The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
On October 23, 1826, James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, sat down and wrote the final version of his will. Smithson, who was 61 years old and had suffered various ailments, was clearly thinking about his legacy. After establishing his pedigree and naming his executors, his first bequest was:
To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of one hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death.
Fitall had been his servant for a number of years, and Smithson seems to have held him in high esteem. There is no indication of the circumstances under which Fitall left Smithson’s employ, but it does seem that a job at the London Docks must have been a step down from his role as a man-servant to a wealthy gentleman. Fitall’s home on Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, was part of what is known as the East End of London. The area was not yet as notorious as during the Victorian era, when street gangs, prostitutes and Jack the Ripper kept the penny press headlines focused on the docklands area, but it was already a crowded, gritty neighborhood rife with crime. The East End was the section east of the Roman and medieval walled city of London, north of the River Thames, and bordered by the the River Lea. Many residents worked at the nearby docks, which were growing rapidly, with the St. Katharine Docks opening in 1827. Overcrowded and unsanitary, with transients arriving at the docks daily, cholera and other epidemics were a regular occurrence. This was also the home of the Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, competing for sales with their patter of rhyming slang.
Smithson seems to express regret that he has not done more for Mr. Fitall in the past and thus wishes to provide for him for the remainder of his life. His bequest of £100 sterling annually is not a paltry sum. It is difficult to really calculate what that would mean in today's dollars, but the Old Bailey Online website suggests:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a skilled engineer could command 7s. 6d. a day, or around £110 per year, if fully employed, but this was not significantly more than their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the last decades of the nineteenth century William Booth estimated that a working family needed an income of at least 18s. to 21s. a week, or around £50 a year, just to get by, and 22s. to 30s. a week (£57-£78 per annum) to be "comfortable".
So it would seem that Smithson provided a decent income for his faithful servant for the remainder of his life. I don't know if Mr. Fitall and his wife remained in the East End or if he continued to work at the London docks, but the Fitalls would have had a comfortable life. Life in the East End continued to deteriorate through the remainder of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century – the era portrayed in the current BBC series Call the Midwife. Many residents lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, often consigned to work houses for the indigent. Smithson's first bequest ensured that his faithful servant lived out his days in far greater comfort than his neighbors.
The annuity ceased when Mr. Fitall died with the principal reverting to the bequest to the people of the United States. The Minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for January 11, 1850, reported that Mrs. Fitall, the widow of a former servant of Mr. Smithson, through a Mr. H. P. Bohn, had offered for sale a small portrait of James Smithson which was in her possession for the price of thirty guineas. The portrait by James Roberts (1753-c. 1809) is of a young Smithson as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University, in 1786, attired in his academic robes and already committed to a life devoted to scientific research. The board resolved that Secretary Joseph Henry be authorized to purchase the portrait of Mr. Smithson which Honorable Abbott Lawrence, United States Ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of in his letter of the 10th of December, 1849. The oil on canvas painting soon arrived at the Smithsonian and is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery today, allowing the Fitalls to give back to the Institution founded by the man who held their service in the highest regard.
Collaboration. It's the one word that during almost every conference and pan-institutional discussion, everyone says, and hears, a lot. In fact, it's the theme of this year's Archives Month! But why is it so important to collaborate? Because collaboration allows for people with different knowledge and skill sets to come together to solve a common problem. At the Archives, we often work with other Smithsonian divisions and outside groups to solve complex problems in the field of audiovisual (AV) digitization and preservation.
A perfect example of collaborative work at its best is the AV Hack Day from this year's Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) annual conference in Savannah, Georgia. During Hack Day, programmers and archivists came together to create open source tools that tackle common preservation problems that have been identified in the field of AV archiving. Some of the tools created include Hack Day Capture, a tool that works with a Blackmagic capture card and ffmpeg to digitize analog video, Video-Sprites, which eases the process of making web video more accessible, and Characterization Compare, which allows the user to see the outputs from EXIFtool, MediaInfo, and ffmpeg side by side. These tools and all of the others created during Hack Day are available on the AMIA Open Source Github page.
For the past several years, members of the Archives have worked with other government agencies to form a group called the FADGI (Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative). The primary goal of this group is to create guidance for the digitization of still image and audiovisual materials that other archives, public or private, can use when making decisions on how to best preserve their materials. Last month, FADGI released file format comparison charts for still images and analog videos, as well as a set of case histories contributed from eight different units that detail how they are dealing with born digital audio and video content within their collections. The comparison chart for analog audiovisual materials provides information on sustainability, cost, and system implementation for the various codecs and wrappers that are currently being used to create preservation files.
Smithsonian divisions often collaborate with each other as well. Since the majority of the equipment in analog AV archiving can be hard to find, the AV archivists group (AVAIL) here at the Smithsonian created an internal registry of the different equipment owned by each of the divisions, so that we can work together to share resources. The list includes information on the number of decks of a particular type owned by a given division, as well as whether or not they are currently in working condition. This makes it so that when I come across a Hi8 tape in our collections, a format that we do not have a deck for, I can simply consult the registry and contact the appropriate division to see if their deck might be available for me to use. Through the AVAIL listserv, we have also shared our knowledge of different migration errors to help each other solve unusual problems.
Ultimately, it's important to collaborate with others in and outside your field because the knowledge of the many is often more comprehensive than the knowledge of few. Additionally, we are all working towards the same goal of preserving our collections in the best possible way, so working together allows us to optimize our resources and our time. How has collaboration helped you in your field of work?
- Smithsonian AV Archivists Tumblr
- The End of the Beginning: A Born Digital Survey at the Smithsonian Institution, The Bigger PIcture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Audiovisual conservation resources, Library of Congress
- Archives Month across the Smithsonian
- A bold plan from the National Archives - Digitize their analog records, all 12 billion pages of them. [via AOTUS blog, NARA]
- An epic road trip - Collecting on the road with Jason Stieber, National Collector, Archives of American Art. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Now availble - DigDC, a new online archive of Washington D.C. history created by the D.C. Public Library’s Special Collections department. [via Washington Post]
- Documenting events as the are happening - A conversation with Howard Besser and the efforts of Activist Archivists in saving the records of the "Occupy" movement. [via The Signal: Digital Perservation, LOC]
- From the stacks - Exhibits writer-editor, David Romanowski, talks about his adventures in doing research in the National Air and Space Museum Archives' Technical Files for the Hawaii by Air exhibition. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Some thoughts on archival appraisal in the age of distant reading and computational analysis of large sets of electronic records. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Gale/Library Journal 2014 Library of the Year - Edmonton Public Libary - presents this cool video timeline of their 101 year history. [via InfoDocket]
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