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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Amateur Naturalists in the Netherlands Documenting Coastal Biology in "Het Zeepaard"

Changing cover designs for Het Zeepaard from 1947-1990
In 1941, as World War II raged across the European continent,  a group of devoted young researchers started a new journal on the coastal biology of the Netherlands called Het Zeepaard (The Sea Horse). Calling themselves the Strandgroep (beach group) of the Nederlandse Jeugdbond voor Natuurstudie (Dutch Youth Association for Nature, or the NJN), the publication team had to cope with wartime shortages of paper and restrictions on public access to the beaches during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The earliest issues of Het Zeepaard were rather crudely produced from stencils using mimeograph machines, with tight columns of text crammed on a few pages, and illustrated with whimsically appealing line drawings of flora and fauna found in tide pools and marshes. In the decades following World War II, Het Zeepaard became a more professionally-produced publication, with several changes in typography, format, and cover design.

The articles in Het Zeepaard serve as a sort of collective field notebook, sharing scientific observations on topics like the distinguishing characteristics of dolphins and porpoises, and advising on the proper method for noting sightings on index cards. Strandgroep  members recorded the natural phenomena they saw while strolling along the coastline individually or taking part in group expeditions, including organized day trips on the North Sea in fishing boats.

Although the details contained in Het Zeepaard might seem to be of limited interest because of the passage of time and their very localized nature, the publication is notable for its close examination of a changing coastal environment and for illustrating how the mostly amateur scientists collaborated in documenting the phenomena they saw. In some ways, Het Zeepaard could be considered a forerunner of today’s more-broadly focused citizen science projects like where everyone is invited to submit their observations of the natural world.

Illustration of trawling for sea creatures from a 1941 issue of Het Zeepaard

The Smithsonian Libraries’ copy of Het Zeepaard was acquired in 1992 by C.W. “Bill” Hart, a staff member of the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Crustacea, through L.B. Holthuis, a colleague in the Netherlands’ Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum in Leiden who got the publication from a widow of one of the founding editors. Since this copy of Het Zeepaard is nearly a complete run, including its fragile early issues, and access to the original printed edition is quite scarce (other copies are in the American Museum of Natural History and a few primarily European libraries), the set has been added to the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. To the lasting credit of Het Zeepaard’s “young, enthusiastic amateurs” (as Holthuis called them), their carefully-recorded observations will be preserved for consultation by generations of zoologists and other scientists interested in environmental changes over time in the coastal habitat of the North Sea region.

Het Zeepaard. [Netherlands: Strandgroep, 1941-]. Call number qQH159 .Z44 SCNHRB Cullman Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries

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