The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
You know that sinking, then maddening feeling: you need to find something you’ve carefully put away, but can’t remember where you’ve stored it or how you characterized or labeled it. That common problem, when it’s blown up to institutional scale, explains why coming up with the appropriate terms and then applying descriptive metadata to collection items has become such an essential task for archivists, particularly as the quantity of digital information being stored away for future access grows exponentially.
The daunting task and cost of digitizing and characterizing vast amounts of historical materials—including documents, still and moving images, audio files, and objects of all sorts—explains why stories about organizations that can actually afford to deal with that challenge stand out. One recent example, an article by John Branch for The New York Times, described how Major League Baseball (MLB) started, one year ago, to digitally tag the noteworthy aspects of every one of the 2400+ games that are played and recorded each season. That kind of industry recall, of course, wasn’t always the case. In late September, for example, the fantastic story of how a unique kinescope recording of the historic seventh game of the 1960 World Series turned up in the basement wine cellar of the late crooner/actor/video pioneer Bing Crosby, startled sports fans. Soon enough, they’ll be able to witness what some consider to be the best game in World Series history, when the MLB broadcasts the recording this December.
Until recently, this famous clip of Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960, which won the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the only record of the game that existed.
But now that professional baseball has become such a huge money-making industry and digital technology allows for it, it’s clear that nobody’s going to have to wait around fifty years to memorialize or monetize a good thing. In 1998, Major League Baseball began to systematically keep full broadcasts of games, and that archive now contains around 160,000 hours of material, with an additional 10,000 more hours of content expected to be added with each passing year. While fans don’t have access to this archive yet, in the future they might, as will coaches, players, umpires, advertisers, licensees, and broadcasters.
Last year, MLB Productions began to put together teams of “loggers” whose job it is to select from over 500 tags—words or phrases ranging from “home run” to “animal” (should a squirrel run out on the field), to “drinking” (should a shot show someone in a stadium taking a sip of beer). Loggers also time-stamp each pitch, note the camera angles that were used, and transcribe the content of important play-by-play calls. This season, between April and November, loggers will use about five million button clicks to tag every play in every game. Pretty impressive. If only we could get some of them to intern for us, off season . . .
We are going to be live blogging from the Smithsonian Archives Fair this morning and profiling all of the activities that will be going on today. Stay tuned throughout the day to see what's going on.
9:55 am: We are set up for the Fair at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center and are very excited for the public to start streaming in. Lectures start in 5 minutes!
10:05 am: Opening remarks from Bill Tompkins, National Collections Coordinator at the Smithsonian. Check out the live webcast here, right now.
10:10 am: The Smithsonian has over 100,000 cubic feet of archival collections . . . journals, diaries, video/audio recordings, letters, photos, etc.
10:15 am: Joyce Connolly of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Gardens takes the stage to speak about Dr. J. Horace McFarland, "The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of." McFarland was instrumental in popularizing seed catalogs for gardeners and embellishing these catalogs with photographs and selling glass lantern slides of plants and gardens. McFarland became the first president of the American Civic Association, promoting responsible city planning and a "Campaign against Ugliness" in urban areas, and drafted the first version of a bill that would eventually create the National Park Service.
10:32 am: Visitors start to filter into the presentation area, here checking out the the National Museum of the American Indian's (NMAI) archive presentation table. Today, they're also featuring archival video: the only known footage of George Gustav Heye, who was responsible for collecting a vast majority of the 285,000 objects now at NMAI.
10:50 am: WOW! Incredible. It's the Smithsonian's very own Antiques Road Show. A member of the public has just walked in with a wonderful treasure: an 1865 New York Herald newspaper, framed, announcing President Lincoln's assassination. Our conservators weigh in on how exactly she should keep this historical newspaper intact and protected.
11:02 am: Mary Savig of Archives of American Art (AAA) is presenting on how AAA has been bringing more visitors in through the Archives' doors. They are excited to reach out to their audiences to do participatory projects, like the recent performance art project in the archive by artist Ding Ren, and to reach out to new audiences with upcoming exhibitions like Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay Presence in the Archives of American Art. People like being inside of the archives because of the tactile quality and "materiality of the objects."
11:34 am: The Smithsonian Institution Archives' Conservation Fellow, Anna, describes some tools of the trade and speaks to visitors about materials available to help them preserve their own collections at home. Acid-free boxes and mylar, baby! We'll have some of our tips up on the web soon after the Fair is over.
