Currently viewing the tag: "Research Library"

Eli PankenAt my high school in Scarsdale, NY, seniors enjoy a major perk at the end of their high school careers in the opportunity that is Senior Options. This six-week program encourages seniors to find an internship or complete an independent project of their interest and really get a chance to take part in a working environment. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at American Museum of Natural History Research Library in Special Collections. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to work than the institution that sparked my educational career when I was a boy.

My work in Special Collections has been primarily with the vertical files, particularly with the biographical files. I worked four days a week condensing and verifying the information within the biographical files. Before I arrived, these files were split into Bio 1 and Bio 2. The separations indicated the relevance to the museum; those who were Bio 1 tended to be employees, trustees, or other individuals closely related to the museum, while those in Bio 2 tended to have a greater degree of separation from the museum. The work I did over the six weeks will hopefully make it easier for the library to create finding aids and eventually link the data of the biographical files with the data of the expedition files and other files to be determined. This will be extremely important for future research, as it will allow for information to be gathered quicker and easier than before via the different links.

While the work could be mundane at times, I am glad I had the opportunity to intern in the Special Collections and I am eternally grateful to all the staff who helped me along the way and were always so kind and caring. I am eager to go back and continue to work on the vertical files; I just know something incredible will come out of the whole linked data idea!

While interning in the Anthropology Division under the supervision of Ms. Kristen Mable, Registrar for Archives & Loans, I had the opportunity to work with some very interesting collections, the first being the Papers of Junius Bouton Bird, 1907-1982, regarding his research in North America. Bird, a careful excavator and pioneer in the use of radiocarbon dating and textile studies was best known for his South American research. He became the Curator of South American archaeology at the American Museum in 1957. Bird sailed to the Arctic several times, becoming an expert sailor while doing archaeological research work in areas such as: Eastern Greenland, Hopedale, Labrador, Cape York and Southampton Island, to name a few. Artifacts from Bird’s excavations in Labrador and Southampton Island can be found in the AMNH Anthropology Division’s collections.

Junius Bouton Bird sailing, possibly on the schooner "Morrissey".

As I explored the field reports, correspondence and photographs in this collection, I came across an interesting photograph of an artifact known as the “spindle whorl”, found at the L’Anse aux Meadows Norse Vikings settlement ruins on the Northern coast of Newfoundland. This site was first discovered by Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian adventurer and writer, in 1960 by following a hunch and an ancient map. This site, found to be almost a millennium old, was believed to be the place where Vikings landed in North America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The “spindle whorl” artifact was in fact, a yarn spinner, about 1000 years old, which proved that the Viking settlers included women, who performed household tasks. Bird did conservation work at the site from 1961 to 1964 and also gave a lecture on the Norse. His notes and slides from the lecture can be found in this collection as well.

The Spindle Whorl artifact found at the Norse Vikings "L'Anse aux Meadows" site on the Northern coast of Newfoundland.

This collection also includes archaeological sites in the United States, such as mastodon sites in Hackensack, New Jersey and the Kunatah rock shelter in upstate New York, among others. Also included here are Bird’s papers on his research work in Honduras and Okinawa, Japan. Junius Bird died in New York in 1982, leaving behind plentiful evidence of his illustrious archaeological research work for future generations of people, researchers, students and interns, such as myself, to re-discover. I feel privileged to have worked on this exciting collection and grateful for this unique opportunity.


Hurricane Sandy has caused something of a delay to both my project and my blog posts, but everything is finally back at full steam ahead. Still, my thoughts are with everyone who is struggling with its ongoing impact.

As I have flicked through the Museum’s Annual Reports, Journal and Anthropological Papers publications, I’ve started to appreciate how enormous this task really is. Every year Museum staff (and enthusiastic volunteers) were sent out in all directions with an enormous variety of research tasks, some of which were cohesive parts of a larger project, and others which were somewhat opportunistic, such as that prompted by news of a building development on the site of unexcavated shell heaps in Florida.

While I began by focusing on one expedition at a time, which seemed like the most manageable approach, I soon realized that the sheer number of Museum staff in the field in any one year meant I would need to return to the same sources multiple times.

This approach also ignored the different levels of linkage and overlap between the expeditions. Robert H. Lowie’s expedition to Crow groups in Montana in 1910, for example, was part of a series of visits there he undertook over several years to gather, check and confirm data. It was also part of an ongoing attempt to analyze social organization among Plains Indians covering the area in the image below, which involved not only Lowie but also Clark Wissler, Alanson Skinner and Pliny E. Goddard, among others. This, in turn, was just one of several thematic studies within a broader project of investigating theories of cultural dispersal from Canada to the southwest United States, linking the Plains research with the Huntington Expedition as well as the Jesup North Pacific explorations.

Area covered by the Northern Plains research project

While this has meant my research needs to focus on several levels simultaneously, it has also been valuable in determining a scope for the project. Tangential explorations, side projects and self-sponsored volunteer investigations continue to pop up, however, so it will be interesting to see how these impact our ongoing attempt to create a framework for researchers.

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.

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.