The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet

I am fascinated by natural history collections, so the title of this book caught my eye.  I never would have believed that the story of the namesake of the Douglas fir could be so interesting!  David Douglas was much more than a botanist and his adventures made me long for a time when the country was open for exploration.  Douglas was described as a man of “great activity, undaunted courage, singular abstemiousness and energetic zeal” (Nisbet, 2009) and he definitely lives up to that description in this biography.  He visited the Galapagos a decade before Darwin, explored the Pacific Northwest, and investigated the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Douglas’ story is compelling and the practices of a collector at the time are interesting.  Douglas was usually welcomed and assisted by those he came in contact with, but even in the 1820’s some New York residents were angered at his collecting and accused him of removing the only populations of some rare plants.  One of Douglas’ objectives as he collected was to find new ornamental plants for the gardens of Europe.  This book would be a great place to begin a discussion about the ethics of collecting and how people facilitate the movement of species.

The world of plants is very diverse.  I had to look up some botanical and scientific terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they easily could have been defined in the text.  I was also disappointed in the lack of maps showing Douglas’ travels.  Anyone who has traveled in the area can probably picture the places described and imagine the distances, but my experiences in the Pacific Northwest are limited and I wanted to know where Douglas was on a map as his travels progressed.  Drawings of specimens would also enhance the text of this book.

Anyone with an interest in botany, the Pacific Northwest or exploration will find The Collector worthwhile.  Take the time as you read to look up unfamiliar terms and photos of the plants and animals described in the text.  Make the book an adventure. Travel in the footsteps of an explorer in an unsettled country where anything is possible and discovery happens every day.

Further exploration of David Douglas’ life:

The David Douglas Society

Finding David Douglas

Serendipitous interaction – make it happen

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.  That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. – Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO, as quoted in (Knowles, 2013)

How far are you from everyone else in your institution?  When even high-tech companies realize the value in face-to-face interactions between their employees, it is time for museum collection staff to take note and get out of their basements and off-site storage facilities.  Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s campus so that chance meetings happened regularly.  John Lasseter, Creative Lead at Pixar said, “I kept on running into people I hadn’t seen for months.  I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one” (Drought, 2012).

Collaboration is something that everyone in natural history collections needs to be thinking about.  Not just collaboration with each other, but with everyone in our home institutions.  If we remain quietly tucked away pouring over our specimens, we eventually become invisible.  It is never too late to start.  Although you may be sequestered in a warehouse miles from the rest of your institution, you must make an effort to be seen.  Plan two trips a week to the ‘main’ building and make sure you talk to as many people as possible.  Invite others to your space for lunch, meetings, or coffee.  Whatever you do, make the opportunity for those serendipitous interactions to occur.  Don’t let a culture that ignores the collection take root.  If it already has, work harder to turn back that tide.  Sure, there is too much work to be done in the collection, but if you want help, you will have to recruit it yourself.

There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat.  That’s crazy.  Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.  You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas. – Steve Jobs as quoted in (Drought, 2012)

This is why conventions and professional association meetings are so popular and successful.  People make creative connections there.  When is the last creative connection that you made in the office?  When is the last time you had a spontaneous conversation with someone within your institution, but outside of the collection department?  Educators and administrators can make plans without you when they don’t know you or what you do all day.  Make sure they know you and make sure you know what they are working on.  When you are in the know, your institution will make better use of and take better care of your collection.

It may seem like a waste of time, but these chance encounters can lead to big things.  Harvard Medical School investigators found that they help scientists produce better research.  In a study that analyzed the number of citations each paper generated and the distances between coauthors, they found a greater number of citations for articles where the first and last authors are physically close with citations declining as the distance grew.  In addition, the average number of citations for a paper with four or fewer authors who were based in the same building was 45 percent more than one with authors in different buildings.  The Harvard Medical School study’s first author, Lee, said “if you put people who have the potential to collaborate close together it might lead to better results” (Ruder, 2012).

Does administration in your institution know this?  Is the culture of your institution conducive to collaboration?  If the answer to either of these questions is no, you should take the first step to change your institution.  Don’t stay hidden away, get out and meet people.  You never know who will inspire your next research project or how you might inspire an education program.  Don’t wait for your institution to change.  “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Gandhi

See you at the water cooler!

Works Cited

Drought, M. (2012, Oct 09). Steve Jobs and the Art of Office Design. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from Fourfront Group:

Knowles, D. (2013, Feb 25). Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer lays down the law, telling telecommuting employees either to show up at the office or find a new job. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from New York Daily News:

Ruder, D. B. (2012, May-June). The “Water Cooler” Effect. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from Harvard Magazine: