Nerding Out at the USGS

I was recently treated to a Fellows tradition involving a field trip to the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) facility in Reston, VA.  Since I’m a chemist and not an earth scientist, my father questioned why I was going.  I replied, “It’s a field trip!”  I mentioned this outing to a long time analyst with the Congressional Research Service, who replied that he enjoys watching the annual formation of the Fellows’ Nerd Pack, and I should enjoy nerding out.

The Fellows were treated like visiting dignitaries; we spent time with the USGS Director as well as each of the Associate Directors, who explained the mission areas that they each covered.  The USGS’s role is purely scientific, so unlike the EPA, which is often resented because of its regulatory mission, the USGS is an agency that is much more universally liked. They are also extremely collaborative; about half of their budget comes directly from Congressional appropriation, whereas the other half comes from contract work from other Federal agencies.

Due to various governmental reorganizations, the USGS includes biological sciences along with their earth sciences, which unlike geologic agencies in other countries, allows USGS to approach problems from an unusually interdisciplinary perspective.  I enjoyed our tour of the pollen lab, partly because it’s been months since I saw chemicals and glassware, and partly because of the stories.  Part of the mission in that lab is to do archeology through pollen samples from geologic sediment cores.  I was fascinated that the pollen stands up to immersion in strong acids and strong bases without being damaged, so it is possible to separate the pollen from the surrounding earth.

Pollen archeology is being used extensively in the restoration of the Everglades, which for decades has suffered from extensive water diversions that dry up the wetlands, change the habitat for flora and fauna, and damage both water quality and water availability in Florida.  About seven years ago, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to work towards restoring the ecosystem to a more healthy state, and historic pollen samples help indicate what mixture of vegetation might reflect target conditions.

Just a few water samples waiting to be tested.  No, this is not the pollen lab, but it was a more interesting picture

Just a few water samples waiting to be tested. No, this is not the pollen lab, but it was a more interesting picture

Prior to this visit, I associated USGS with maps, and indeed the library, which heavily emphasizes those products, was the highlight of the day.  Their classification system is different from the standard Library of Congress system, and was designed specifically to include a geographic reference in the organization.  Thus in one particular spot, all the information about Canada might be collected.  Their shelving is also divided into normal sized volumes, oversize editions, really big atlases, and super-sized folios that are so tall they get stored on their sides.  Then there are the cabinets and cabinets of map cases!

Of their whole collection, 7% of the material can be found nowhere else in the world.  People will come from other countries such as Madagascar or Sumatra, and the visitors are stunned to get to see maps of their homes that are simply not available where they come from.  USGS contractors to the armed forces in WWII provided maps of Pacific islands so that they Navy could plan where to land.  After the earthquake in Haiti, the USGS had the only available geologic maps of the island so that relief workers could reliably know where to drill wells for clean water.

In the rare book room, we were also treated to a preview of a story that will shortly be in NPR’s weekend edition as an interview with Cory Flintoff.  In a collection of books donated to USGS in the 1930’s, they recently found a book from 1922 that contained original photos of the Russian crown jewels.  Also in the collection was a 1925 book with reproductions of the photos; another copy of the 1925 book recently sold at auction for $140,000.  As the librarians were exploring the older book, they started to compare the two volumes, and they discovered that four pictures present in the 1922 book are missing from the 1925 edition, so somewhere in the intervening time, four items vanished from the collection.

One of the highlights for me was seeing the original materials from the exploration of the American West, again in the rare book room.  In addition to the journals of Lewis and Clark, we saw the folios from the expeditions in the 1860’s authorized by Congress to survey the West to understand the geography with an eye toward accessing the mineral resources.  In addition to mapping, exploration parties such as those led by John Wesley Powell drew elevations, or side views of places such as the Grand Canyon, and then photographed the sites in black and white.

Elevation of the Virgin River

Elevation of the Virgin River

Although we were in a library, the USGS has a different attitude toward its materials than other places.  In the Grand Canyon folios, fabric has been fused to the back of each page so that they may be turned easily without damage.  As the librarian explained, they don’t collect information to preserve it, they collect it to be used.  I enthusiastically approved of that attitude.

Elevation of the Grand Canyon

Elevation of the Grand Canyon (This is a DRAWING!)

To get some of the details straight in the library venture, I emailed the librarian who had given us a tour.  I shouldn’t have been surprised that rather than a few short clarifications, he sent me a wealth of information in links.  He wrote:

“Thanks for your note and I was delighted to show you the materials we have in the USGS Library, especially our rare book room. There were actually 4 great surveys conducted prior to the creation of the USGS. You can learn all about them in a USGS Circular that was developed for our 100th Anniversary at:

“I showed you the King Atlas from 1876 (see a full description at: as well as the Dutton Atlas from 1882 (you can download the entire atlas at: or individual pages are available at

“We didn’t spend a lot of time with the other two explorers, Mr. Hayden and Mr. Wheeler but we do have all of their published material from their surveys as well.”

The two atlases are huge, but the pictures are glorious.  I highly recommend them when you have a moment.  You can nerd out, too!



Filed under Brain Food, Work

2 responses to “Nerding Out at the USGS

  1. Sammy & Susan Samuel

    My favorite Doctor of Chemistry,

    Oh how I would love to have nerded out with you….you see I was an intelligence officer and we LOVE our maps and I ordered many upon many maps from the USGS. Their numbering system is great ain’t it? :0 I will definitely check out the links. Thanks!!! What a fun day.

    Blessings, Susan

    • Susan- I never knew! That would have been a hoot to have you along! The WWII maps were only recently declassified, so they haven’t been scanned into the internet database.
      The USGS folks were really awesome and helpful. It’s worth a visit if you are in the area and have a chance to go. I can put you in touch with the librarian!

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