In 1913, Francis Sumner, Raymond Osburn, Leon Cole, and Bradley Moore Davis published their biological survey of the Woods Hole region. This catalog had been roughly ten years in the making, as Francis Sumner—in a February 12th, 1904 issue of Science—reflected on the collecting and surveying work that he did with others beginning on June 16th in the summer of 1903. This survey was novel in comparison to its predecessor (Verrill’s List), in that it systematically documented useful information about each animal (where to collect it, how to keep it alive, when it’s breeding season was) in addition to being thorough exploration of the marine fauna in the Woods Hole region and its vicinity. The key point of difference between Verill’s survey and Sumner’s was that Verrill’s list was a 19th century natural historian’s approach to descriptive adequacy regarding species morphology and the comparative relationships between marine fauna. Sumner’s survey, on the other hand, took a utilitarian approach geared toward the activity of collectors and tracked where, how many, when, and included copious collector’s details that for a long time remained a handy reference tool Collectors in Woods Hole from the MBL and the US Bureau of Fish and Fisheries.
Their method of collecting marine animals was similar to the Verrill approach, using a variety of tools like dredges, trawls, and seines to survey the ocean bottom and surface at selected survey points. However, the Bureau and its cadre of workers collected additional data and recorded this data systematically onto forms and note cards designed specifically for the purpose. The additional details that this survey recorded, and the method by which the data were maintained, made this survey important as a reliable resource about where to find particular marine organisms, and in the case of MBL researchers, where to find new marine organisms to study.
While working at the Bureau in 1903, Sumner devised a catalogue card system of data collection. On large blank 5 inch by 8 inch cards, he and other workers recorded which species were found at what stations. The Bureau workers also consolidated historical data (like those contained in Verill’s list and by other collectors and surveyors) and their own observational records (from the 5 by 8 cards) onto larger 8 by 11 sheets of paper. On these sheets of paper, the workers generalized from their own detailed observations to create a useful reference tool for collectors. Another type of card (this one 4 by 6 inches) was used to further generalize from the information contained on the 8 by 11 sheets—this card type would be on thicker stock and would include roughly 11 cards per species. These 4 by 6 cards would summarize the tabular data gathered from the previous two types of recording instruments (the 5 by 8 and 8 by 11 cards and sheets). A final, and very useful, 4 by 6 card was used to record provisional types of information that didn’t fit the specific categories which were already a part of the data collection endeavor. From a contemporary perspective, this may seem like mundane data entry work, but understanding the cataloging effort as both an innovative analytical tool and a way to provide quick practical reference for local collecting workers made Sumner’s effort particularly impressive and useful.
When we look to Sumner’s work we see a scrupulous documenter and someone who clearly wanted to come up with way to record useful information about local and regional fauna for collectors. By creating a catalogue system in which eleven notecards were compiled for each kind of marine fauna encountered, this survey expanded the types of information that collectors, scientists, and workers at the Bureau knew about local marine animals, and made such information more practically accessible in a card catalogue. This handy reference system, provided a location where one could look for any animal in the catalogue then find very specific information by looking to one card of the eleven-card set. There one could find out what kind of habitat a marine animal lives in, or how distributed it is in the region, or find out when the animal’s breeding season occurs annually.