The “Grinnell” Method

As the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Joseph Grinnell brought an unusual clarity of vision to the study of the vertebrate fauna wherever field work was conducted. He insisted that MVZ staff and students adhere to a thorough documentation style, which included at least four components: a field notebook, a field journal, a species account, and a catalog of specimens. The form for each is structured and may be independent of each other but cross-referencing by date and locality. In 1910, he wrote,

“It will be observed, then, that our efforts are not merely to accumulate as great a mass of animal remains as possible. On the contrary, we are expending even more time than would be required for the collection of the specimens alone, in rendering what we do obtain as permanently valuable as we know how, to the ecologist as well as to the systematist. It is quite probable that the facts of distribution, life history, and economic status may finally prove to be of more far-reaching value, than whatever information is obtainable exclusively from the specimens themselves.”

From: “The Methods and Uses of a Research Museum” Popular Science Monthly 77: 163–169.

In pursuit of that objective, Grinnell developed and implemented a detailed protocol for recording field observations. In conjunction with a catalogue of captured specimens, a journal was kept, detailed accounts of individual species behaviors were recorded, topographic maps were annotated to show specific localities, and photographs were often taken of collecting sites and animals captured. These integral field notes documented such important biotic and abiotic parameters as weather conditions, vegetation types, vocalizations, and other evidence of animal presence in a given locale. With astounding foresight, Grinnell noted in 1908:

“Our field-records will be perhaps the most valuable of all our results. …any and all (as many as you have time to record) items are liable to be just what will provide the information wanted. You can’t tell in advance which observations will prove valuable. Do record them all!”

Listen to Ward Russell’s narrative of doing field work with Grinnell (From an interview with Ward Russell, the MVZ’s preparator for 40 years, conducted at his home in Berkeley, California, March 4, 1992 by Oliver P. Pearson, Professor Emeritus and former MVZ Director):

(Listen here or download the .mp3 file here.)

Grinnell widely advocated the value of one’s field observations. Read his annotated published excerpt from his field notes from 1912 (An Afternoon’s Field Notes. J. Grinnell. The Condor Vol. 14, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1912)) in which he advocates for the first-person, narrative observations that defy “card-systems” or other “cataloging” styles of documentation.

Ultimately, the care and discipline to maintain a field journal and catalog reflected his philosophy on the value of museums and especially research collections. In 1921, he wrote a pointed exhortation to museum curators, directors, and administrators on the priorities of the museum professional, principles the MVZ continue to follow. Grinnell highlights these “rules” in recognition of vanishing wildlife and wild places, even in his era at the beginning of the 20th C and how older materials gain in value as the only archive of lost natural history.  1) Order, which he viewed as both key to “accessibility” and the importance of their organization in the collection; 2) Accuracy, which he notes that mistakes in specimen labels can propagate into mistakes in the scientific literature where it is “practically impossible to ‘head off’ “. Aside from the gender anachronisms, he promotes museum professionalism in collections and recognizes the challenges of balancing systems that are streamlined yet address the multitude of uses and variety of materials in museum collections. We often wonder what Grinnell would make of the MVZ collections today!