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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Change the Station, Change the Noise: Space for the Inner Self in Wild Places

When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.
~ John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938) 

Our world is a huge ball of constant connection, be it from phones to tablets to computers. We are bombarded with noise; the noise of voices, opinions, statistics, and 24 hour news cycles. It was not so different at the turn of the 20th century. Communications were being invented and exploding around the world. Newspapers were the twitter of this era. Letter writing was texting. Phones were still in their infant stages of growth. There was a new kind of noise, and people were feeling just as overwhelmed by it as people today feel by their phones and online presence.
Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
It was around this time that people, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold, were taking up the cause to save open spaces and to escape from the 'noise' of the modern world. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Many were doing the “Grand Tour” of Yellowstone, among them were Teddy Roosevelt and even Rudyard Kipling. Kipling visited Yellowstone in 1889, he wrote in his journals that he encountered “The Wonderland” one has only read about in books. Art collector, businessman, and founder of the Freer | Sackler Museum, Charles Lang Freer, was among the many Americans who discovered the beauty and peace in the natural wonders of the United States wilderness.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not. 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Freer often went hiking with Frederick Stuart Church, an artist, with whom Freer had become great friends. In the 1880s, Freer started building his renowned print collection and he was soon elected chair of the Detroit Club, which had been founded by prominent Detroit citizens to open an art museum. It was through this organization that Freer became friends with several leading American painters including Church, Gari Melchers, Dwight William Tryon, and Charles A. Platt.

Charles Lang Freer in the Catskills, Freer | Sackler Archives

Freer and Church often hiked and camped out throughout the famous Catskills Mountains. The Catskills are a famous refuge for outdoors seekers, hikers, and artists. The area has been made famous through stories and artwork by such illustrious people as Washing Irving and Thomas Cole.

Falls at Catskill by Thomas Cole, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Freer viewed traveling into nature as a means of finding balance in a world overrun by industry and competition. As he wrote to Frank Hecker in 1892, "We spend nearly all of our hours outdoors and like the springs of these mountains we have a feverish desire to keep in constant motion. The springs minister to our refreshment, the air invigorates us…" Through Freer’s receptiveness to the power of wallowing in the natural world, he gained an abiding appreciation of landscape painting. Painter Dwight Tryon was just beginning to get recognized in 1889 when Freer bought his landscape, The Rising Moon: Autumn right off the easel in Tryon's studio.

The Rising Moon: Autumn by Dwight William Tryon,
Freer | Sackler Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ~ John Muir

So it seems even the important personages of the early 20th century were looking for "down time" and "disconnection" from modern communications and noise.  It was a way to not only connect back to the physical world around them, but to reconnect with themselves and one another.  Perhaps we all need this sacred space to reconnect with the inner most chambers of ourselves? 

4c Forest Conservation Single,
National Postal Museum Collection
Teddy Roosevelt ended up being one of great advocates for creating National Parks, he became known at the "conservationist president." Yellowstone, the first National Park was created by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Roosevelt toured Yosemite with John Muir in 1903 and ushered in the National Monuments Acts Act in 1906, which helped to create many preserves and parks. On August 25th, 1916, The National Park Service, was finally created and is celebrating its 100th anniversary today. We have always needed the land, not just for sustenance, but for the wild places that can replenish our inner selves, so they run over with renewed inspiration for living. Not all wild places need be far away, it can be as simple as taking the time to visit your local park. Looking at the clouds, the trees, observing the dappling light play through the trees, jumping in a lake. Be in the moment, be in a different type of noise. Oliver Sacks may have phrased it best in these modern times, “We seek ... a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in." Choose a day and just wander down your local streets, free of everything, but your moving legs and open ears.

Charles Lang Freer in the Catskills, Freer | Sackler Archives

Only one who wanders finds new paths. ~ Norwegian proverb

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. 
 -  John Lubbock

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer | Sackler Archives

Avery, Kevin J. Hudson River School. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing, 2004.

Kipling, Rudyard. From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel (Cambridge Library Collection - Literary Studies). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Lawton, Thomas and Merrill, Linda. Freer: A Legacy of Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, 1993.

