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This week’s diptych theme is “temporary”. I have no hand in selecting the themes; that’s up to Grace and Kellee. But this week that term is especially relevant to me, as I am in the final days of my temporary position at the California Academy of Sciences. While I only became a paid employee in December, I first came to the Academy back in June of 2009 as an intern and have been heading in to the gleaming green building in Golden Gate Park continuously ever since. So next Friday, my last day at the Academy, marks the end to a significant period of my professional life.
It’s a bittersweet departure because of the fun I’ve had, the skills I’ve learned, and the connections I’ve made. First, credit for how enjoyable it’s been should be given to the people I work with: Christina, who for my months as an intern was my roommate in the Corsi Digital Lab, and then, when she went on maternity leave, the reason I had a professional opportunity; Becky, who is funny, lively, takes long runs in the rain and taught me a lot about life sciences librarianship (taxonomy!); and most of all, my supervisor, Danielle, who has patiently taught me how to handle the Academy’s historic materials, how to curate an informative archival display, and all sorts of digital asset management details they never get to in library school. I appreciate the patience they’ve shown in teaching me the rigging of the good schooner Academy.
Working in the Academy’s archives is quite an adventure. These aren’t dry and dusty collections; I learned about Alvin Seale, a headstrong turn-of-the-century scientist and adventurer who scoured the South Pacific for feather cloaks and cannibals; the great matriarch of botany Alice Eastwood and how she rescued specimens in the midst of the 1906 disaster; and scientific explorers like Rollo Beck and Templeton Crocker and their high-seas voyages to the Galapagos and beyond. I spent weeks delving into our materials on the arctic north and became an accidental expert on pelagic sealing, the Pribilof Islands, and the strange things that happen in the Bering Sea.
But all this was temporary, and I’ll be moving on. Fortunately, the skills I’ve learned are not.
My image in this week’s “temporary” diptych is the iconic orange band that’s been around my neck since last summer, the one that I’ll soon be giving up.
Just as my first contribution to this project, my photo for this week’s diptych was taken at my current place of work, the California Academy of Sciences. However, unlike that abstract image (which was an underwater angle of the penguin tank), this one is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been inside the building: it’s the massive glass sphere, containing a four story rainforest and hundreds of free-flying butterflies, an iconic image of the institution. This is merely one angle of it, highlighting the combination of natural and unnatural light shining inside.
My partner Nicole’s take on the subject is obviously quite different. The joy of the diptych.
In addition to the digital archiving I’m working on for the California Academy of Sciences, my new job also entails various other services — including the occasional addition to the Research Library’s blog, “From the Stacks“.
I recently wrote a post about Fur Seals, San Francisco and exploring the Bering Sea — the subject of an exhibit I curated in the C.A.S. Library Reading Room during my internship. Please go check it out, and while you’re there, take a look at all the other excellent Academy blogs — there is a lot going on at one of San Francisco’s great institutions!
I have been hired. It’s temporary, but it’s still very exciting regardless. I’ll start working 30-hours a week for the California Academy of Sciences Research Library after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend (I officially started last month, but it’s been just one day a week for training so far). I’ll be the temporary fill-in for the Archives and Digital Production Assistant as she goes out on maternity leave.
So what will my responsibilities entail? The bulk of my workload will be digital archiving — scanning the Academy’s impressive collection of archival and curatorial photographs (from prints, books, slides and transparencies) to CDL standards, creating the accompanying Dublin Core-based metadata, organizing the servers, and operating the Cumulus digital asset management system that stores the collection. I will also pitch in on archival reference questions, serving as the aide-de-camp for the Archives and Digital Collections Librarian as needed.
Of course, it’s great to find a paying job in the current economic climate. But beyond the wages, this job is a fantastic opportunity because of the new digital archiving skills I’m learning, the fantastic workplace and coworkers (with whom I’ve been interning since the summer), and the overall mission and orientation of the Academy, very much in line with that of my former longtime workplace, The Nature Conservancy. It further burnishes my credentials in the natural sciences, an area of interest of mine.
As a temporary position, this role adds to my résumé while still leaving me free to pursue longer-term appointments for after it wraps in mid-April. It all adds up to being the perfect opportunity.
This post originally appeared in “From the Stacks”, the California Academy of Sciences Library Blog. I am interning at the Academy Library this summer and fall and wrote this post after doing some investigative work about two uncatalogued photo prints in their collection. Click here to read the post in its original location, with images of the two photos intact.
