The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- The Stanford David Rumsey Map Collection now has over 69,000 historic maps available online. [via KQED]
- Incredible color photos of Martin Luther King, some of which are part of our National Museum of African American History and Culture. [via NPR]
- Great news for geneologists! The Digital Public Library of America & FamilySearch International have signed an agreement that will expand access to FamilySearch.org’s free digital historical book collection. [via Info Docket]
- New to the U.S. National Archives; 20th century Alaskan expedition aerial photos and meeting minutes from the committees on "Un-American Activities."[via National Archives]
- How archiving the internet could change our understanding of history. [via NY Times Magazine]
- Transcribe Civil War Telegrams for the Huntington Library. [via Info Docket]
- An unprecendented exhibiton on the Qur'an at the Freer Sackler this fall. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- The Internet Archive and Archive-It are looking for contributions to their Orlando Archive.
- Painting Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' on water from artist Garip Ay. [via Open Culture]
For historians of science, the name “Sarton” resonates like a deep-throated bell. Isis, the international journal that chemist and mathematician George Sarton (1884-1956) founded in Belgium in 1913, is now the premier publication of the History of Science Society. The field he envisioned is flourishing as well as continually responding to changes in science and its social context.
The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 had threatened to upend Sarton’s life and career, yet the indomitable scientist and editor persevered, eventually reestablishing the journal in the United States. And by 1921, Sarton had gained a reputation for insightful and occasionally acerbic critiques, never shying from commenting on contemporary politics, science, and literature, including the type of popularization being initiated by Science Service. When one of Edwin Emery Slosson’s essays came across Sarton’s desk, the fellow editor responded, therefore, with a typical sprightly letter commenting on the tendency to pander to (rather than challenge) audiences.
“I have read your paper with great pleasure,” Sarton wrote on January 20, 1921, and “I heartily agree with you on most of what you say – not on everything however. For inst., you are distressed ‘to see so much good copy going to waste all the time’ etc. – This does not distress me at all – for the main trouble with the American reader is that he has to read too much anyhow. You remark that the weeklies and monthlies of fifty years ago contained more science than those of today. I am not surprised at all. For these magazines were read more slowly, more sedately than those of today. The despote [despot] of American literature is the ‘tired business man’ – who wants to understand everything without spending any amount of intellectual energy. Now believe me, the law of conservation of energy holds good in the intellectual sphere as well as in the material one: The returns are proportional to the expenditure. No effort, no results.”
“The tired business man is not satisfied with a clear and elegant explanation,” Sarton observed contemptuously, “he wants ‘pep’ – it is necessary to nudge him in the ribs or to kick him to keep him awake. Clearness is not sufficient, the facts must be distorted to keep his attention; a portrait of reality will never do – a caricature is needed ... You say that the American editors are looking for stuff in the style of [John] Tyndall, of [Charles] Darwin or of [Jean Henri] Fabre. I seriously doubt it. I believe that if fragments of these men were sent to the editors over my signature (or yours) they would be politely refused. The editor would not or could not give the reason – but I can give it: he would feel that these articles are too plain, too dull for his reader – His majesty, the tired businessman.”
“But forget all that,” Sarton consoled Slosson in closing, and “just remember that your paper gave me great pleasure and that I would gladly sign a great deal of it with both hands!”
By January 1924, Sarton and a group of influential historians, scientists, and intellectuals had founded the History of Science Society, and established a permanent connection between Isis and the society. Sarton also continued to pay attention to the fledgling news organization and on February 10, 1924, he sent a handwritten note to Watson Davis, saying “Allow me to congratulate you for the success of Science Service. I was skeptical at first but was wrong.” Later that spring, both Slosson and Davis expressed their support for Sarton's work by ordering the first five volumes of Isis for the Science Service library and joining the History of Science Society.
In November of 1925, Davis captured Sarton’s panache and lively intellect in two memorable photographs. As the historian I. Bernard Cohen summarized after Sarton’s death in March 1956, “In the intensity of the passion with which he addressed himself to each topic, one could almost see the ‘light that comes from the eyes.’”
History of Science Society, HSS Online
In the fall of 2015, we officially moved over 3 million photographic negatives from the cold storage vault in the basement of the National Museum of American History to our new space at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Thanks to that move, there are new possibilities for projects that will bring great discoveries for the Archives. The first project we started was scanning glass plate negatives from the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts. The collection of glass plates range in date from 1860 to roughly 1920. Sadly, this collection came to SIA with little to no information, so each glass plate is a mystery to be solved.
The question becomes, how do we determine what each image is? The majority falls on institutional knowledge. It seems as though the longer someone has worked at the Smithsonian, the more images they’re able to recognize. One example I’ve discovered is when trying to determine if an image is from the Castle or the Arts and Industries Building. Images from within the building at first glance appear to be the same. However, I started to look at the light fixtures or the windows, and slowly I started to recognize the differences between the two. Knowing the history of the Smithsonian can do wonders when identifying unknown images!
Possessing a strong background in history can also help one identify unknown images. The Smithsonian has pictures of important landmarks, persons, objects, expeditions; the list goes on and on. Some of us are able to recognize people or places because we might be familiar with that subject matter. Each individual becomes invaluable for his or her own specialty.
When all else fails, we have the benefit of reaching out to our Smithsonian Institution colleagues. Curators who specialize in certain subject areas such as textiles, aircrafts or ship models can help. Sometimes, we even reach out to the public to help identify unknown images. Especially for images of buildings or geographic areas that are unknown to us, the general public may be able to help identify them.
With nearly 20,000 glass plates to scan from this collection, we have many more mysteries to solve. Ultimately, we hope to identify each image, but we have to have a realistic expectation and understand that we might not be able to accomplish that. In the end, we want to use all the resources we have available to make this wonderful collection more accessible. This project is a fantastic way to gain more knowledge of what was occurring at the Smithsonian over 150 years ago.
What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr Commons, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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