National Park Service. Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation.

National Park Service. Yellowstone: A History of the First National Park. 2009.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

From the Mountains to the Sea: Vin Hoeman and POBSP

The Division of Birds in the National Museum of Natural History holds an extensive collection of field books that are part of Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 000245, and contain the notes of researchers who worked for the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (POBSP). A significant portion of my internship has involved finding out more about the people who were involved with POBSP, and creating biographical profiles for these researchers. While many of the researchers who worked on POBSP went on to careers as botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, and zoologists for the Smithsonian and other academic institutions, there were a few that went in other directions. One especially notable example was John Vincent “Vin” Hoeman.

Vin worked with POBSP in 1964 and 1965, but his path to working with birds was somewhat unorthodox. He earned his B.S. from Colorado State University in Forest Management, and later moved to Alaska, where he did graduate work in zoology and worked for the Arctic Health Research Center in Anchorage. Life in the outdoors, especially mountaineering, had been an important part of Vin’s life from an early age, so it is not surprising that he was interested in working on these types of projects. Although he had no formal training in ornithology, his detailed notes for the field books indicate his keen interest in studying birds and other wildlife. Vin worked as a research assistant for POBSP, participating in six at-sea expeditions, as well conducting research on the main Hawaiian islands while not at sea. His main duties involved bird banding, taking blood samples, and general wildlife observation.

An example of bird banding data
Vin’s field notes come across as thoughtful and intelligent, even poetic at times. After his arrival in Hawaii to begin work with POBSP, he writes, “the steady stream of thoughts kept sleep from reaching me.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57) Notes about interactions with fellow crew members frequently included details about family and physical descriptions. He was also in Hawaii at the time of the April 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history. The field notes show Vin’s internal monologue, worrying about his friends in Anchorage, and debating the pros and cons of leaving POBSP to help with the recovery efforts:
Tell Pat when I get back, waking him to do so. “Do you think it’s that serious?” he says. I tell him I think the lives of my friends are of importance. He later agrees and would’ve let me go on my own. I’d thought of doing so, of course, but told myself that would be irresponsible. After all I’m unauthorized and probably not needed. Civil defense and the Army will have things under control. What matters that I’m a member of ARG [Alaska Rescue Group]. I’d just be another mouth to feed. If I was any good or a first aid instructor my pupils will save lives.
I hope these were my foremost thoughts rather than the cost of fare I’d have to bear, the possibility of losing my job, the fact that I’d have to buy arctic gear in Seattle before going up; the threat of prolonged discomfort.
(SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57)
Destruction on 4th Avenue in Anchorage after the April 1964 earthquake. On the left, Mac's Foto (mentioned in Vin's notes) is visible as one of the damaged businesses (
 When Vin finally visited Anchorage as he prepared for a POBSP expedition in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands in June of 1964, he saw a city that had been devastated, making note of a “rubble-pile and a terrific fault full of sunken houses.” Despite this (or perhaps because of this), he also tries to find humor in the situation: “Walk up to 4th Ave., and look at the gap where all those bars, Mac’s Photo, Dendi Theater and Hautbrau used to be. Urban renewal I call it – a fine view.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57)

Mountaineering was never far from Vin’s mind, even when he was out at sea. His field notes from March 5, 1965 give some insight into his plans for after his work with POBSP was finished, saying “If I’m going to be a great anything it’ll be [a] mountaineer and mtn. writer I think.” (SIA RU000245, Series 60, Volume 57) Vin did end up returning to Alaska, and became a mountain climber of some renown. Among his many “firsts”, one that stands out is his accomplishment of being the first person to reach the summit of all 50 states. He was also part of the team that became the first to cross the Harding Icefield on the Kenai Peninsula. Sadly, Vin was killed in an avalanche during a climbing expedition on Dhaulagiri, a peak in the Himalayas, in 1969, leaving behind his wife Grace, as well as many family members and friends.

