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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Comparing Observations: Vernon and Florence Merriam Bailey

One of the benefits of the Field Book Project’s efforts to catalog Smithsonian field books has been to enable researchers to reconnect field book content to related natural history documentation (e.g. specimens and related publications). Cataloging field books enables researchers to connect information in the field books with the specimens they document, since not all information recorded by a collector is transferred to the specimen tag.  There is another important reconnection possible through cataloging.  Cataloging field books enables a researcher to compare different collectors’ field entries for the same location. 

Observations from multiple collectors can provide a more complete picture of an environment.  The possibility of comparing natural history observations is particularly exciting when they are recorded on the same day. 

It is not uncommon for a scientist to mention in field entries that they were out collecting with a colleague.  However, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to read entries from two individuals for the same location and same day.  This is partly because catalogers have limited time with each field book, and because many of the collectors we catalog worked with colleagues from other institutions.  Related field books are often housed at other institutions across the country. 

I came across two collectors with connections to the Smithsonian whom I hoped might turn out to be a strong example of this possible overlap—Vernon and Florence Bailey.  I have been fascinated by this married couple since I first learned about them.  Vernon Bailey was an important figure in the formation of the US Biological Survey along with C. Hart Merriam who headed the Survey and was Vernon’s mentor.  Vernon Bailey’s field work was critical to the development and success of the Survey; he collected well, widely, and for more than 50 years. 

Florence Bailey was a remarkable figure in her own right.  She was an avid naturalist, writing several important texts on birds, conducting her own field work during a time few women were going into the field.  Even more amazing, she and her husband co-wrote several scientific publications.

I knew these two had conducted field work together but, to my great regret, their field books are housed on opposite sides of the country.  Vernon Bailey’s field books are primarily housed at the Smithsonian Institution.  Florence Bailey’s are chiefly found at University of California, Berkeley.  My quest for his and hers seemed to stall.  Smithsonian Institution Archives does have a small collection of Florence Bailey’s field books for 1907, but I found no Vernon Bailey field books for the same period.  That is, until recently, when I cataloged Vernon Bailey field books for the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Mammals.  Lo and behold, I had possible candidates for related field book entries.

It turns out we have field books from a trip the couple took to California in 1907.  The trip was not exactly the example I was expecting. The couple traveled to the western United States together for several months.  During the trip, Vernon Bailey went on several short trips for the Survey and Florence would travel alone, sometimes going out and recording her own wildlife observations.  They would reunite at various locations as they travel to northwest United States. 

This series of separations and reunions, along with their differing styles of field book recording, made it surprisingly difficult to compare.  Vernon Bailey consistently dates his entries, but will include little description on days when he is traveling.  Florence Bailey writes very detailed entries for all aspects of the trip (field observations and time between stops).  Her entries are often several pages, but they do not appear to be consistently dated.  Additionally, there are gaps in the dated entries in both Florence and Vernon Bailey’s journals.

Examples of Florence and Vernon Bailey’s field observations

Example of Florence Bailey’s field notes. Portion of May 30 [year unknown]
entry from Florence Bailey’s field book, “Journal - California, undated.
Smithsonian Institution Archive. SIA RU007417, Box 1.

Example of Vernon Bailey’s field notes. May 30 1907 entry of Vernon Bailey field book,
Bailey, V. O., Arizona, California, New Mexico, May 1907 - August 1907.”
SIA Acc. 12-443, box “Bailey, V. O., 1902 – 1907.”
Courtesy of Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History.

Example of Vernon Bailey’s specimen lists.  May 30 1907 entry from
Vernon Bailey field book, “Field notes, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, May 27-July 21, 1907.”
Smithsonian Institution Archive. SIA RU007267, Box 2 Folder 7.

I feared I would be unable to find the example I sought despite having rich content. However, I found two entries documenting a day they traveled together. 

October 29, 1907 entry from “Bailey, V. O., California, North Dakota, September 1907 - December 1907”
by Vernon Bailey.  Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History.
SIA Acc. 12-443, box “Bailey, V. O., 1902 – 1907.”

October 29, 1907 entry from “Journal, California, 1907” by Florence Merriam Bailey.
Smithsonian Institution Archives.  RU 007417, Box 1. 
Vernon Bailey’s entry:

Oct. 29 [1907] Drove West for Fernando about 3 miles, then south across valley to Santa Monica mtns. And up a canyon nearly to the summit of range.  Got back at dark and wrote up report in evening.

Florence Merriam Bailey’s entry:

Oct. 29th [1907] Took a horse and cross the valley to the Santa Monicas.  The low flat park of the Plains are in wheat and we met numbers of 8 horse freight wagons hauling bags of wheat to a corral where it was stacked in tiers rods long—3 freight cars on track were loaded with it.  In places there were enormous barns and big corrals and [?] houses and implements, gang plows, and threshers etc. Enormous tracts of baled hay going to waste. Falling apart. More seen and fields already plowed [?] yellow with clumps of sunflower is poor work.  V [Vernon] suggested that the sunflower or the straw left after heading could be compressed for fuel.  In a country where old oranges and peach pits are burned.
Though not quite the classic field note observations I originally sought, these related entries are complimentary, much like the journals themselves.  Vernon Bailey’s entries are terse, often for days when Florence’s entries are expansive.  The journals together provide a more complete picture of what the couple observed during their travels.   Additionally, Florence’s entry provides information about Vernon’s observations and comments on his surroundings along with her own impressions.

The ability to compare field book entries, specimen data, and other natural history documentation means that researchers can develop a more complete understanding of the biodiversity of a region not just at present but over an extended period of time.  This example sheds a little light on the possibilities of what scholars can find by comparing field entries of collectors even for days during which collecting is not done.  At this point, Vernon and Florence Bailey’s entries for their official co-fieldwork still reside on opposite coasts. 

Departments across the Smithsonian (National Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Institution Archives included) continue to work to make these types of materials easier to locate and study.  One way they are making the collections more accessible: via the Smithsonian Transcription Center. By making digitized field books available for volunteers to transcribe, the Smithsonian is opening its collections and finding more of the untold stories they contain. Join other volunteers and view Florence and Vernon Bailey’s field observations in the Transcription Center to help enrich these materials. The Field Book Project is pleased to be a part of the Institution’s continuing efforts increase accessibility to its collections.

- Lesley Parilla, Cataloger and Social Media Coordinator, The Field Book Project

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