In from the cold: unlocking the secrets of Antarctic field notebooks

A scientist sits on a rock overlooking a bay writing in his field notebook.
Ian McLeod taking geological notes at Wilkes in January/February 1960. (Photo: Geoscience Australia)
Three geoscientists working on the Taylor Glacier, Antarctica.

From the early 1960s through to the 1990s Geoscience Australia’s predecessors conducted numerous remote field programs, mapping the geology of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Scientific observations, measurements, sample numbers, locations, and other anecdotal information, such as weather conditions and day-to-day life in the field during those early Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, were faithfully and sometime painstakingly, recorded in that quintessential accessory, ‘the field notebook’, by field geologists. These handwritten field notebooks now reside in the Geoscience Australia library, and are publicly available for all to enjoy.

Currently, the interested geologist or historian must physically visit Geoscience Australia to gain access to these irreplaceable and invaluable sources of scientific and other information. The Geoscience Australia library regularly receives requests from researchers to view field notebooks, as the raw data contained is of continued relevance and value to contemporary scientific research.

In addition to the scientific observations, the notebooks record the realities of what everyday life in Antarctica was like. Among the scientific data are lists of food supplies, field logistics and planning, equipment requirements, comments on the dog sledge teams, and WYSSA (private telegram) messages home to loved ones. Increasingly, we are finding that family historians are keen to access their relative’s field notebooks for inclusion in their own publications and family histories.

In order to make these valuable records more accessible to the world and in line with Geoscience Australia’s policy of ensuring that our geoscience data, information, and collections are discoverable, accessible and searchable as a public resource, a digitisation project has been undertaken. Under the guidance and assistance of the Australian Museum’s DigiVol program, and with a loyal cadre of hardworking volunteers, we are digitising and transcribing all the Antarctic field notebooks for web delivery. Thanks to the hard work of our dedicated volunteers, our collection of almost 90 Antarctic field notebooks is well on its way to being released.

Although the Geoscience Australia library has a comprehensive collection of Antarctic field notebooks, we do have some gaps which we are keen to fill. We’d like to hear from anyone who has any Bureau of Mineral Resources, Australian Geological Survey Organisation, or Geoscience Australia Antarctic field notebooks that we could include in our project, to make the important information contained in them accessible to researchers from around the world.

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can meet one of our notebook authors, Dave Trail, via this YouTube video.

For more information about the project please contact Jane Black, Librarian at Geoscience Australia library on jane.black@ga.gov.au or (02) 6249 5895 or Chris Carson on chris.carson@ga.gov.au

Jane Black and Chris Carson
Geoscience Australia