Notes from an at sea expedition
Although he was only with POBSP for a few seasons, Vin evidently thought highly enough of his cohorts to send a letter in 1967, informing everyone of what he had been doing since leaving the program. And Vin certainly had a positive impact on POBSP through the data he collected. I believe that this story points to the importance of “citizen scientists” – that no matter what a person’s academic background or training might be, if someone is passionate about a certain topic, they can make a contribution to the world’s understanding of that topic. It also reminds us that behind the data, there are wonderful human stories to be shared. I hope you have enjoyed learning about Vin’s story.

Conal Huetter, Intern
Field Book ProjectSmithsonian Institution Libraries

To learn more about the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program and its field documentation, check out “Life in the Field: a Reflection on Cataloging Field Notes in the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program”  on the Field Book Project Blog, images on Flickr, and field book records on Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

Sources consulted:
Hoeman, J. Vincent. Field Notes. 1964-1965. Series 60, Volume 57. SIA RU000245, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 15 July 2016.

Gonzales, J. (2014). Project 49: Grace without Vin, a love story without a happy ending. Green and Gold News. Retrieved from

Johnston, D. (1969). John Vincent Hoeman, 1936-1969. American Alpine Journal, 16 (2). Retrieved from

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Artists of the Work

One of the great illustrated books of the Renaissance and landmark in botanical and medical history is De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). The herbal was written by Leonhart Fuchs of Germany. In commemoration of his work, the genus Fuchsia was named for the author. The publication is also remarkable for its prominent recognition of those who contributed to its production.

Title page and page 897, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, Smithsonian Libraries
An unusual tribute to the trio of illustrators occupies the recto of the next to last leaf. Following 924 pages of text and 509 woodcuts of plants in the massive folio are portraits of Albrecht Meyer, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Veit Rudolph Specklin (or Speckle). The heading proclaims “Pictores operis.” That is, “Artists of the work.”

Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer
Meyer, of Basel, the “delineator,” is shown drawing a corn cockle (Agrostemma githago) in a vase. This artist holds a brush attached to a quill, working in either watercolor or pen and ink, sketching the flowers. Occupying the same table and frame is Füllmaurer, of Herrenberg. In a compression of time, he is transferring Meyer’s original image onto the smooth surface of a woodblock from either parchment or paper.

Veit Rudolph Specklin
Specklin, who lived in Strasbourg, is the “sculptor”, the relief engraver or block cutter (“Formschneider”). Appearing a little rough around the edges, he is in a separate portrait, below in the larger and more prominent position, and simply grasps his cloak. Interesting for our modern sensibilities, this artisan, the carver and not the artist, would have been by far the more highly paid.

Specklin would have carefully cut away with a knife all the wood around Füllmaurer’s drawing of Meyer’s image on the block, the lines left in relief. This raised surface would have been carefully inked with a dabber, then a damp piece of paper placed over the surface, before passing through the printing press. It was painstaking work for all involved.

De historia stirpium was printed in Basel at the press of Michael Isingrin, in 1542. The botanical illustrations were created from direct observation, not, as in earlier herbals, based on a long tradition of manuscript images, sometimes far removed from an accurate portrayal. The preface declares the drawings were made from life because “a picture expresses things more surely and fixes them more deeply in the mind than the bare words of text.”

Fuchs at age 41.
The title page verso from the hand-colored copy in the Wellcome Library, London.

The author appears at the beginning of the book, in a full-page portrait on the verso of the title page. Fuchs, dressed in doctor’s robes of a rich brocade and fur collar (perhaps a play on Fuchs’ name, German for fox), is seen as both a scholar with his university hat and an observer with his keen look. He holds germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys; also known as birds’ eyes or angels’ eyes). While Fuchs generously acknowledges his skilled craftsman, he was in control of the book. He wrote at the beginning that the artists were not allowed to indulge their whims. The author would have paid their fees, not the publisher. He states in the preface that he did not want shading in the woodcuts of the plants, preferring to emphasize clarity with the fine lines of the woodcuts. Although some copies were hand-colored according to the directions of Isingrin, many, if not the majority, of extant volumes of the herbal are uncolored, not obscuring any botanical details of their portrayals.

