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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Mystery of "Dear Ed"

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

In 1934, Harry S. Ladd traveled to the Fiji Islands to study fossilized coral as it related to the formation of islands and atolls in the region.  There are two field books in which he recorded information about the specimens collected and the locations; the text is wonderfully engaging.  This may be partly due to Ladd's choice of writing his notes as a series of letters to "Edward."

The first page of Harry S. Ladd's journal documenting his work in Fiji during 1934. Smithsonian Institution Archives. RU007396, Box 3, Folder 3. SIA2015-009575.
But who was Edward?  This was one of several questions I wondered about while cataloging them for Smithsonian’s Field Book Project – a partnership between Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Institution Archives to make field books easier to find and available in a digital format for current research.  Given the lighthearted nature of the two field books, I felt sure that Edward had to be a colleague and friend, but leads were few for the time available while cataloging.

Smithsonian Institution Archives recently digitized the volumes, so I decided to take a closer look at the work the two field books document.  By reading through the specimen records related to the volume, I not only answered my primary question, but came to understand the extent and implications of the work the volumes document.

106 specimens from the 1934 trip reside in the Paleobiology collection of the National Museum of Natural History.  Many of them are part of the Mollusca Cenozoic Marine Type Collection. Some of these specimens list a joint collector by the last name of Hoffmeister.  With this last name, I uncovered Hoffmeister's personal papers, UC Sand Diego, J. Edward Hoffmeister Papers, 1925 - 1982.  I finally found a plausible "Edward."

In 1934 Harry S. Ladd and J. Edward Hoffmeister of the University of Rochester in Fiji to study one of the major questions in the history of geology during the early twentieth century -- the "coral reef problem." As stated in UCSD's finding aid,
"At issue was a seeming paradox: the food and light conditions necessary to reef-forming corals are found only in relatively shallow water.  Nevertheless, two common coral formations, atolls and barrier reefs, frequently occur far below the ocean's surface. Most of the proposed solutions to this problem have postulated a change in sea level relative to the reefs' foundation."
Darwin had proposed that the land beneath these kinds of corals sank, and the sea level correspondingly rose, as the reefs grew. American geologist Reginald Daly offered a theory that involved a combination of glacial warming and coral growth.  However, neither theory completely addressed what was observed in the field.

These two volumes document Ladd's second time in the field with Hoffmeister.  It appears that by this second trip, the two had formed a solid friendship.  Interestingly enough, the finding aid for Hoffmeister’s personal papers indicates that his materials impart the same wide range of description: field observations alongside notes about the people and communities of the Pacific.

"Caution - If  taken more than a few pages at a time this book is absolutely DEADLY!" Harry S. Ladd's field books capture his sense of humor along with his scientific observations.  Smithsonian InstitutionArchives. RU007396, Box 3 Folder 3.
One of the Field Book Project's long term goals is to describe the field books so that they can be reconnected with the specimens and resulting publications.  We are often concerned about the information that informs the specimens collected, but is not recorded on the specimen tag.  In this case, the specimens ended up being integral to understanding the field book content.  By connecting the field books to the specimens they document, we are able to better understand the archival materials as well.

Lesley Parilla, Cataloger
The Field Book Project

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