountered in the Biographical Materials. There’s nothing about how his reputation soured among the scientific community during the last years of his life, and there’s very little on the nature of his relationships with his family, friends, or even peers.

I believe, and I don’t think many would disagree, that archival collections are much more reliable at capturing the true nature of a person or an event—the different threads and contradictions, etc—than history. Archival collections aren’t accessible to everyone and so the historians process the information and analyze it for the public. They aren’t objective, and two historians looking at the same material can come up with different conclusions. That’s how history changes and brings life to the past, and archives fuel these debates. Without archives, history would be at a standstill. If we destroyed a collection after someone wrote on it, then that person would get the last word. If interest hadn’t reemerged for John Treadwell Nichols, there would only be a collection of obituaries. All the other views and aspects of the man would die with his relatives, his friends, and his peers. Everything would be gone. I almost consider the archives alive because the same materials can be analyzed so differently. A few years from now, another intern might discuss Biographical Materials and propose that this reveals something entirely different about Nichols’ personality. Who knows?