The Smithsonian Libraries has an uncolored first edition of De historia stirpium, donated by Bern Dibner. It is one of the Dibner Library’s Heralds of science, where is noted that this “celebrated herbal” contains the “first vocabulary of botanical terms.” This copy has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link here and source of all the uncolored illustrations in this post). The portraits of the artists, whose work contributed so much to the success and beauty of the folio, appear opposite page number 896.

Julia Blakely, Special Collectors Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries 


The woodcuts are of approximately 400 plants grown in Germany and 100 foreign, five from the New World, including corn (pictured above). This is the first illustration of maize in a printed book although there were earlier written descriptions. Fuchs believed the source of the plant was "Turcicum Frumentum."

Below left is foxglove. Fuchs assigned the name Digitalis purpurea to this medicinal plant because the flower could be fitted over a finger (digit). Its common German name is “fingerhut” (finger hat). Below center, The great Arts and Crafts Movement figure, William Morris, owned a copy of De historia stirpium. It has been said that some of his textile designs were inspired by the herbal such as the feathery leaves of Seseli (center). Below right is the mandrake. The accurate representations of specimens and identifications in both Latin and German were meant as a ready reference tool for medical students, apothecaries and doctors.

French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704) was the first to describe Fuchsia, and he named it after his German predecessor, Leonhart Fuchs. Photograph Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian.

Much of the information for this blog post stemmed from a Rare Book School class I recently attended, The Illustrated Scientific Book to 1800, taught by British antiquarian dealer and scholar, Roger Gaskell, assisted by Folger Library curator, Caroline Duroselle-Melish. A primary focus was learning how to describe and analyze images in order to interpret a publication. I was assigned to present a short talk on Fuchs' herbal, preserved in one of my places of work, the Dibner Library. The course was held at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, with one whole day devoted for visits to the Smithsonian Libraries, hosted by Leslie Overstreet, curator of the Cullman Library, and Lilla Vekerdy, Head of the Special Collections Department. Both librarians are pictured above, presenting a selection from their holdings to the Rare Book School students. Photographs by Roger Gaskell.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

SELGEM: Designing IT applications in the 1970s

This is the last of a three-part-series on SELGEM, a pioneering computer systems used to manage museum collections in the United States. Read the first part here; and the second part here

You might think that total confusion would reign if specifying requirements and assigning data Category Numbers was not strictly controlled by “the system.”  However, the end users cared deeply about information accuracy and the quality of final products, such as specimen labels, catalog cards and resulting publications.  The staff were highly motivated to following the data standards and produce high quality products.  Museum staffs were generally acquainted with structured data because of their traditional work cataloging museum specimens and object, and in research data analysis.
A standard data capture form of the Botany Type Register Project. Page 13, from:  Shetler, Stanwyn G., Mary Jane Petrini, Constance Graham Carley, M. J. Harvey, Larry E. Morse, Thomas Kopfler, and collaborators.  1973.  An Introduction to the Botanical Type Specimen Register.  Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 12. Smithsonian Institution Archives. 
The design of a new SELGEM application in the early 70’s was simpler than design of a new information system in 2016.  There were three reasons for this:  Smithsonian operated a single Honeywell mainframe computer; possessed a single general purpose software “database” tool; and there were only two or three data entry procedures available.  In addition some experience acquired in one application, such as cataloging mammal specimens, could be applied directly to another application, say cataloging mollusk specimens.  While every discipline has some unique data elements, there were recurring groups of data elements for taxonomic information, geographic information, collectors, etc. that you could build on.  Best practices learned designing the earliest SELGEM applications were applied to the design of succeeding applications.

Stanley A. Kovy Director of Information Systems Division (ISD)
and early supporter of the SELGEM system.  Standing at the 
computer console of the upgraded Honeywell 2015, Nov. 1971.
Smithsonian Institution Archives. 71-2785-12. 
For a first time application, usually the system owner or sponsor would assemble sample input records, data sheets, current output products and samples of desired outputs.  The staff member would discuss the proposed SELGEM application with an experienced SELGEM person, “the expert.”  Current workflows were reviewed for possible changes and improvements.  Often there was a very specific output desired.  From these discussions they would begin to prepare a data dictionary, define data standards, and rules for data entry; and SELGEM Category Numbers would be assigned.  They would consider immediate objectives and future objectives; as well as possible improvements and changes to the workflow in the future.

