The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- When the Library of Congress announced recently that they would be storing the complete archives of Twitter, they caught some flak from the citizenry. So, it was interesting to read Slate writer Christopher Bream’s article on how future historians will use the Twitter archives.
- When a shoebox of photos contains all of your family’s history and hope… Read the interview with artist Seba Kurtis at Conscientious and then check out more of the artist’s photos here.
- This week marks YouTube’s 5 year anniversary, the incredible citizen video repository which generates an incredible 1 billion videos views per day.
- Signs of Use, a kind of photographic archive of familiar objects whose usefulness is in decline by artist Andy Sawyer. [via Effie Kapsalis, SPI]
- Speaking of obsolete objects, Sony has announced the death of the floppy disc and will no longer produce these discs, which first went into production in 1981.
- What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in a museum? The NYT wants students to respond.
- Natalie Merchant’s new album Leave Your Sleep, explores childhood through old poems set to music. We just realized that the poem, “The Janitor’s Boy,” by Natalia Crane (a poet and literati featured in our Flickr Commons Women in Science set) is featured on the album! This portrait of Crane from our collection is discussed in the Utne Reader this month, and shows up around 3:51 in this PBS video: [via Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette]
Reading anthropologist Doug Ubelaker’s recent click! commentary about how photography has been used in the practice of forensic anthropology, especially in the analysis of evidence, brought to mind the photographs, most of them portraits, made by photographer William Bell in the years just after the Civil War. Like the anthropological images of bones and objects left over from human activity, Bell’s images of wounded soldiers constitute an archive where the interesting questions are about what you can see if you know how to look. William Bell was first a soldier, serving in the war between the United States and Mexico in 1846-48, and then a photographer, opening a studio in Philadelphia in 1860. He served in the American Civil War with the First Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. After the war, he became head of the photographic department for the Army Medical Museum. The original Army Medical Museum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine) was founded as a research facility in 1862 and collected and commissioned photographs to study specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical. At the beginning of the Civil War, newly enlisted doctors had almost no experience with gunshot wounds, especially those made by the recently developed Minié ball. Shaped like a pointed cone, this high-speed bullet caused significantly worse wounds than the older lead balls. In an era before X-Rays, short of dissecting the body, no one knew what a wound looked like inside of damaged tissue. Bell and the photographers who succeeded him at the Army Medical Museum carefully documented the effects rather than the events of the war.
The seven-volume Photographic Catalogue of the Surgical Section of the Army Medical Museum, begun in 1865, included detailed case histories and fifty tipped-in albumen prints. Photographs of shattered bones and skulls display an appropriately clinical approach to the subject of scientific inquiry. The portraits of the wounds of survivors, however, command (and are arguably compromised by) a more emotional scrutiny. These elegant, studio-style portraits are unnervingly intimate. Formal science is linked with artistic formality. Along with the catalogue’s detailed descriptions of the affliction and the appropriate medical procedure, the photographs were useful to doctors who wondered just what the slice or dice they contemplated might look like when finished. Today, it is hard to know where to cast your eye in these pictures. The subjects (it is hard to refer to them in the vocabulary of portraiture as “sitters”) often gaze intensely, and considering the extent of both their disfigurement and state of undress, unabashedly, at the camera. I wonder, is it the face or the wound that gives us the most information about war? Bell’s photographs of mutilated soldiers suggest the near-impossibility of simultaneous looking and seeing. These images of wounds and wounded still are so very beautiful, and heartbreaking. See more medical photographs by Bell from the Smithsonian American Art Museum here. For a more complete description of surgical practice during the Civil War go to the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s on line exhibition, Trauma and Surgery: Medicine During the Civil War.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
A clause in the last will and testament of English scientist James Smithson eventually led to his estate being left to the United States "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” There was much debate as to what constituted such an establishment, but many of the proposals involved a library in one form or another. The library was specifically mentioned in the legislation signed in 1846 which officially established the Smithsonian Institution and Charles C. Jewitt was appointed as Librarian in 1848.
Traditional definitions of librarians generally include references to books. After all, the word “library” comes from an Anglo-French word meaning “collection of books” (the Online Etymology Dictionary provides much more detailed origins). In addition to managing the books themselves, librarians are often responsible for maintaining information about the books. After a falling out with Secretary Joseph Henry, Jewitt was dismissed in 1855 and Jane E. Turner, the Smithsonian’s first female employee, was assigned to manage the accession records for the books, though she was not given the title of “Librarian.” The accession records were paper files, similar to those for objects.
What started as a one-man operation has become a system of 20 branch libraries and 109 staff. The Libraries have a dozen staff dedicated to cataloging alone! Cataloging involves recording, maintaining, and presenting data about the individual items in the collections in order to assist researchers (and the librarians) in finding the materials they need. The majority of the cataloged data is publicly accessible via the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System SIRIS, an online catalog of library, archives, and specialty research at the Institution. The Libraries also create specialized websites to allow the public to search or browse certain subsets of information which may or may not be available in SIRIS, such as the Galaxy of Images, a search tool for finding images of their collections.
Did you notice that the word “book” wasn’t used at all in the last paragraph? There’s a good reason for that. Most libraries are no longer just about books. Books are still a large percentage of the holdings of most libraries (the Smithsonian Institution Libraries hold over 1.5 million volumes), but the percentage of other types of media is increasing every day. In particular, electronic resources such as born-digital images, reports, graphic materials, and databases are finding their way into library collections. In addition, libraries are digitizing materials that were originally in a hard-copy format, either to limit access to fragile items or to make them available to a larger audience via the internet. For digitized materials, information about the surrogate needs to be managed in addition to information about the original. Furthermore, information about the relationship between the two and about the digitization process needs to be maintained as well.
This may sound complicated, but that’s why the reference librarian still exists. Reference librarians are experts at finding and evaluating information. Through their training, their experience, and their formal and informal networks, they keep track of what resources are available, what they are best used for, and how to create the perfect (or at least really good) search string.
Just last month, Marilyn Johnson published This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, portraying (and embellishing) the lives of a number of modern real-life librarians. While the title statement may be exaggerated, the proliferation of information available, particularly via the internet, has ensured that the librarian is just as relevant today as he or she always was. The technology and tools have changed, but the librarian is still responsible for managing information about books and other resources as well as creating products and providing services which allow individuals to find that information.
This is part of a series of posts giving a behind-the-scenes look at the jobs involved in managing the visual and textual materials of an archive. Also see a post describing the work of a Photo Archivist, an Archivist, and a Registrar.
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