Wednesday, September 5, 2012

From the Archives: Charles Hibbard, Official Collector of the Steinhart Aquarium

I'm currently in San Francisco visiting the California Academy of Sciences, Berkeley, and Stanford University (or as I like to call it: John Leland Stanford, Jr. University) archives.  Each institution has a collection that sheds light on the history of marine science in the state.

Yesterday, I headed downtown to the California Academy of Sciences to look at two sets of papers: those of the Academy and the Steinhart Aquarium.  The day went smoothly, but I did not find much useful information until a half hour before the archives closed.  And then, the archivist showed me something amazing!

In a box misleadingly labeled "Seale and Lanier - guidebook Eisen, E (1900) construction, etc. undated 1 archives box", Rebekah Kim pulled out three bound volumes. Two were a little too new for my research, but the third was a treat.

Entitled "Report of the Collector for Steinhart Aquarium for the Year 1929" by Charles Hibbard, the volume contains a year of collecting trips Hibbard took to stock the Aquarium.  Hibbard tells about dealing with local fisherman, what nets are best for catching and keeping fish alive, where the best pebbles can be found to line the aquariums, and talks about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being a collector during this period.

This is an amazing source for many reasons.  While I've found some information on fish collectors from this period, this is by far the most complete. Many full time collectors were local boys and men raised in the fishing culture. They were often illiterate, or wrote very rough English; and too often, their words have been lost for lack of documents, or their voices have been lost because poor English was edited and rewritten for official records (even in archives). Hibbard's writing can be rough in spots, but the volume is highly readable and the whole work is written as a first hand account; it reads just like a personal journal- with all the asides and cursing still added.  Hibbard mentions working with marine laboratories to collect and keep specimens on longer trips, he talks about working with local fisherman, and he gives step by step details for finding, catching, transporting, and keeping these specimens.  It's an awesome source. And I'm sure, upon subsequent readings, that the depths of knowledge contained in this journal will become even more apparent.

I hope my trip to Berkeley tomorrow uncovers even more amazing sources!

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