An Ode to Founders and a Field Notes Challenge: Part 1

Junius Henderson was the founder and first curator of the University of Colorado (CU) Museum of Natural History where Rob works.  Because Rob is the Invertebrate Curator of Zoology, and his training is in malacology (not “bad ecology” or “evil” but the study of molluscs such as squids, clams, snails), he has always been pleased that he can trace a direct taxonomic line back to Henderson, who was first and foremost one of the great descriptive malacologists working in western North America.  One hundred years later, brick and mortar testaments to CU’s Founders remain throughout campus: the Henderson building, where the CU Museum of Natural History exhibits are housed, and the Ramaley building (named after compatriot Francis Ramaley), home to the majority of the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

Junius Henderson kept copious field notes describing his many collecting trips; these were compiled into eleven volumes, and are archived in the museum.  The notes start in 1905 with this entry:

“Boulder, Colorado. July 28, 1905. Saw Say Phoebe and Siskins, Robin, Flicker.“  

Another very early entry reads,

“Expenses Florissant trip, 2 tickets to Denver Dr. Ramaley and I —-$2.00. Saw a Kingbird and Robin on way to depot…  Went to City Park and heard band and saw moving pictures including ‘Stage Robbery’ which, to say the least, was not an elevating spectacle, nor helpful to venturesome boys, apt to be carried away with the wildness of such a life.” [emphasis added for the benefit of any venturesome readers]

Twenty-two years and ten notebooks later, here is one of the last entries:

“Virginia Dale, Colo., Wednesday, June 15, 1927. Cloudy, foggy, rainy, cold morning, with a strong northwest wind. Started at 8 a.m. At edge of Laramie basin, speedometer 9728; Laramie 9747; Rock River 9787, at noon for lunch: Medicine Bow 9804; Ft. Steele 9848, about (speedometer slipped off just before reaching there); Rawlins 9864. Roads mostly gravelled and good; but in some places clay, and soft and slippery. Cleared about middle of afternoon and warmer this evening in camp at Rawlins.”

Fast forward another century (give or take): shortly after Rob’s arrival to CU in 2000, the now retired Curator of Paleontology, Peter Robinson mentioned he had personally transcribed ALL ELEVEN VOLUMES and saved each notebook as a separate Word document.  This is a best-case scenario for transcription in many ways; Peter is an expert with deep experience in natural history and paleontology, so his transcriptions of esoteric species names and locations are likely as accurate as they could possibly be.  While there are no scans of Henderson’s notes (yet), Peter did add some annotations (always using double parentheses) such as, “((at some later date Henderson wrote an emphatic ‘NO.’ at this place in the notebook))” to let readers know where they should refer back to the original notes.  So one disappointment is that Peter often added this annotation “((Drawing in field book))” to the notebook, which one cannot (yet) view.

Rob has made use of these notes in his research at CU; in 2003, he headed out on a summer-long collecting expedition as part of a State of Colorado survey of molluscs and crayfish in Western Colorado. Henderson’s field notes provided invaluable context and information about past collecting trips.  Henderson’s notes aren’t just part of the scientific record, however; they’re also a vivid image of the American West in a moment of swift change, as his modes of transportation transition from stagecoach to trains to automobiles, and his travels take him along new routes and through new towns and cities.  In our last post we talked about how we can best do work at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities; rich corpora of field notes like Henderson’s are exactly the media that tie these seemingly disparate disciplines together.

So why are we telling you all this?  Because we think that:

a) Henderson’s meticulousness and Peter Robinson’s hard work provide a remarkable resource that should be publicly available, and;
b) we’ve talked a lot about how to digitize, what to digitize, why to digitize, but we haven’t done quite as much work discussing what to do once you’ve digitized.  In other words, say you’ve transcribed 1000 pages of field notes.  Now what?

So over the last week we’ve been working on just this question of “Now What” using  Henderson’s field notes, with the following goals and caveats for this project:
1) We want to make the notes publicly accessible, easily discoverable, and preferably bundled with appropriate descriptive, structural and preservation metadata;
2) We want do so using the least restrictive licensing available (and we appreciate the support and encouragement of CU Museum Director Patrick Kociolek and Peter Robinson to do so);
3) We want to make use of some of the automated data extraction tools we’ve stumbled across over the last couple of months to do things like link names of taxa, places, people and dates to other sources of biodiversity knowledge;
4) We want to produce at least one Nifty Thing as a result of this project — like a map on Google Earth showing Henderson’s travels;
5) We don’t want to spend more than five hours each on this.  This is because we’re both super busy, and we also like the idea of figuring out what substantial products can be produced on a budget of no money and close-to-no time.

Rob’s student Gaurav Vaidya has also been working on this project with us, focusing on possible wikipedia-oriented solutions, and we’re all nearing/exceeding the end of our respective 5 hour allotments (even when excluding time spent looking up movies from the 1900′s and pictures of Say’s Phoebe).   In the interim, here (in text and Word formats) is the first notebook of Henderson’s for your perusal and to get you thinking and doing. In posts that follow, we will report some of our next steps with the full corpus along with releasing the other notebooks.  More soon!

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About Rob

Three "B's" of importance: biodiversity, bikes and bunnies. I get to express these "B's" in neat ways --- I bike to a job at the University of Colorado where I have a split appointment as Curator of Zoology and Associate Professor. Along with caretaking collections, I also have a small zoo at home, filled with two disapproving bunnies.
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3 Responses to An Ode to Founders and a Field Notes Challenge: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Field Note Challenge Part 2: Veni, Vidi, Wiki | So You Think You Can Digitize

  2. Pingback: Field Notes Challenge Part 3: New Years Digital Resolutions | So You Think You Can Digitize

  3. Pingback: All the News That's Fit to Link | Medical Heritage Library

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