Currently viewing the tag: "Fall 2011"

I was first exposed to the writings of Theodore Roosevelt last year when his book African Game Trails was required reading for a history class on American naturalists. While I didn’t have high expectations of it to begin with, I was definitely surprised to find myself particularly engrossed by the description of his expedition to east Africa. Perhaps Roosevelt’s work simply satisfied a submerged desire for action amidst the tide of academic publications I’m subject to at school, but nevertheless, I felt as if I had discovered someone who genuinely, and unexpectedly, piqued my interest in natural history writing. Therefore, when Iris informed me that my next assignment was to create a finding aid for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and Exhibition collection, I was obviously thrilled.

The collection’s ten boxes ended up comprising two separate themes and subjects. The first of which revolved around the decades long creation of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which now serves as the museum’s main entrance. Although progress on construction was slow, it was ultimately successful and certainly worth the wait. Also prominent in this series was information detailing the construction of the monumental equestrian statue of Roosevelt which has greeted museum visitors since its unveiling in 1940. The second half of the collection, however, was the true gem and I would be shocked if has not already been utilized by various historians. This portion of the collection is made up of various correspondence between Roosevelt and well know AMNH President Henry Fairfield Osborn and AMNH ornithologist Frank M. Chapman amongst others. Both men were extremely well respected in their time for their contributions to the sciences, and based on their letters, they each maintained great friendships with the former president. The correspondence ranges mainly from the turn of the 20th century up until Roosevelt’s death in 1919, and the subjects range from discussions about Roosevelt’s special interest in animal coloration patterns, to the details of various expeditions Roosevelt undertook for the museum, especially his notoriously dangerous exploration of the Amazon from 1913 through 1914. After slowly working my way through the carbon copies of these letters in the first few boxes, I was shocked to find the stained, but well preserved, originals (many of which were signed, if not handwritten) in the last box I opened. Clearly this collection is nothing short of a treasure for anyone interested in Roosevelt, it not only illustrates his amazing intelligence (his knowledge of the natural sciences was impressive), but the AMNH’s central role in scientific research (which Roosevelt publicized through the numerous articles he wrote for magazines detailing their collective work). I’m honored to have been given an opportunity to work with such rare and important documents, and I hope others find the collection as fascinating as I have.

In December 2011, the AMNH Research Library hosted the first of three site visits being conducted by the CLIR postdoctoral fellowship team continuing their research into scholarly engagement in cataloging hidden collections.  With a focus on natural history collections, we are in the company of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, also 2010 CLIR recipients for the Cataloging Hidden Collections grant.  The multi-year study investigates the roles scholars play when interacting with librarians and archivists.  You can see some of their findings here.

Our guests for the day were postdocs Lori Jahnke, Timothy Stinson, Elizabeth Waraksa, joined by two members from CLIR, Alice Bishop and Amy Lucko.  The study team gave a presentation of their research methodology and findings so far. Tom, Barbara, Becca, and I shared our project objectives, gave a tour of the Research Library and were fortunate enough to visit Ruth O’Leary in the Vertebrate Paleontology Archives (as well as sneak a peek into the Anthropology and Ornithology archives!).

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What initially started as two bankers boxes of materials has turned into a lovely collection of nine organized boxes. Over the past few weeks I’ve developed an appreciation for geology and it’s many aspects from this collection. E.O. Hovey was particularly interested in volcanoes and earthquakes and had made numerous trips to the Caribbean to study Mt. Pele on Martinique, which erupted in 1902, 1903, and 1908. I had always associated volcanoes with the Pacific Ring of Fire; however, this volcano seems to have been quite active in the beginning of the last century.

In the last box I have placed all of Ettie Hovey’s travel journals together. Ettie was Edmund’s first wife who joined him on numerous trips between 1891 to 1903. It was interesting to read parts of her journals and see how she refused to be a “geology widow” who stayed home. Rather, she gamely followed Edmund around the world and visited sites that interested her. Some of the things she wrote about were architecture, museum exhibitions, and the garments of Turkish women. This is not to say she didn’t join her husband in the field. In the front cover of one of her books she includes the inscription: “Three times during the writing of this book I have sat at a table….all the rest has been written while I was sitting on the ground waiting for Otis to study rocks or at odd times when we were waiting for a train.”