While Category Numbers could be assigned sequentially without any gaps (001, 002, 003, 004, etc.) there was no technical reason to do that.  Theoretically, at least, you had 999 Category Numbers to select from.  It was generally believed that a more flexible design was achieved by providing gaps when assigning Category Numbers.

For the scientific name you might have this data structure:
071 genus
073 subgenus
075 species
077 subspecies
This format was frequently adopted even when the systems owner had no intention of entering data for subgenus or subspecies.  So the documented design might look like this:
071 genus
075 species
This design met the immediate requirements, and provided a flexible logical data structure for the future, with subgenus and subspecies not even defined.

For truly new applications without any precedent, such as an archives catalog, a prototype file of a few records could be created within a day or two.  This “prototype file” could be used for what we now call “proof of concept.”  It could be reviewed by other staff members for comment and approval.  The file could be used to create sample reports, or evaluate how to best structure particular data elements for the most flexible data processing.

Or a proposed application, such as an index of reprint publications, might be very similar to previous applications.  Once you have created several bibliographic applications and produced reports for several years, you understand the basic structure and processing requirements of this type of application.
Deborah Bennett and Tim Coffer, museum technicians, sort trays of shells for the mollusk inventory in the National Museum of Natural History's Division of Mollusks.  SELGEM was used to support the inventory and in preparation for the collection move to the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. Smithsonian Institution Archives. SIA2009-3232. 
Initially the SELGEM technical knowledge was in the hands of the pioneers, but as the knowledge of the SELGEM system was acquired by an increasing number of museum staff members, new applications could be quickly designed to meet new requests.  SELGEM processed all the information for the “great count,” the Smithsonian collections inventory program (1979-1983). SELGEM was a truly powerful information processing system in its day.

David Bridge, Volunteer
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

SELGEM: The Logical Structure

This is the second of a three-part-series on SELGEM, a pioneering computer system used to manage museum collections in the United States. Read the first post here.

A SELGEM (an acronym for: SELf GEnerating Master) computer record was what we all define as a typical record, all the information about: one object, one specimen, one work of art, one publication, or, one person, etc. It included all the related fields or data elements. The SELGEM logical record was composed of one or more physical records. A logical record was all the “physical records” with identical Serial Numbers.

Because SELGEM was a general purpose data management system it was used for a wide range of applications at the Smithsonian Institution. Computer applications (using SELGEM) in the 1970s included: museum objects from National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), National Museum of American History (NMAH), National Air and Space Museum (NASM), art museums, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Volcanoes of the World, bibliographic applications, systematic checklists, type-specimen catalogs, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, and a list of threatened and endangered plants in the United States. Many of these pioneer applications continue today, having evolved into modern databases and web-based applications.

SELGEM master file, directory record
Ayensu, Edward S. and Robert A. DeFilipps. 1978.  Endangered and threatened plants of the United States.  xv, 403 pages.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 
Typically a SELGEM logical record was composed of from about 5 to 50 physical records (individual lines); maybe an occasional application included as many as a hundred. The Category Numbers could be any number between “001” and “999”. Each Category Number represented a data element. The first Category Number for a logical record was not required to begin with “001” and application owners generally provided gaps when assigning Category Numbers to create a more flexible design. However a Master List of records displayed Category Numbers, and the associated data, in numerical sequence.

The first line of a category always began with Line Number “01”. If the amount of data exceeded 64 characters, then continuation lines were created, and numbered sequentially “02”, “03”, etc. The theoretical maximum amount of data for one data element (or Category) was 99 lines x 64 characters or a maximum of 6,336 characters.
Sample SELGEM record, page III
Creighton, Reginald A., Penelope Packard, and Holley Linn.  1971.  SELGEM Retrieval:  a general description.  Smithsonian Institution Procedures in Computer Sciences, 1(1):(6 pages) + 1-38.Dated July 1972.
The theoretical maximum amount of data for one logical record was: 999 Category Numbers x 6,336 characters, for a total of 6,329,664 (or 6.3 megabytes). No application reached this size, let alone an individual record. In addition, individual SELGEM computer programs also had memory limits; which also limited the maximum size of a record that could be processed. Remember, even mainframe computers had some limitations.

