The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Recently, we asked digital volunteers in the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center to transcribe Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s, and they delivered in a mere two weeks! The reward, which was likely motivation for finishing so quickly, was a behind-the-scenes chat with our own, Pamela Henson, Historian of the Smithsonian. She gave a fascinating perspective on the life of Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian's second Secretary and its first curator.
As a child in Reading, Pennsylvania, Baird and his brother, William took long walks in the countryside exploring nature. A fan of walking, Baird once competed in a 40-mile race in a day, and won! By age 15, Baird was corresponding with ornithologist, John James Audubon, to ask for help identifying birds he collected on his walks. He attended and taught at Carlyle College where he began to correspond with the Smithsonian. In 1850, he was named first curator and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian.
He served under then Secretary, Joseph Henry, who was a physicist and had no interest in developing the Smithsonian into a museum. Rather, he preferred scientific research labs and felt that collections were a burden. In the meantime, Baird dreamed of becoming director of a national museum and he arrived at the doors of the Smithsonian with two boxcars full of bird specimens, including ones donated from Audubon.
While at the Smithsonian, Baird collected much more. From the outset, the Smithsonian had no standing budget for acquiring collections, which continues today. As Henson likes to say, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers.
Working off Joseph Henry’s Meteorological Network of citizen weather observers, Baird developed a network of collecting volunteers from across North and Central America (trappers, farmers, doctors, military people stationed out west). Baird wrote approximately 5000+ letters per year encouraging contributors, much as Audubon had encouraged Baird in his young years.
The core organizing mechanism in Baird’s Index is an atlas. Baird followed Darwinian theory and was interested in biogeographical coverage of specimens. Hence, Baird organized contributors in the atlas to ensure a broad range of coverage across the Americas.
Since the Board of Regents supported the development of a natural history museum, his work continued. His letters and kind attitude engendered many people to the Smithsonian. He hired the first African American and female employee of the Smithsonian. And eventually, upon Henry’s death and his appointment as Secretary, his dream of a great national museum was realized.
- Official Records of Spencer Fullerton Baird, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Crowdsourcing Since 1849, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Transcription of Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s
- Spencer F. Baird’s Vision for a National Museum
- Discovered 20 years ago, the Kennewick Man gets a closer look in a new book. [via Smithsonian Science]
- A look at rethinking searching museum collections from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. [via Cooper Hewitt Labs, CHSDM]
- NPR reports on the lifespan of CDs. [via InfoDocket]
- A mysterious trove of the unknown - Unclaimed films at DuArt, a film lab in New York City that started in 1922. [via The New York Times]
- Now available - The newly declassified multi-volume history of the Manhattan Project, The Manhattan District History, at the Department of Energy. [via Transforming Classification blog, NARA]
- A close look at the issues involved in preserving CAD drawings. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Welcome back! American Bison now at the National Zoological Park. Also check out our very own champion of the American Bison, William Temple Hornaday. [via NZP and SIA]
The natural world is riddled with complex mathematics that only adds to nature's allure and depth. Don't fear, no math equations will be used in this post, nor will you be required to prove a theorem after you finished reading. Those attributes can be used to relate the digitization efforts of the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the work transcribers contribute to the Field Book Project. Do I still have you?
Remember what I said about no math being required. The mollusk shell pictured here was drawn by William Healey Dall and is a prime example for this analogy. Each subsequent layer of the shell is dependent on the previous curl’s proportions and formation. Much like the shells collected and cataloged by Dall, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is built on the contributions (or layers) of its digital volunteers. This progressive and symbiotic relationship is best explained by following the progress of the digitization of the William Healey Dall field books.
As part of the Field Book Project, many field books have now been preserved and cataloged. During the course of these activities, if a field book is identified as being a good match for the needs and interests of the digital volunteers of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the materials are then digitized.
In the case of William Healey Dall, there is a plethora of potential candidates for transcription. Most recently his field books from Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection were digitized. This collection spans the course of several years and describes most of the Pacific coastline as well as the specimens Dall collected during his travels. Dall collected mollusk and cephalopod specimens, drew detailed geological accounts of various volcanos and coastlines, as well as documented his daily travels, routines, and remarkable geological and malacological discoveries. The conditions he endured and recorded during his time in Alaska and the Yukon offer a glimpse at the mental fatigue of the Arctic as well as the reverence Dall held for nature.
The fortitude required to keep from becoming fully engrossed with his writing myself is almost comparable to what was required of Dall during his lonely but fulfilling travels. While I didn’t endure weeks in sub zero conditions without respite, digitizing documents does involve long hours scanning hundreds of pages, building spreadsheets, and arduous metadata creation. Yet, in both Dall and my case, our labors were rewarded.
Creating rich metadata for the digitized field book ensures that all documents are properly cataloged and available for users to access as soon as they are made available online. At that point, anyone can see and download the images of the field book. The field books are also simultaneously loaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s database and launched as a transcription project. Digital volunteers can then choose the collection to work on and engage in a collaborative endeavor to decipher the handwritten documents. In some cases, the penmanship is unique but legible. In others, collaboration is involved to figure out the meaning of the scrawled text and how to best catalog the field books in a uniform manner. The conversation to the left illustrates the iterative process of transcribing and building a set of standards for cataloging.
Once a field book is completely transcribed, the second half of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s work begins.
For the second part of this post about the further work of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, check back at the beginning of September. Until then, if this post has sparked your interest in becoming a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian Transcription Center please sign up and start transcribing. If you’d simply like to see the digitized field books, we invite you to browse the collections.
- Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection, 1865-1867, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 95-121 - William Healey Dall Papers, 1871, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1 of 388
- next ›