The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that we've written a lot about golden lion tamarins in the last year. There have been various posts here on The Bigger Picture and another on our sister blog, the Field Book Project blog. While I've publicly admitted that I think these tiny monkeys are adorable, the main reason they've captured our attention this year is because of a recent influx of tamarin-related research records into the Archives. In fact, this flood of Golden Lion Tamarin records is a good example of how the Archives typically takes in the many items that make up our collections.
As the repository for the institutional records of the Smithsonian, typically staff maintain records (such as correspondence, reports, or project files) in their offices for a certain period of time during which they are still actively being used. Staff then transfer the inactive records to the archives in regular intervals. This model encourages staff to set up a cycle in which they are, in theory, transferring inactive files to the archives as fast as they are creating new files. Researchers also benefit from this model because the records are available from the archives in a timely manner.
This model works well for records that are filed by fiscal year or that relate to a project with a specified end-date. For these types of records, it is easier to decide when they have become inactive. Many records, however, relate to long-term, ongoing matters. There may be individual documents that are clearly no longer being actively used, but the overall body of records is still active. In these cases, staff generally keep the records on-site "indefinitely."
So when do these records finally find their way to the archives? We are frequently contacted by staff who are about to retire (or who are already retired but still working under emeritus status) and have thirty, forty, or even fifty years of records to transfer to the archives.We are also frequently contacted by staff who are moving to a new office, losing storage space, or have simply run out of room. Quite often they are either forced to reduce the amount of files they are maintaining or, in the process or packing, are able to more easily identify which records are inactive.
The influx of golden lion tamarin records came about as a combination of factors. Many of the staff of the National Zoological Park's former Department of Zoological Research have retired or are close to retirement. In addition, several of the rooms where they had been storing records were slated to be repurposed. Fortunately, staff were given several years to move out of the rooms. Since the records cleanout began in 2007, over 250 cubic feet of records have been transferred to the archives from this one building. A significant percentage of those records happened to pertain to golden lion tamarin research and conservation.
Will there be more posts about golden lion tamarins? Possibly. We're not finished processing all of these records yet and we don't know what interesting tidbits we may come across. In the meantime, approximately 1,100 cubic feet of records are transferred to the archives from across the Smithsonian each year and will inspire us to write on all sorts of subjects.
Blogs across the Smithsonian will be giving an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
Over the past month, we’ve been highlighting the things that are in the Smithsonian Institution Archives for American Archives Month. But what about the things that aren’t in the archives of the Smithsonian?
In celebration of Archives Month, and to clear up any confusion once and for all, here are the top six Smithsonian archives related myths I (and our archivists) often hear:
- The Smithsonian does not have a freezer full of individual snowflakes in its archives (neither in our collections or any of the other archives across the Smithsonian). I see this one on Twitter all the time, and though it’s amazing sounding, it’s not true. However, we do have some incredible photographs of individual snowflakes in our collections, made by “Snowflake” Bentley in the early 1900s. (PS: You can see more of these photos on the Flickr Commons, and we even have some nifty craft templates made from Bentley’s snowflakes for you to use—perfect as the weather gets frostier!)
- The Smithsonian is not archiving all tweets on Twitter. As the keepers of the Institution's history, the Smithsonian Institution Archives does archive many of the tweets of the Smithsonian’s 82 Twitter accounts (most of which can be found here). But sorry guys, we are not archiving all of your tweets in the Archives. Never fear though—the Library of Congress is archiving your public tweets for posterity’s sake.
- The National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC are not a part of the Smithsonian. We love these wonderful organizations, but they’re not affiliated with the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities (which also include many archives).
- There is not an underground storage facility or archive under the National Mall. As Around the Mall blog and others have reported, this myth may have been perpetuated by the movie Night at the Museum, but there are no storage facilities under the Mall. However, there are unused tunnels under the National Mall that connect the Smithsonian Castle and the National Museum of Natural History. These two buildings once shared utilities and so the tunnel was built in 1909 as a necessary entryway for maintenance.
- The Smithsonian Institution Archives is not responsible for all of the Smithsonian's collections.
Each museum, archives, or other collecting unit within the Smithsonian has its own specialty and is responsible for cataloging, storing, and preserving its own objects, artwork, and other collections. So, not all of those 137 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens in the Smithsonian's collections that you hear about are here in the Archives! But the Archives does hold the records that document the history of the Smithsonian—its people, its programs, its research, and its stories.
- The Smithsonian Institution Archives does not hold any Nostradamus manuscripts. This is a bizarre one. Since 2008, I’ve often seen blog posts that claim that a Professor Eugene Randell of the Smithsonian Institution Archives released new Nostradamus predictions found in a rare Nostradamus manuscript. In fact, there is no Eugene Randell on staff at the Smithsonian (and while many Smithsonian employees do have doctorate degrees, and some do teach, we don't really have professors on staff). Finally, neither the Archives nor the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (two separate units at the Smithsonian) have Nostradamus manuscripts.
All that said, there are many collections at the Archives that we hope you enjoy. Happy Archives Month!
As mentioned in recent posts, the Smithsonian Institution Archives has redesigned our website. We have expanded the resources available on the web, increased the amount of electronic records on display, and created new resources to help visitors understand the history and mission of the Smithsonian.
We recently highlighted some of the new history resources and reference service resources available to you. Additionally, some of the most improved aspects of the new site are its navigation and searching capabilities. I’d like to show you how visitors can search a specific topic, person, or museum using the new features on the site. For this little exercise, I decided to search for the Smithsonian’s sixth Secretary: Alexander Wetmore. Not only is he an interesting person, but the Archives also house numerous materials relating to his career as both an administrator and ornithologist.
The first place to start your search (unless you know where you want to go on the website) is in the search toolbar at the top right of the home page. Type in the term you want to search, for example “Alexander Wetmore” and hit enter or click on the Search button.
The search will send you to a results page that contains two options.
The first tab, “Site,” shows results across the site containing your search term. These results include blog posts, webpages, and forum posts that mention your search term.
The second tab, “Collections,” displays results that focus the search on the Archives’ collections, and include finding aids and images. You can also choose to browse through the collections search by clicking on the link found under the search bar.
Another place to look for resources is through the Smithsonian History tab on the site’s home page.
Here you can find information about the Institution’s museums; research centers; important programs; and the people who have, and continue to serve, the Smithsonian. For example, information about Alexander Wetmore can be found under both the History page’s resources and exhibits navigations.
As Wetmore was a Secretary of the Institution, he has an entire page dedicated to his career in our “Secretaries of the Smithsonian” resource.
While under the exhibit pages, Wetmore’s ornithological work in Latin America is detailed in the online exhibit “150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America.” From general to specific, the new website’s navigation offers multiple ways to access the Archives’ collections. So jump in and get your search on!