Birders and Personal Archiving

Personal archiving is getting increasing attention from the archives community. Archivists have historically been professionals responsible for selecting, arranging, and preserving materials deemed to be important enough to keep for the long term. Now, with the explosion of personal information that has been enabled by technology such as personal computers, digital cameras, and the internet, many people who never would have given a thought to archives are wrestling with the challenge of managing their digital “stuff” for the long term. At the same time, trained archivists are caught between the rock of limited resources and the hard place of the rapidly increasing quantity of information.

Given these trends, it seems likely that individuals will be increasingly responsible for ensuring the preservation and archiving of information they want to keep and pass on to future generations. For their part, professionals have begun to focus on providing tools and knowledge to amateurs who want to take on this work but don’t know where to start. For example, the Library of Congress’s (LOC) digital preservation blog The Signal frequently includes posts about personal archiving; LOC also has a site offering guidance on the subject. These sorts of resources are sure to increase as personal archiving gets more attention from both professionals and amateurs. After all, if this year’s SXSW conference had a panel called Digital Immortals, can more widespread awareness of personal archiving be far behind?

What does this mean if you’re a birder? Well, many birders keep a cumulative list, as well as taking some sort of notes about their field trips. Many post messages to e-mail lists or on discussion sites. Bird photography has become much more popular due to the ease of using digital cameras. Some birders write blogs or use Twitter. Then there’s the correspondence between birding friends that doesn’t take place in the public context of an e-mail list. Text alerts about rarities…

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Birders are very good at creating lots of information. Little of that information is going to survive, however, if birders don’t start thinking about the “stuff” they create (both digital and hard copy) as part of being a birder. Because birding is a hobby for most people who practice it, the information created by it has historically not been valued outside of the birding community. How many field notebooks and photos have been thrown out after a birder has died? Could that happen to your field notes after you head off to that big migrant trap in the sky? Would it bother you if those notes and memories of days in the field were lost because no one cared about them after you were gone? If having your birding legacy tossed into the trash would bother you, you need to start thinking now about what you want to save and how you can make sure it survives you.

This week is Preservation Week. As a result, there are many events (both online and offline) being held. There’s information out there for everybody from the beginner who’s wondering how to get started to the person looking for practical help on a specific technique. The Signal has a good overview post here with links to information about preserving both digital and nondigital resources.

How am I celebrating Preservation Week? I’m organizing my digital photography in a way that makes more sense than iPhoto’s default organization method. Photos of things I’ve sold on eBay will not make it into the “keep this after I’m gone” folder, but my moth photos will. I’ve been mothing in earnest since 2006 (when I got my digital camera) and most of my moth field notes are photographs. I want my moth documentation to survive me, because it may be useful to researchers yet to be born. Organizing those photos also helps me to get my data into a format that I can submit to Moth Photographers Guide for inclusion in their online range maps (which is another way of making my stuff useful to others).

So, if you’re a birder, give some thought to what you have and how (or if) you want it to last. If you’ve already started doing that, good for you! Happy Preservation Week to all.


Jonathan Dwight’s bookplate

I’ve been remiss in posting here due to offline busyness, but I wanted to draw attention to this blog post by Rick Wright from the ABA Blog:

It’s always enjoyable to find birding and bibliophilia colliding. Bookplates, though not as in fashion today as they once were, are an interesting and artistic aspect of book culture. One of the links in Wright’s post is to the journal Libraries and the Cultural Record, which has a bookplate archive. The bookplate archive also includes the bookplate of the Montclair Art Association, which I remember well. The Montclair Art Association became the Montclair Art Museum, and my first job after college was working as a library assistant in the museum library.

Bookplates are, in some ways, the equivalent of marginalia. Some book collectors like their books as pure and unmarked as the driven snow. Some book collectors like to see the provenance and history of their book written as addenda in its pages. Every book has a history. The pristine books are less forthcoming about their history than the ones that have been heavily annotated, but they also have their histories.

Happy birthday, Mark Catesby! (or not)

This morning, the blog of the Smithsonian Institution’s libraries posted a birthday greeting to Mark Catesby. Catesby was an English naturalist who wrote and illustrated The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. Quoting from Christopher Leahy’s The Birdwatcher’s Companion (1983 edition), Catesby’s book was, “…the first comprehensive, illustrated (engraved by Catesby himself and hand-colored), accurate (given the pre-Linnaean state of early-eighteenth-century biology) work on the natural history of North America.” Before there was Audubon, there was Catesby, though he didn’t confine his observations to birds; according to Leahy, his main field was botany.

