Archival Assignment 1- Field Notes

Archival Assignment I

I visited the Massachusetts Historical Society Archives in order to look at the Henry Davis Minot Papers. Minot (1859-1890) was an ornithologist and railroad enthusiast and I wanted to look at his Field-Notes and journals in order to compare them to Higginson’s Field Book. My original objective had been to examine a number of Field-Books from the same period as Higginson’s, and to identify common material and formal features in order to better understand the genre. An initial problem was locating and identifying examples of Field-Books. Notes on observations of the ‘natural’ world taken in the ‘field’ do occasionally appear in texts explicitly identified as such like Higginson’s, however they also appear in notebooks containing writing on other subjects, in journals, in travel diaries, and – as I discovered in the Minot papers – on loose sheets of paper and even in middle of account books.  I chose Minot’s papers because, while there is no text among them identified in the finding aids as a “field-book,” he produced numerous journals and other works in which he tried to document and record the environmental phenomena (and particularly the bird-life) of New England. Just as parts of Higginson’s Field Book function like a commonplace book, or a draft memoir, so Minot’s travel journals and account books occasionally ‘host’ Field observations too. I am going to examine and discuss the significance of the hybrid nature of these texts, as well as the relationship between notes, draft-work and ‘finished’ writing in these texts.

In brief, the texts I examined from the Minot papers included a childhood essay from 1871, describing a ‘new’ species of bird he believed he had spotted, an 1876 document, comprising a list of bird migration dates and a series of diary entries for the corresponding period,  a pair of journals (from 1880 and 1882 respectively) describing his travels (and observations of ‘nature’ ) in Colorado and elsewhere, and an undated book, detailing his personal finances, at the centre of which is an extensive essay on bird-life.

One formal features of Minot’s writing which I recognised from Higginson’s work was the use of a tabular presentation of information on the same pages as the continuous prose of dated journal-style entries. For example, on the first three pages of Minot’s short (twenty-page) bound booklet, he has drawn two columns, and listed (in the left-hand column) a series of bird species, and (in the right hand-column) a series of dates. The title on the first page, “1876: The Arrival of Birds from South at Boston,” suggest these dates mark the return of birds migrating north after winter. The first three birds, “Robin,” “Song Sparrow,” “Blue Bird” are all given the same date, “March 7th”. The final arrival is the “Scarlet Tanager” on “May 22nd”. The table begins:


                 Arrival of bids from the south at (Boston)


Robin*                                                                                                          March 7th

Song Sparrow*                                                                                                 March 7th

Blue Bird                                                                                                             March 7th

Higginson’s tables similarly organize phenomena according to date and generally range of one table or chart (for both authors) is about a few months; Higginson for example, notes the highest and lowest temperatures for every day in April 1862, though unlike Minot, Higginson also adds in this table (and in most of the others) a column for qualitative details. “April 5th” ranged from 32° to 40°, and he describes it as “Cloudy – then sleety snow. Wind E.”. This organization of information into tables is a form of what Ann M. Blair calls “information management” (2). Blair argues that information is different from “data,” which “requires further processing before it can be meaningful” and also different from “knowledge” which “implies an individual knower” (2): it “typically takes the form of discrete and small sized items that have been removed from their original contexts and made available as ‘morsels’ ready to be rearticulated” (2). The placement of the species name, “song sparrow” or the sign“32°” in their columns can be seen in part as a kind of morselization, since they have been isolated from a broader experience and from series of possible observations.

But it is not only the isolating, decontextualizing impulse which creates these morsels; it is also the result of the particular modes of re-articulation which this kind of format facilitates. First, it places the morsels in regular spatial relations to one another, facilitating comparison and the quick identification of patterns and anomalies. We can quickly see on Higginson’s temperature chart, those days which were the coldest as well as the periods when temperatures remained low: to be clear, then, on the one hand it is not only the fact itself (the coldness of April 1st for example) which these charts and tables display – rather, it is the status of these facts as units within a consistent measurable system (a status which makes them subject to comparison, to measurement against other facts of the same kind). The same can be said of Minot’s lists of bird-arrival dates. The significance of the date is altered by its inclusion in a list of other dates: now an individual date can be easily and quickly cross-referenced with (and compared to) other morsels of the same kind of information.  On the other hand, Minot’s writing of “March 7th” several times over in a vertical list produces yet another kind of knowledge. The difference registers as an impression that these distinct observations (that is, the fact – created in reading the row as a whole – that the date, March 7th, ‘belongs’ to the bird and constitutes its arrival) are in fact distinct individuated facts. Or, to put it another way, March 7th is a day of arrival and, as the table presents it, this is a fact three times over. This point becomes clear when we compare the information in the chart to the first entry in the journal-section of the book, in which “March 7th” opens a paragraph of prose description:

March 7th Today and Yesterday have been warm and enervating. This morning I saw Blue Birds, Black Birds and Robins. The Song Sparrows are singing loudly; even yesterday a few were musical, the very few that were then here.

While the chart model allowed for comparison between distinct pieces of information, (a comparison that was given visual and spatial form by the table’s grid), the journal entry does not configure the presence of each different bird as a distinct morsel. Equally, to state the obvious, without the row-column formatting of the table, the relation between bird and date is no longer highlighted.

I have tried here to re-read and de-familiarize the genre of the table in order to clarify the particular kind of knowledge it allows, and also in order to approach Minot’s and Higginson’s reasons for using this genre among their Field-notes. Part of the reason is suggested by that difference between table and journal. In Minot’s first journalentry, the knowledge produced remains not morselized in a few ways: first, the observations are not differentiated from one another; second and more importantly, the presence of the “individual knower” – which Blair identifies as an attribute of “knowledge” (rather than “information”) – is clear. The subject of “I saw” is also the subject who experienced the weather and judged it to be “enervating.” Minot’s first-person voice here represents the subject who has made the observations and written them down, and who also transformed them in the chart into “morsels.” This opening passage in which he writes from a particular point in the day, recalling the day before as well as that day’s morning emphasizes that not only are these phenomena (here, birds and bird-song) experienced by a person (shattering the illusion of neutral un-authored facts), but they are experienced by a person at a certain moment in time and in a specific location.

Added to this, the presence of the knower located in time suggests that the act of writing occurred after the observation of which it is a recording. In other words, another effect of the emphasis on the “individual knower” is the reminder of the division between the perception of things in the “field” and the written record. Minot’s table provides a location for its information, “Boston”; the journal entries contain a far more local range – that is, when Minot writes “I saw” the spatial range of his claim becomes the limit of his own sight.  What the journal allows us to imagine, which the table-format suppresses, is that the truth value of these observations is entirely contingent on Minot’s own perception. In other words, perhaps Black Birds, Song Sparrows and Blue Birds all appeared on March 7th, not in Boston for the first time, but rather simply to Minot’s sight. The juxtaposition of journal and table, then, allows us to see the attempt to produce subject-less (and therefore ‘objective’) data.

This question – central to the genre of the Field-Book – about the how and where the observing subject comes to be represented also raises questions for Book History. Martin Andrews, in “The Importance of Ephemera,” suggesting that ephemeral materials offer an opportunity for “a more subjective quality, an almost emotional and tactile response to worn and fingered material” quotes a long passage from Maurice Rickards:

An implicit component of every item of ephemera is the reader over our shoulder – the eyes for which the item first appeared; the living glance that scanned the paper even as we ourselves now scan it… Not only can you “hear their voices”, as Trevelyan put it, you can merge your glance with theirs… You become, as you read, an intimate part of the detail of their experience – not just overhearing them, but being momentarily within them… As we survey a battered public notice or a dog-eared printed paper, we are aware not only of the sum total of duration (implicit in its wear and tear), not only the buffetings and bruisings that its condition proclaims, but the countless scannings it has undergone. (Andrews 434)