Some advantages of this design:
  • Easy to add new data elements to any SELGEM record by creating new catalog numbers (Either due to lack of planning or the development of data elements, such as DNA information.)
  • Empty, missing, or blank data elements were not stored in the SELGEM record
  • Flexibility to respond to changing and evolving user requirements
  • The data structure was under the control and responsibility of the end user and less restricted by the application, and
  • With limited technical support staff, a general purpose system supported more applications across the organization than if custom-design systems were developed for each application.
A sample page of a master list showing six logical records
Wilson, Don E., Beth Ann Sabo, and Gregory Blair.  1987.  Automated Data Processing Procedures at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, pages 111-119.  In:  Genoways, Hugh H., Clyde Jones, and Olga L. Rossolimo (editors).  Mammal Collection Management.  Texas Tech University Press
All the stored data was character data; there was no ability to store binary data, special numerical data types, image data, memo fields, currency or “date formatted” information, as are typically supported in many current database programs. Most application owners in NMNH maintained a detailed data standards document external to SELGEM; defining the data definition, data format, controlled vocabulary lists, and rules for recording the data, etc.

David Bridge, Volunteer

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

SELGEM: The Data Structure

This is the first of a three-part-series on SELGEM, a pioneering computer system used to manage museum collections in the United States

The first publication about the Smithsonian’s
SELGEM system, August 1971. 
SELGEM was an information management computer system invented, developed, and distributed at the Smithsonian Institution and used for more than 30 years.  The exact invention date for SELGEM has been lost to antiquity, perhaps very late 1969; however Reginald A. Creighton and James J. Crockett, two of the men who developed and created SELGEM, state that it “has been in operation … since spring 1970”.*  SELGEM has been called a “records management system”, rather than a true database, at least in the modern senses of the word.  In an era pre-dating relational databases, when commercial software tools were almost nonexistent, SELGEM was used to organize and manage data in a wide variety of applications at the Smithsonian and also many other institutions.  The name is an acronym derived from the system’s full name:  SELf GEnerating Master.  It was “self-generating” because of its general purpose format and because no initial computer programming was required to create a new data file or application.

The SELGEM data structure was simple.
User documentation illustrating the relationship between SELGEM transactions records and SELGEM master records.  Undated, ca. 1971-1972, MNH.
The physical record was a single fixed length record of 77 characters in length. There were only four components to the record:
Serial Number, 8 characters, required, no spaces, an alphanumeric value. Frequently it was a number, however, it could be an arbitrary number, but it could also be a data element**, such as a museum catalog number, a sample number, or a photo image number.
Category Number, three digit numeric, required.  Any three digit number could be used, between “001” and “999”.  The Category Number was a code number for a data element* or data field name.
Line Number, two digits numeric, in the range of “01” to “99”, required.  The first Line Number for a Category Number should begin with “01” and continuation lines should be numbered sequentially.
Data:  the good stuff, up to 64 characters of data could be stored in a single SELGEM line or a physical record.
A single physical record frequently represented a single data element if the data were less than 64 characters in length, or one line of multi-line textual data element, such as:  remarks, description, or an abstract. As an example, suppose that data element “Country” has been assigned to Category Number “100”, the data fits into one line, and the record would look like this:
1234567810001United States

The computer records were created by the SELGEM update program (SELUPD) from a sorted SELGEM transaction record file.  SELGEM transaction records were 80 characters in size (see flowchart at right).  The transaction code controlled the action to be performed by the update program, such as add, change, or delete.

SELGEM transaction records could be prepared using any data entry technology available.

Forms used to create data entry programs on the key-to-disk systems 

The 80-character IBM card format could be produced directly or indirectly.  The following technologies were used for data entry at the Smithsonian at various times:  paper type typewriters, teletype machines, IBM keypunches, key-to-disk data entry systems (such as ENTREX and NIXDORF systems), optical characters recognition (OCR), optical mark sense (OMR) forms, and personal computers.

