Documenting Scientific Knowledge One Handwritten Note at a Time

Connecting Content: The Wonderful World of Field Books

The California Academy of Sciences and our partners (all of whom are also BHL member institutions) are in the midst of a 3 year IMLS National Leadership Grant titled “Connecting Content: A Collaboration to Link Field Notes to Specimens and Published Literature.” This project aims to digitize published scientific findings, their related field books and specimens, and metadata for these items, link all of these resources, and make them available for harvesting, reuse, and repurposing without cost. At this point, the bulk of the field books selected for this project have been digitized and made available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. (*You can see the sixty-one titles digitized for this project by searching for “Connecting Content” in the BHL search box.) You can download a selection of these field book for free via the latest BHL iTunes U Collection: Connecting Content through Archival Field Notes.

Field books (or field notes) are the original documents which chronicle specimen collection and the events and observations that led to scientific discovery.  Field books are unique unto the creator and vary greatly from book to book. Here are a selection of highlights from the collection which demonstrate the wealth of information and styles found throughout the selection of field books:

William Whitman Bailey and the USGS Exploration of the 40th Parallel


William Whitman Bailey’s life story reads like a blockbuster movie plot. When young William was just nine years old, he and his family took an ill fated boat trip aboard the 198 foot side-wheeler, the Henry Clay. On this fateful day, the Henry Clay was involved in a minor collision with another vessel, but pressed onwards as it seemed that the ship has sustained little damage. However, about an hour outside of its final New York destination, the ship beached itself on shore near Yonkers as a result of a fire that had been burning unnoticed since the collision. The lucky passengers on the bow of the ship were either thrown or able to jump onto land, but the Baileys were not so fortunate. Separated from land by 140 feet of water and a wall of fire, the Baileys had no choice but to jump into the water as the fire approached. William’s mother and sister succumbed to the depths and his father barely survived. William managed to grab hold of a floating wicker chair and was eventually picked up by a passing ship, but the experience would leave him with permanent health problems.

However, this tragic setback did not lessen Bailey’s enthusiasm for adventure and curiosity about the natural world. Bailey would eventually study under Dr. Asa Gray at Harvard University and at 24 years old, he became the botanist for the United States Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel. The field book for this expedition chronicles Bailey’s journey through California and Nevada in a flowing prosaic style with beautiful illustrations and photographs of Bailey’s observations. The very first page of Bailey’s journal opens with a beautiful demonstration of his illustrative pen and ink style. Bailey’s rich descriptions are paired with exquisite drawings that seem to jump off the page whether he is waxing poetic about the Portuguese Man of War or closely observing the leaf of the Riccinus communis. Bailey’s flowing narrative style and gorgeous illustrations make this field book a charming and informative look at the exploration of the 40th parallel that will surely captivate readers.

Washington H. Ochsner and the Galapagos Islands


In 1905, the California Academy of Sciences sent 11 men off for a year and a day on an eighty-five foot schooner destined for the Galapagos Islands. While the expedition was underway, the California Academy of Sciences would fall into ruin during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The specimens gathered during the Galapagos expedition would come to form the crux of the new California Academy of Sciences’ collections. Of the young men on that voyage, 26 year-old Washington Henry Ochsner travelled as the expedition’s geologist. His journals are more technical than Bailey’s in what they intended to capture and often included geological survey information, as well as inferences about how the geological features were formed. Ochsner also drew detailed surveys of the island terrains like this map of Charles Island. Ochsner’s field books have a scientifically focused structure and tend to be not-so-much a diary but a close and careful record of his scientific observations.

The Diaries of William Brewster, 1865- 1919

Renowned ornithologist William Brewster mused over his daily observations in a personal and often humorous way. William Brewster’s love of ornithology blossomed early, and he kept careful records of the birds he observed throughout his life. These journals begin when Brewster was 14 years old, and it is interesting to see how his hand, knowledge, and confidence all develop over time.  In his later journals, Brewster takes care to write in a colloquial manner, and these notes provide unique insight into the daily life of a researcher over a 54 year span. This collection of journals also provide an enticing perspective on the detrimental changes to the environment and bird populations as a result of industrialization and the growth of urban centers.

All of the field books digitized for the Connecting Content project offer inimitable insight into how scientific data is gathered, synthesized, and extrapolated. It is the hope that by sharing these unique resources, researchers can better understand scientific findings and that the insights gained from this will promote further inquiry and the spirit of discovery.

Want more Field Book Content?

View 61 field books digitized by the Connecting Content grant in BHL

Download a selection of these books for free on iTunes U

Find out more about the link between expeditions, field books, and publications in our previous blog posts with Smithsonian’s Field Book Project: Post One | Post Two | Post Three

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Yolanda Bustos is the Museum Archivist and Library Resources Manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In this capacity, she manages the archives, special collections, and research library for NHMLA and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. She responsible for retaining and providing access to the analog and digital institutional memory of the museums.