It’s been a fantastic experience getting to know this wonderful couple and leafing through their beautiful handwriting. It’s also been great being able to put my coursework to use. Thank you to Barbara, Becca, Iris and everyone here at the Library for making this such a great semester!

Happy Holidays!

I don’t know if all of the museum departments have undergone so many name/identity changes, but certainly the department pertaining to woods, forestry, conservation, botany, and ecology has. It began as the Department of Woods and Forestry (1910-1937), and became known as the Department of Forestry and Conservation (1937-1946), the Department of Forestry and General Botany (1946-1953), the Department of Conservation and General Ecology (1953-1956), and finally the Department of Vegetation Studies, which appears to have become part of the Department of Special Activities in 1961.

For the past few weeks I have working on the Department of Forestry and General Botany papers from 1953-1958. These records pertain to the research, planning, design, and construction of the Landscape Hall (more formally known as the Felix M. Memorial Hall of Ecology) and the Hall of North American Forests. Most of the material consists of the actual notes for constructing these halls. A lot of it is handwritten or typed, memo-style notations. There is also printouts of exhibition text with hand-written edits.

The only problem has been that there is limited record of the actual department from this period, and I had to do some serious research into the Annual Reports in order to pinpoint the dates of departmental transitions and also the openings of different portions of the halls. The department dates are above, and the Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall of Ecology opened in 1951, and the Hall of North American Forests opened to the public in 1958.

In 1957, when the Hall of North American Forests was about to open to the public, a photograph was taken of Matthew Kalmenoff painting the background for the Oak-Hickory Group exhibit. Because the records are mostly the notes and sketches saved during the planning of the exhibit, finding this photograph in the 1956-1957 Annual Report really contextualized the magnitude of this project compared to the scant information on the finished exhibit in the department papers. I believe this is because the Exhibitions Department would have most of the records for the actual construction of the exhibitions, whereas the Department of Conservation and General Botany was responsible for the research and logistics of what would go into the exhibits.

Regardless, the picture shows the near-finished product of a process that is shown, in the records, to be meticulous, creative, and above all else, as accurate as possible to the natural landscape depicted in the mural. If you haven’t already, I recommend looking through the Annual Reports. They contain a lot of really great photographs and information about how the museum has changed and developed over time.

Boo hoo, alas, after three months, today was our last day in Herpetology. We spent the day trying to do as much as we can to complete the risk assessment of the processed collection, and the cataloging and risk assessment of the unprocessed collections. As we mentioned in last week’s blog, the unprocessed collections are HUGE. There were many boxes of papers, slides, photographs (both black & white and color), notebooks, and more. To give a perspective, Ernest A. Liner’s collection has over 8,000 slides! Whew! Unfortunately, most of these slides have sustained damage due to being housed in non-archival plastic sleeves. The sleeves are sticking to the emulsion of the slides. We were told that these slides are one of the most important items in his collection. Hopefully, these slides will be preserved somehow.

Near the end of the day, we found boxes of slides that showed the various stages of venomous snake and spider bites including several slides depicting autopsies of fatal bites. These slides are from the Sherman Minton collection. Minton seemed to specialize in studying the effects of venom and anti-venom.

To conclude, while we learned a lot about cataloging and risk assessment of archival collections, we also increased our knowledge of reptiles and amphibians as a side benefit. Jannette’s favorite out of the entire collection was the giant turtles that greeted us everyday as we walked to the archival room. My favorite reptile was Ernest Liner’s smiling pet, Buster, the Mexican beaded lizard.

1890s Bushnell’s copy book ad. A book of thin onion-skin-like linen paper which you would moisten and apply to a freshly written letter or document. The wet paper would absorb the ink of the original and make a perfect copy of same.

Because of the nature of the thin onion-skin-like linen paper and the age of this type of material, most of the edges are brittle and must be handled with extreme care. In addition, some of the images taken off of typewritten pages have faded. Copies made from impressions on pages written in fountain pen ink have held up better over the years.