This was the SELGEM physical record description; in the next blog the story will continue with the Logical Record structure.  A Logical Record was all the “physical records” with identical Serial Numbers (the first eight characters).

David Bridge, Volunteer
Smithsonian Institution Archives

*Creighton, Reginald A. and James J. Crockett.  1971.  SELGEM:  A system for collection management.  Smithsonian Institution Information Systems Innovations 2(3):1.

**The term data element is used as defined in  “the term data element is an atomic unit of data that has precise meaning or precise semantics.” SELGEM only the 3-digit code number was stored in the computer file; the definition, data standards, rules, and attributes were defined externally to SELGEM.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Pink with the Peony

The herbaceous peony dies back to the ground in the winter.
The Smithsonian’s Material Culture Forum this past May had an intriguing and wide-ranging theme: “Home Grown Healing: Smithsonian Collections Relating to Plants and Healing, Wellness, Ceremony, and Ritual.” As a prelude, attendees were invited to the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History to peruse herbals, medicinal botanies, travel narratives, and other natural history books assembled by curator Leslie Overstreet.

As we viewed the illustrated volumes there was talk of how some plants, once known almost exclusively for medicinal uses, are now predominantly thought of as culinary or ornamental, such as rhubarb, rosemary, rose, dogwood, foxglove, Solomon’s seal, carrot, parsley. Then there is king basil, Ocimum basilicum, long prized for its healing properties, used in religious rituals, considered a source of erotic powers, and valued in the kitchen. Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), a medical doctor and botanist, born in Siena, provides the delightful contemporary observation that basil was found to be growing in every Italian household, often in a pot placed by a window. Today, it still rules as a favorite herb.

A pot in every kitchen: basil for the windowsill. Woodcut from Johann Prüss’ Ortus sanitatis (Strasbourg, not after 21 October 1497).
It was a cool, long spring in the Washington area this year. The peonies were spectacular and lasted a good while in their typically short season, blooming at the time of this Forum in May. The woodcut of this plant in the Cullman Library’s copy of Mattioli’s great herbal, Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscoridis (1565), got me wondering how this popular bloom, beloved for its beauty and fragrance and the go-to flower of the wedding industry (symbol of good fortune and a happy marriage), was once used. A little research and a scan of a selection of the early herbals in the Smithsonian Libraries found that the Paeonia once reigned as the medicinal plant, a cure-all from antiquity. Indeed, the genus name originates in Greek mythology: Paeon was physician to the Olympian gods.

The Cullman Library’s uncolored copy of the commentaries by Mattioli on the ancient Greek herbal of Dioscorides has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link here). The first illustrated edition appeared in 1554, with small woodcuts. It was soon reprinted many times in a variety of languages; there are several of these editions in the Smithsonian Libraries. This massive folio has large images where the artist filled the entire woodblock.
Antiquity is full of legends about gathering medicinal plants. The mandrake while being pulled out of the ground was said to give a piercing scream that caused death to the harvester so an animal was needed for the task. The sacred basil had to be cut by a person who had undergone purification rites. Peonies, too, presented risks. Theophrastus, in the 9th century BC in Enquiry into Plants (Greek: Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία, Peri phyton historia) notes: “We learn that he who would obtain peony root was advised to dig it up at night, because, if he did the deed in the day-time, and was observed by a woodpecker, he risked the loss of his eye-sight.” The author, however, ridiculed this belief. The perennially grumpy Mattioli was similarly dismissive of most folklore and superstitions.

I will venture to say that this hand-colored woodcut is the earliest representation of the peony in the Smithsonian Libraries (but may well be proven wrong). Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health) [Ulm?, 1487?]. This copy lacks several leaves, including any title and colophon. To identify it further research is needed but the text is certainly based on the 1484 Mainz herbal, printed by Peter Schöffer the Elder. Another version, this one in Latin, is below. The copying of illustrations and the re-use of woodblocks was common practice at this time.