Although this passage is referring to printed ephemera, rather than personal manuscript, I think it can serve as a useful image of a certain kind of attraction to seeing archival materials (and raises questions about how to read Field-notes in particular). The implication in this passage of the time-travel fantasy (that the archival reader might “merge” their experience with that of an early or original viewer), is that the reader’s relationship to the object is thoroughly artefactual: that is to say, the experience is somehow dependent not on the viewing subject (perception or mind) but on the material object itself as it has outlasted its own conditions of production and reception. In other words, this theory expects the individual (historically contingent) reader to bring very little to the experience of the object. As such, it is possible for readers at entirely different historical moment somehow to have the same experience – this, I take it, is the meaning of the claim that the reader in the archive can find themselves “within” the experience of the original viewer. This passage is worth recalling in relation to Minot’s Field-notes (and the discussion of the place of the subject), since the Field-notes are a genre in which the original pair of eyes – the “reader over our shoulder”, or as here, the writer – is always supposed to have been looking first somewhere other than the text, at the external world: the journal entry explicitly invokes a first person figure – Minot himself – whose sight would presumably be the first “scanning” that Rickards refers to.

However in that passage – as is the case in some of Higginson’s Field-book entries too – the subject matter is that which can be perceived in the nearby environment: the sound of bird-song he calls musical. I don’t want to argue that we have to imagine the act of writing taking place at exactly the same moment as the bird-song (“The song sparrows are singing loudly”), so that therefore only an impossible reconstruction of precise sensory circumstances could approach the meaning of the passage. That would be disingenuous; but, without taking the point to extremes, this kind of precise localized recording of sense-experience does seem to want to resist the kind of claim Rickards makes: for the Field- Book, experience often primarily refers to something environmental, something outside of reading, writing and the production of the artefact. Frequently in its journal-mode – here as elsewhere – it even seems to ask us to imagine the subject as a perceiver but not writer, feeling and knowing the world, though not writing it down.[1]

This said, the desire expressed by Rickards for a kind of leap though history and for a category of object-oriented transhistorical experience does bear some similarity to the aims of the Bird-Arrival chart or Higginson’s weather table.  The production of morselized information involves the stripping away of a variety of contexts including that of historical contingency: as such, these tables are partial attempts to produce scientific objectivity. Actual objectivity –were it possible – would of course allow for precisely that time-travel experience that Rickards describes in which our reading (“scanning”) of the text is able to merge (and thus share its identity) with the initial reading (“scanning”) by the author. However, in these Field-notes, the demand for objectivity is forced to contend with the journaled presence of the subject.  As Damien Mckenzie argues (referring not to genre exactly but to a text’s “materiality”), “each reading is peculiar to its occasion, [but] each can be at least partially recovered from the physical forms of the text” (19). What the Field-Book’s hybrid genre makes visible (though not exactly recoverable) is the negotiation between that attempted production of subject-less truth and the historically and geographically contingent presence of the subject-observer.


Possibly the most interesting item I looked at among the Minot collection was an undated account-book in the middle of which is dome of Minot’s work on bird-behaviour. Among other things, it raises questions about the relationship between draft-work and ‘finished’ or ‘polished’ writing. As I discussed in one of my blog posts, Higginson describes his work as draft material, to be extracted and improved for later publication – he marks the passages he has chosen to re-use by crossing them out. In the account-book’s section on birds, Minot appears to separate two kinds of prose. Firstly he has a list, consisting mainly of incomplete phrases and clauses, and secondly he writes at a long piece broken up into paragraphs. The list looks like a series of notes and the essay looks like an attempt to synthesize these notes into continuous prose – in other words, it looks like a draft; it appears that unlike Higginson in his Field-Book, Minot wrote notes and long prose in the same book and on the same pages (Higginson’s Field-Book contains very few notes not in sentence form). But in fact the difference in content between the two sub-sections is really striking. The list of disparate phrases has a one-word title, almost illegible, which looks like it might say “Migrations” and the list itself looks like this:

Facts: Areas of Distribution-

Seasons, Distances  travelled & time

Individual reappearance

Modes of ||progress||

Night & day-

Flight & littering-

Flocks & individuals-

Effects of Weather and

of food supply

Comparative fixity and

Variability of movements

Spring and Autumn


Birds’ efforts and misfortunes

Local reappearance

Pioneers. Nesting.