Catesby was born on March 24, 1682/3 in Castle Hedingham, Essex, England; the uncertainty about his birthdate in part comes from the difference between the Old Style and New Style calendars, and in part from the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars (the Smithsonian blog post has much more about this, which is no surprise to any genealogist who has researched people in this era). The post also shows Catesby plates of “the Great Booby” and the Blue Jay (albeit with a somewhat rumpled crest).…

For a bit more about Catesby’s biography, here’s a link from the Catesby Commemorative Trust.

My most-abused bird book

At the end of last year, BirdFellow put up a photo essay about abused field guides. The books pictured in that post have obviously led very punishing lives, and the photos would probably make any right-minded bibliophile cringe or start sobbing.

Recently, in another post, BirdFellow promoted a comment from the abused field guides post and gave it its own moment in the sun. Commenter Bob Tarte wrote about two old bird books that he found in used bookstores, and he included this felicitous line, “…whenever I look up the birds in this book, I feel the presence of its original owner.”

I’ll come back to that thought in a moment, but first I’d like to share some images of my most-abused bird book, which is not a field guide but a bird-finding guide.

I was a relatively new birder when I bought a copy of Bill Boyle’s A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey. I was a new enough birder that the idea of a bird-finding guide seemed extreme. After all, there were birds in my backyard. There were birds in the local parks. Finding birds didn’t seem to be a difficult proposition at all. However, my guiding principle when taking up an interest is to buy as many books about it as possible, so I bought that bird-finding guide, even though it seemed a little silly to do so.

So this is what that bird-finding guide looks like today:

Front cover. Not very visible are the checklists for various NJ birding locations that are stuffed into the book as a method of filing.

The binding began splitting, so I fixed it up with white tape. That worked for a while, but then it began splitting again, so I patched it with white tape again. Then the front board decided it wanted to leave the spine, but before I had to correct that, a new edition of the book came out and I retired this copy.

Then there’s the interior, which sports highlighting, underlining, notes of when and where I saw certain species, dog-eared pages…you get the drift. I even stuck a bookplate in it. This may not be an abused field guide, but it’s a very abused bird book that has more than earned its retirement.

With that, I’ll return to Bob Tarte’s comment about the presence of the original owner. Book dealers like old books with little or no wear and damage, since wear reduces a book’s value. The only exception would be if a book’s marginalia came from a famous person, or if the book was signed by the author. This kind of wear isn’t damage, but can enhance a book’s value.

Most birders aren’t famous, but a lot of them mark up some of their books as a record of their sightings. This happens most frequently with field guides. I’ve run across marked-up bird books in used bookstores plenty of times. If I end up buying those books, I’m likely to treasure them just a little bit more precisely because they carry the presence of the original owner and note-taker. That just goes to show that different people can look at the same book and arrive at a different estimate of its value.

In the field and on assignment

One frequent theme in “learn how to bird” books is the necessity of taking field notes. The process of taking field notes about the birds that one observes makes the birder a better observer. It can also supply invaluable evidence when an unusual bird is seen and reported to others, such as a Bird Records Committee (BRC). Field notes can be text, pictures, or a combination of the two. As technology has changed recently, more and more birders are choosing to use digital cameras as their preferred documentation device. The processes of photographic documentation and written documentation, however, have different strengths and are not interchangeable.

Two recent posts from BirdFellow that talk about the advantages of traditional forms of documentation are A Lost Art? Writing Descriptions of Rare Birds and Lost Art? Revisited: Alternatives to Taking Notes (though it should be noted that one of these alternatives is field sketching, which I consider to be part of the note-taking process, not separate from it). The decline of traditional note-taking is a frequent topic of discussion among those who review documentation, such as editors for regional birding journals of record, or BRC members.

I’m used to following these discussions in the context of the birding community, so I was surprised and delighted to find this post from the Tooth and Claw blog:…

Blogger and journalist Hillary Rosner compares the scientist in the field with the journalist on assignment, a comparison that would never occur to me, but once I read Rosner’s post, it made perfect sense. Not only that, Rosner stresses the importance of note-taking to both the scientist and the journalist. She also talks about the differences between written documentation and photographic documentation. Although this post has nothing to do with birding, it has everything to do with birding documentation practices.

H/T @BoraZ