The peony in Ortus sanitatis (Garden of Health), printed in Strasbourg in 1497. The Smithsonian Libraries’ copy has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The all-important roots of the peony are emphasized in this woodcut.  
The genus Paeonia has thirty-three species; with the exception of two from North America, all are native to Eurasia (Japan, China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Europe) except for two from the west coast of North America. One, Paeonia officinalis, has a long history in both Eastern and Western medicine, used for infantile epileptic seizure, jaundice, stomach-aches, and kidney and bladder problems. There are records of Paeonia officinalis in medieval monastic gardens, the supply precious and carefully preserved in monastery storerooms called “officina,” hence the name.

Inicipit Tractatus devirtutibus herbarum (Venice, 1499). This herbal is a practical, lively little medical book. Unlike the folios of Gerard’s Herbal and the various editions of Mattioli, it fits easily in one’s hands and, despite having been produced in the infancy of printing when books were expensive, appears to have been intended for ready reference. It shows evidence of this by manuscript markings, including a manicula or “little hand” to emphasize portions of the text. The names of the plants, of those commonly found in apothecaries or obtainable from merchants, are in a larger font. They provide the captions for the illustrations, for easy identification. Although the woodcuts are somewhat stylized, typical of early printed books, there is an attempt at naturalism with the depiction of the peony’s roots, represented in black. 
The red peony, native to southern Europe, arrived in England during the 16th century where it became known as the apothecaries’ peony. John Gerard’s Herball or the Generall Historie of Plants (1597) instructs “the blacke graines (that is the seede) to the number of 15. taken in wine or meade, helpeth the strangling and paines of the matrix or mother, and is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called Ephialtes, or the night Mare.” Further, “Syrupe made of the flowers of Peionie helpeth greatly the falling sicknes, likewise the extraction of the rootes doth the same.”

 Many of the woodblocks from a 1590 herbal, published in Frankfurt, were reused for Gerard's Herball. That publication, by Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, relied itself on earlier illustrations, including those of Mattioli's. Link here for the Biodiversity Heritage's scan of entire volume in the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
John Hill, in his The British herbal (1756), declared that for medicinal purposes the male peony roots were best and warned against fraud (substituting female roots) in the markets. “The best way of giving it is in the powder of the root, fresh dried: twelve grains is a dose, and will do great service in all nervous complaints, headaches, and convulsions.” Along with a range of other skills, Hill was trained as an apothecary and was head of the royal gardens at Kensington Palace.
The plates of Hill's volume are dense with illustrations of plants. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s copy.

The allegorical frontispiece of Hill’s British herbal shows the Genius of Health receiving tributes. 
In modern medicine, there are at least 120 drugs derived from plants. Given this history of medicinal uses of the peony, I should not have been surprised that the roots and sometimes the seeds and petals of the herbaceous plant are still used in a long list of treatments, some proven, others unsupported. The peony as a supplement even warrants an entry in WebMD. Properties range from sedative, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anticoagulant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. It is used for hypertension, muscle cramps, fevers, female reproductive conditions, liver diseases, and skin care, much as it used to be.

It is fascinating to find what is old is new again and to glean recipes for sustenance and health from rare books. Natural remedies are of course desirable. I like ginger tea or cherry juice myself as a sleep aid and basil pesto is the elixir of life. And it’s fun to think of the peony as a drug along with the flower’s overwhelming popularity in the floral industry, the subject of countless Pinterest and Instagram posts and romantic association with ancient cottages and farmhouses. However, there may be considerable risks and side effects from using peonies for medical purposes, including seizures, hazardous interactions with other medications and the herb may be unsafe if taken during pregnancy. As some of the authors of the early herbals knew, great caution was needed in ascribing medicinal virtues to plants. Their power also includes poisonous qualities, threatening life.

To stay in very good health and spirits ˗ in the pink ˗ consult your health care provider before employing the peony in something other than a bouquet.

The author's gardens and photos
By Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries 
Leslie Overstreet and Diane Shaw helped with this post.

The tree peony arrived from China to Europe in 1787. The deciduous shrub, imported by Sir Joseph Banks, botanist and president of the Royal Society, was planted in Kew Gardens.