Instinct/ origin of


Birds’ range of vision

Precedence of males

Or vice versa

Incidental loss of life

|| Novalis’ || species –

Local changes

Length of Northern days




The list begins with “Facts:” and it seems as though Minot is attempting to collect together a series of facts about bird-migration – possibly these are what he judges the most important items of information, or alternatively this is everything he knows about the general subject. It’s worth noting the variety of kinds of fact in the list. When he writes the word “moonlight,” this might refer simply to the fact of the existence of moonlight, though it might refer to something else he knows (or thinks he knows) about moonlight’s effect on birds; equally, there are something lines which suggest there is a fact to be known but which he is not yet clear about, for example in the phrase “Precedence of Males Or vice versa”: its clear that he thinks one gender among birds has a kind of “precedence” but he is unaware of which one it is.  The phrase “Bird’s range of vision,” like “moonlight” might refer simply to the existence of specific “ranges” of vision, though it might also refer to some other fact about the importance of “range of vision” for migration.

“Facts,” then, in this context are truths about bird-migration, though they do not have to be known. In a way this feels like a very different kind of information management from that discussed above in relation to the Bird-arrival chart, though it is equally reliant on the idea of autonomous units of information, distinct from knowledge – whether or not “instinct” is the “origin of migration” is, for Minot, a matter of “fact,” even though he doesn’t know the answer: in the absence of knowing we still have a readable “morsel” though it is expressed as a fragmented question: “Instinct/ origin of | migration?”

I think it is worth asking whether there is a real (fundamental) relationship between Minot’s idea of what constitutes a fact and his decision to writes up these facts in fragmentary note-form. Is it that a fact is necessarily fragmentary, open to the possibility of a sentence, but not requiring one? In other words, is it that for Minot a fact is necessarily and fundamentally different (and prior) to a claim or is it merely incidental that his “facts” appear as notes? After Minot’s list of “facts,” there are two horizontal pencil lines, announcing a break, and beneath these lines, there is an extended piece of prose which goes on for several pages. The prose begins:

Now, coming to theories, what

plausible ideas can we adopt?

Let us begin by accepting the

multiple evidence that

birds have both reason (inclosing

memory) and what may

be reasonably and intelligently be

called “instinct”; and since the

word “instinct” used (vaguely) is

senseless, let us understand it

however not an appetite, but the

unconscious use of  —–

an unreasoning tendency to  the

habits formed and fixed by

preceding generations.

This passage seems to begin by announcing a movement, “coming to theories”: one effect of this is to make clear a difference between the preceding “facts” and whatever it is that Minot means by “theories.” For a start, “theory” involves adopting “ideas,” and as the passage continues it seems that the process of choosing ideas to adopt involves a sequence of definitions. In the passage quoted above Minot focuses in particular on the mental faculties of birds, arguing that birds possess “reason,” which he glosses parenthetically as “inclosing memory,” and also “instinct,” which he defines in some detail. To some degree it is the explicit presence of the subject (the author figure as well as the addressee) – in phrases like “let us begin” and “let us understand” – which distinguishes this passage from the morselized facts above it, much in the same way that the journal passage distinguished itself from the tables of data. However, there is also, perhaps equally as important, the appeal to logical relations; for example, he argues “since the word ‘instinct’ used vaguely is senseless [then] let us understand it… [as] unreasoning tendency.” Theory seems to mean for Minot an attempt to map the reasons for which he is convinced of certain things. In other words, theories or ideas refer not to isolated pieces of truth or knowledge, but to truth when it is given a frame that can legitimate it: the full-sentence-structure of Minot’s “theories” provides the kind of context which grounds truth. Of course in the process, it also reveals the possibility of (and resources for) counter-argument – the reader might disagree with the premise that “instinct” used vaguely is senseless, and might thus, feel themselves necessarily disagreeing with the following conclusions.

A fact in note-form, unlike a claim (in sentence form), might be true, but its fragmentary state does not explain or show how it comes to be true: that display of becoming-truth is the function of what Minot calls theory.[2] The relationship between these two halves dramatizes something we don’t really see in Higginson – the production of extended prose after (physically below) notes. It appears, then, that the prose works with and on the notes, that “coming to theories” is a movement and arrival we perform only after listing facts. With this in mind, it’s worth asking what it means to then read those notes as well as the longer piece. Price Leah lists as one of her examples of “nonreading,” the

feeling that you don’t  belong in [a text’s] audience, whether  your identity doesn’t match its implied reader’s, or because you are too good (or not good enough) to rub elbows with others in its public. Or, more contingently: the sense that it’s too soon, or too late, for you to shove your way among them. (8)