A fascinating aspect of archival work is the story that unfolds when you try and unravel the mysteries of uncatalogued items from the back of the vault. While evaluating a collection of oversized archival items in the Academy’s collection, I came across a pair of large prints of Yosemite photographs — a meandering river under an impressive dome, and a bearded gentleman, in front of an impressive Sequoia. Both photographs were uncatalogued but attributed to a “John Fiske” in little notes on their reverse side. The attributing notes were written in 1919 by the California School of Arts and Crafts, the original owner of the prints. The veracity of the notes was immediately in doubt: archives assistant Christina Fidler immediately recognized that the first photo, described in the note as “South Dome”, was in fact a photo of Yosemite’s North Dome (Yosemite doesn’t even contain a “South Dome”). The notes also named the bearded figure as early Yosemite Guardian Galen Clark, which if true would improve the value and importance of the photograph.
As the Academy had no other archival items relating to a John Fiske, I did a little research about the photographer before entering the prints into the catalog. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any source material about a photographer named John Fiske. However, there was a prominent early Yosemite photographer named George Fiske (b. 1835, d. 1918). In fact, George Fiske was the first year-round photographer-in-residence of Yosemite Valley, whose winter photographs are rightly prized for their beauty and enduring value (intuitive readers will take note of the surname-only signature on that linked photo sourced from the Bancroft Library’s collection, and its similarity to the signature on the Sequoia photo below…if I had noticed that earlier, I would have saved myself a bit of work!).
This Fiske was a fascinating figure: long before Ansel Adams, he made a living off his photographs of the Valley and the mountains beyond. He’d use mules to take his elaborate camera gear up long arduous trails, and if it was too rough for even his mules, he pulled his gear in a handcart that he nicknamed his “Cloud-chasing Chariot”.
Sadly, George Fiske’s influence as a photographer has waned due to two tragedies: the fiery destruction of his home and laboratory in 1904 that burnt three-quarters of his negatives and prints, and the 1943 fire that burned down Yosemite Valley’s Sawmill (his remaining negatives were stored in the attic). Despite this, Ansel Adams regarded George Fiske as one of his foremost influences.
It seemed likely that George Fiske was the actual photographer behind our two prints. I set about doing a little more sleuthing: without confirmation that George Fiske took these photographs it would be hard to overrule the evidence on the back of the prints for the catalog. The breakthrough moment came from reading Fiske’s heading under Pioneer Photographers of the Far West, available online via Google Books. I discovered that he was a stalwart friend of Galen Clark and that Clark utilized Fiske’s photographs in a number of his own books. Low and behold, three of Clark’s books are in the Academy’s own library collection, including Big Trees of California — a treatise about Sequoias. I hoped that the second print, with the Sequoia and a man who was possibly Galen Clark, would be in that book. I dug our copy out of the stacks.
Bingo! The exact photo was on pg. 87, a full page print. In fact, the book gave us much more detail about the photo than we originally had; not only does it confirm that the figure is in fact Galen Clark, it also explains that the tree in the photograph is the famous “Grizzly Giant” in the Mariposa Grove. Clark calls the tree “the acknowledged patriarch of the Mariposa Grove”, that “has a unique individuality of majestic grandeur all its own, different from any known Sequoia”. Clark claims that the Grizzly Giant is at least six thousand years old, and probably the oldest living thing on Earth (his enthusiasm was slightly misplaced — modern experts name the Grizzly Giant to be “only” 2,700 years old. Still, it remains the largest tree in Yosemite, and one of the five largest on Earth).
There’s only one catch. Clark’s book only credits the photograph to “Fiske”, no first name or initial. So can we know for certain that the photo was taken by Clark’s friend George Fiske, and not a mysterious unknown named John? The only California connection to a John Fiske, and perhaps the source of the 1919 name-mixup, is a Fiske Peak in the Sierra Nevada range named for a philosopher and historian named John Fiske. Perhaps the person who wrote the notes only knew of this John Fiske, and never heard of George?
Final confirmation was back in Pioneer Photographers of the Far West. It states that George Fiske’s photographs “graced two of Clark’s books, The Big Trees of California (1907) and The Yosemite Valley (1910)”. With the print in hand matching the print in the book, and the back-up evidence of the matching handwritten signature in the Bancroft’s George Fiske collection, we know for certain that our two photographs are definitively by George Fiske, not a John.
Archiving can lead to a fun and fascinating tour of our pioneering past. In attempting to catalog a couple unheralded items in our collection, I’ve discovered and learned about a fascinating character who played an important role in chronicling California’s geologic grandeur and helped popularize Yosemite Valley, one of our most famous natural wonders. Today, George Fiske is buried right beside Galen Clark in Yosemite’s Pioneer Cemetery, a fitting resting place for one of Clark’s closest confidants and for Ansel Adams’ spiritual predecessor.