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I would like my last blog post to show some of the trove of photographs from the Boas collection for which I had created a finding aid which demonstrate his interest in Africa. Two photographs taken by Jesse Tarbox Beals at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair show two African boys next to a frame structure with a monkey. My mind fills with questions about how the children were brought here, what their experience was and what they thought of it all. I am sobered by the content of some of these materials and hope to see how they will be given context by researchers now that they are accessible.
I have learned so much in my stay here from the staff who have helped me, my fellow interns and the materials themselves.

In Herpetology, we are nearing the end of the cataloging and risk assessment phases. Today, Rebecca continued with the risk assessment of the processed collections, while I catalogued the unprocessed collections. Adding to the disorganization, there were numerous boxes placed by the filing cabinets that needed to be sorted out. Not all the boxes were labeled, so I had to deduce who the creator was. I was able to do this by deciphering the handwriting on the materials in the unidentified boxes. The result was there were actually three collections (Ernest A. Liner, Roger Conant, and Sherman Minton.) These were labeled accordingly so hopefully, during the next cycle, it will be easy to continue with this project.

On the risk assessment side, things are moving quickly. While the majority of the materials were field notes, Rebecca came across some interesting black and white photos and beautiful etchings of various species. We have to say that we’ve made good progress and hopefully we will finish on the last day of our internship.

As someone unfamiliar with standard library science practices or theories, I have approached describing the Museum’s hidden collections by relying on my experiences with scholarly research. What I mean by this is, in addition to noting the general scope of the collection, I try to also keep my eyes open for other subjects or people that pop up in relation to the central figures of the collection. By doing so, I figure the greater the chance there is of piquing the interest of a future researcher who would not otherwise be drawn to the collection. As I have experienced in my own research, its often the bizarre connections between people and subjects that are the most fascinating and these types of associations are what create the most interesting work. For example, in my work with the Albert E. Parr, there were a handful of documents related to Museum (of which Parr was the director during the 40s and 50s) dealings with infamous New York City planner Robert Moses. These memos, between Parr and Museum President F. Trubee Davison, hint at Moses’ notoriously difficult and autocratic style, and should they find the their way into the hands of someone researching Moses, they could prove to be quite useful. However, I can’t imagine the Parr papers would be a place where someone would look for such information, and without reference to his name in Parr’s finding aid, a researcher would be unlikely to discover the related documents. Making note of these sorts of appearances by prominent figures, not only provides greater detail to the finding aid, but adds value to the collection as a whole by making connections with other subject areas. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not well versed in the formal practice of library science or archiving and perhaps my methods are in fact standard, but my approach to writing finding aids has been based on what I would look for in a catalog description as a historical researcher.

During the last few weeks, I spent Thursdays finishing a finding aid for the Crocker Land Expedition Field Photographs collection. I’ve learned that writing finding aids is a bit of an art. You have to write with authority and cover the relevant points without the flourishes that some writing permits. However, you also don’t want to make the content so dry that it sounds like a machine generated the Historical Note or Biographical Sketch.

Since I have another two weeks scheduled at the AMNH, Iris gave me a small collection of E.O. Hovey’s papers to work on that is partly related to the Crocker Land Expedition. E.O. Hovey was the head curator at the AMNH during the Crocker Land Expedition and he unexpectedly joined the team in the field for two years. He had only intended to sail up to the Arctic to retrieve the team on the relief ship. However, early ice conditions prevented the ship from reaching the headquarters in Etah, Greenland and they could not leave the specimens they had collected or their equipment. (I should note here, Hovey had travelled throughout the Caribbean shortly before he went to retrieve the team from the Arctic. Of the two locales, I’m sure Hovey would have preferred to be stranded in the Caribbean for two years.)

This collection is divided between two banker boxes that hold approximately 50 field notebooks, linen maps of Greenland, photographs and postcards, and a manuscript of Donald B. MacMillan’s Crocker Land expedition report. The notebooks cover Hovey’s expeditions in the Caribbean, Mexico, the US (including the Sierra Madre and the Black Hills in South Dakota), and Greenland. Several of the notebooks contain Hovey’s notes from classes he took in Germany during the 1890’s. There are also a few volumes of Ettie Hovey’s, Edmund’s wife, travel journals from this same trip. One of the things that struck me was how extensively they traveled through Europe in such a short period of time. They saw it all (Italy, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, England, France, to name a few) and without the time saving benefit of airplanes!