Reading fragmentary or disparate notes can often feel odd, as though it is hard to make sense of them not because they are supposed to be difficult, but because they’re not supposed to be read at all. The problem is sometimes that there doesn’t seem to be a stable implied audience.  Minot’s list of bird-facts makes sense – it can be read and interpreted. But it’s hard not to think that if Minot had gone on to publish his thoughts about bird migration – and gone on to find (and form) a public for them, he would have written them out in a style more similar to the “theories” than the “facts.” In a sense what we see in the difference between “facts” and “theories” is Minot’s work as writer, he was not writing notes for a reader other than himself, and his reading was engaged only as a support for further writing. The writer is a kind of non-reader then, experiencing the text as insufficient, and to be transformed. But if that is the case, the phrase “Now coming to theories” is fairly strange: it seems to invoke a reader who has come from somewhere, who has come from the list of facts. In fact the reading I have performed depends in large part on the implications of that phrase, as a connective hinge between the two sections. If we ignore or bracket the phrase, then it a great deal harder to imagine an audience for the list; and my interpretation (based on the fragmentary non-syntax of the first section’s lines) becomes something like a nonreading, or at least a counter-reading.[3]

Jonathan R. Topham, in a special issue of the British Journal for the History of Science, entitled Book History and the Sciences, argues that Book History’s attention to methods of production and modes of circulation mirrors the “approach which historians of science have pioneered in other contexts such as studies of laboratories, observatories, lecture-halls and museums.” With this relationship in mind, he goes to claim that “by focusing on the practices of fabrication, distribution and use, book history continually reveals both the instability of meaning in printed objects, and the labour that is consequently expended by those seeking to establish universal claims” (156). Though these texts by Minot and Higginson are hand-written, rather than printed, and although I have focused on the appearance and presentation of genre and “notes” rather than the texts’ “distribution,” I have found this argument useful in determining the relationship between genre (and medium) on the one hand and “information” on the other. In his essay on his “theory” of bird-knowledge, we can see Minot attempting to undergird and establish a number of claims though reasoning: his object seems to be to produce “universal claims,” and to do this he has to frame isolated facts.  That process in the essay is the reverse of his method in his 1876 Bird-arrival chart, where the production of isolated objects (units of information which could be easily re-contextualized for the purpose of comparison) is the means by which he produces objective truths.



Andrews, M. “The Importance of Ephemera.” A Companion to the History of the Book,

edited by S. Eliot and J. Rose, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007, pp. 434-450.

Blair, Ann M. “Introduction.” Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before

the Modern Age. Yale University Press, 2010, pp. 1-10

Mckenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Price, Leah. “Introduction.” How to Do things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton

University, 2012, pp. 1-18.

Topham, Jonathan R. “BJHS Special Section: Book History and the Sciences.” The British

Journal for the History of Science. Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 155-158. Stable URL:



[1] To be clear this is only a effect of the Field-Book’s journal mode at one extreme. Higginson’s journaling passages will sometimes ignore the external (“natural”) world altogether, in favour of discussing letters he has recently written or received, as well as books recently read: in these moments, there is a heightened awareness of the authoring subject as a writer.

[2] It’s worth noting that this miniature ‘essay’ in Minot’s account-book actually takes up the question of how birds deal with types of information too: later on Minot argues that

all reasoning depends upon experience, acquired or communicated; and birds having so far as we know, no power of communicating facts cannot benefit much by the experience of others except indirectly either through sympathetic imitation of resultant actions or through inheritance of resultant habits. A bird’s experience therefore is far more individual than that of man who learns from fellow men.

Minot here distinguishes between facts known and the behaviour which results from that knowledge. Birds can copy each other he claims, but this is different from knowing the original fact itself and the modelling of behaviour does not constitute communication. Communication, would for Minot, presumably have to involve signification – facts would it seems only be known through signs (or direct individual experience).

[3] It’s also worth pointing out that were we to perform a “scanning” (to borrow Rickard’s phrase), rather than a reading of the page – if we chose to look at it without interpreting the words – we would still see the discontinuity between the two modes, list contrasting with paragraphs, since the listed phrases look like a list, not like paragraphed writing.


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