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Available for Use: 133 Years of Geologic Investigations

Researcher going over meterials. The Field Records Collection provides project materials, a study area, and other services to visiting researchers.
Photo Credit: Clay Martin, USGS

Visitors to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Field Records Collection gain a unique perspective into 133 years of geologic investigations, from the earliest surveys of the agency to recently completed 21st century projects. The USGS Library is responsible for accessioning, maintaining, inventorying, and providing access to this archive—whose origins date back to an office storeroom in Washington in the 1880s. Consisting of notebooks, maps, aerial photos, and sample data, the Field Records Collection represents the work of more than 1,200 scientists who have conducted geologic investigations for the agency. Eventually, all Federal record materials in the Field Records Collection will be retired to the National Archives but for now, they are located at the Denver USGS Library, where they have been held since 1951. Occupying more than 3,000 linear feet of shelf space, 62 file cabinets, and 1,000 map drawers, along with its sister archive, the USGS Historical Photographic Collection, the Field Records Collection serves as a valuable depot of data for geologists, biologists, hydrologists, historians, and many other researchers.

File systems in the Denver USGS Library. The USGS Field Records Collection occupies approximately 5,000 square feet in the Special Collections Room of the Denver
USGS Library.
Photo Credit: Clay Martin, USGS

The last five years have seen landmark developments at the Field Records Collection. In 2007, at the recommendation of the USGS Library Advisory Board, a major reorganization of the archive was initiated. The emphasis was on more effectively organizing, inventorying, and preserving the data in the collection. In 2009, the Field Records Web site was established, allowing researchers in and beyond USGS to view descriptive inventories of almost 300 collections (the number grows weekly) and to request onsite access to materials via an electronic order form. The Web site also offers keyword search functions, suggestions on donating field materials and gaining access to un-inventoried collections, and links to related library services and to other scientific archives. With these resources, researchers can locate materials as diverse as:

  • 1880s–era hand-drawn maps of Grand Canyon topography by Sumner Bodfish and John Renshawe
  • Notes on the engineering geology of Pacific island chains from investigations by the USGS Branch of Military Geology during and after World War II
  • Thousands of square miles of geologic map coverage compiled for the USGS Eastern Kentucky Coal Mapping Program in the 1960s and 1970s
  • The personal papers of John David Love, legendary Wyoming geologist and subject of John McPhee's biographical narrative Rising from the Plains

In addition to the USGS scientists who regularly visit the collection to consult their colleagues' field materials or their own archived records, information gleaned from the material in the Field Records Collection has been used in many interesting ways by a diverse clientele. Recent examples include:

Field records stored in archival packaging. Upon acquisition, field records materials are organized, inventoried, and stored in archival packaging.
Photo Credit: Clay Martin, USGS
  • A professor from the University of North Dakota is using data from plane-table sheets compiled by Clyde M. Bauer in 1915 to relocate the New Mexico collection sites of fossil mollusks now in the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Field Records Collection personnel are working with the National Park Service to implement digitization of the massive Edwin D. McKee collection of materials related to Grand Canyon stratigraphy (the science of rock strata) for a digital archive at Grand Canyon National Park research facilities.
  • An emeritus Professor of Geology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., used the collection's unpublished 19th century memoirs and manuscripts of Joseph P. Iddings and Whitman Cross as primary sources for a series of articles on the origin of the American quantitative igneous rock classification in the journal Earth Sciences History.
  • A Durango, Colo., writer used the early 20th century field notes and maps of Dr. Herbert E. Gregory to help trace the origins of geographic place names in southern Utah for a forthcoming historical publication.
  • An emeritus USGS geologist is researching his own notes and maps related to 1980s field work in South America to provide supplemental data for Smithsonian Institution collections of rock specimens from the Morococala volcanic field in Bolivia.

Future plans for the Field Records Collection are ambitious and include the completion of online, searchable inventories for all scientists represented in the collection; increased capability to provide scanning services; the development of a digital archive of scanned materials for remote researchers; and improved archival standards for the preservation of collection items. And, as in the past, the Library will continue to welcome new materials, assist visiting researchers, and raise awareness of the Field Records Collection in the scientific community.

Large-format materials are organized in archival map folders and stored in map files. Large-format materials are organized in archival map folders and stored in map files.
Photo Credit: Clay Martin, USGS

Other notes of interest:

  • The Field Records Collection is primarily an archive of geologic investigation materials, with relatively few records associated with water resources studies or topographic mapping.
  • The records kept here are generally associated with projects conducted in the 48 conterminous states, Hawaii, and in foreign countries. Alaska geologic project records are archived at the Alaska Technical Data Unit in Anchorage.
  • The Frequently Asked Questions link on the Library home page has more information on locating various sources of USGS primary research materials.

We hope that you are inspired to investigate the Field Records Collection or its Web site!

For more information:

USGS Field Records Collection Web site:

USGS Denver Library home page:

USGS Alaska Technical Data Unit:

USGS Historical Photographic Collection Web site:

For other inquiries, email or call 303–236–1000.