11:42 am: We even have a video crew on hand to record our conservators speaking with the public: all recorded for posterity's sake. I just spoke with some of our conservators who've been dealing with some very interesting items: an old baptism and communion certificate; a baby book; some original drawings done by the designer of the Capitol Building's dome; and some reel to reel audiovisual materials. We'll be sharing some of the video of these conservation appointments with Smithsonian experts in the near future.
12:15 pm: Taking a lunch break!
12:41 pm: Amy Staples of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) is presenting on The Chief S.O. Alonge Photographic Collection: Royal Court of Benin photographer, Nigeria, 1926 – 1989. She notes that looking through the collections is to learn a lot "how Africans were presenting themselves to the camera" in that particular time and place. This collection will be featured in an upcoming exhibition in 2012 celebrating Nigerian photography, as well as a symposium, which will look at cutting edge work being done in the field of African photography. NMAfA hopes that there might be the possibility of repatriating some of these images to Benin, and involving some Nigerian scholars in new projects involving these collections.
1:10 pm: I've just been chatting with Nichole and Cecilia of The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Apparently, they've been fielding lots of questions from the public today about audio preservation. Someone came in just a while ago asking about a wire recording of Hank Williams that they had on hand at home, and Folklife was able to give them advice about what to do and companies to consult to that they could actually listen to the recording. Wouldn't it be exciting if they had some old Hank none of us have heard before?! Cecilia lets me know that all of their archival recordings are available to the public for download and purchase on their website, adding, "Folkways really is a living archive."
1:45 pm: Taking a break behind the scenes.
2:30: The National Anthropological Archives (NAA) has a team presentation going on. "We believe that information in the archives flows both ways,": NAA talks a bit about what they learn from the relationships that they've built with several Native American communities, as well as their partnerships, including one with Hand Talk an organization that uses NAA materials to make information about American Indian Sign Language available.
3:07 pm: Curator of Photography for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's Archives Center, David Haberstich, is at the podium to talk about the Scurlock collection. Addison Scurlock took photographs of the African American community in Washington DC from the early- to late-1900s, and includes several hundred thousands of images! The ever-present question: can you do item-level records for a collection that large?
4:01 pm: Our own Ricc Ferrante, of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), takes the stage to speak about digital records and archiving at the Smithsonian. We put things away, but how do we make sure they're not forgotten? The fragility of digital objects means that we have some Archives horror stories: an adhesive label that stripped off the recording layers from a CD; a Wang diskette (a 5.25 inch floppy--I've never even seen one of these) that we struggled to get the files from because it is such an obsolete technology. Setting preservation standards at SIA has been key to not only being able to get at electronic records, but to make sure that they'll remain usable, and that we'll remember how and where they're stored!
4:29 pm: Sarah Stauderman of the Smithsonian Institution Archives is here to talk about the preservation of videotape and magnetic media--those technology dinosaurs that probably live in all of our home collections. The fact that videotape has had fifty formats since it first came out means preservation is complex--the SIA actually collects "playback machines" to make sure that we can play all of these different types of videotapes. Some quick tips? Store videotapes upright, like books. Keep them cool and dry. Keep a list of people that appear on the video and label all videotape cases. Remove "record tabs" from any tapes that have them, so no one can record over your important event (an episode of Lost on top of your wedding ceremony would be awfully disappointing).
5:00 pm: We're done! Hats off to Rachael Woody and the myriad other Smithsonian archivists, conservators, curators, and staff who did so much to make this Fair happen, and to the 600+ members of the public who came out to see us today!
- Looks a lot cooler than it sounds: the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs will post more than a century’s worth of beautiful maps to Flickr [via Effie Kapsalis, SIA].
- Archival film footage is, “like a plate of unseasoned steamed zucchini?” Defending the power of the original image over at the Prelinger Archive.
- Centuries-old ship logbooks show the legacy of climate change, and crowdsourcing transcription brings these logbooks alive.
- Essential expeditionary supplies: compass, pack horse, matches, and a couple dozen barrels of wine.
- 2.9 million emails a second, 50 million tweets per day, and 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook . . . the world of data we’re creating online [via Resource Shelf]
- The latest guest blog from our own over at the Smithsonian Collections blog: Pam Henson on transcribing oral histories. While you’re at it, check out the other posts there in honor of American Archives Month.
- The Powerhouse Museum talk about their experience with SepiaTown—a site that makes “Then and Now” photography come alive by geotagging historic photos on Google maps.
- And speaking of the Powerhouse, Smithsonian’s Mike Edson was just there talking up the awesomeness that is the Smithsonian Commons project: