The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- SIA's Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig writes about personal digital archiving in the New York Times.
- Want to hear what a was cylinder recording sounds like? Check out this video done by the folks at the University of Utah, Marriott Library Special Collections. [via Jennifer Wright, SIA]
- For those looking for a job as a digital archivist or librarian, the Library of Congress offers some insight into what kinds of skills you may need. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- For fans of Edward Weston, here is a 26-minute documentary of his life and work done by Willard Van Dyke, an apprentice of Weston. [via PetaPixel]
- Nam June Paik: Global Visionary opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on December 13, 2012 and runs through August 11, 2013. The nature of Paik's art and the technology behind it made the exhibition a bit complex to install. [via Eye Level, SAAM]
- If you've ever had your hard drive crash or worse yet have your smartphone or laptop stolen, the data and personal information on those devices become all the more important to have and protect. Leslie Johnston at the Library of Congress describes her own experience with the theft of her laptop and netbook. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- The National of Museum of African American History and Culture building, designed by David Adjaye, is set to open in 2015. Here Adjaye talks about the significance of the museum, race, and heritage. [via Huffington Post]
One of the more exciting things I have been working on in the conservation lab of the Smithsonian Institution Archives over the past year has been to photograph the imaginative and beautiful watermarks found on our collection of archival documents. For centuries, papermakers have been twisting thin wires into whimsical shapes, from unicorns to complicated crests with lions, swords and crowns, and imprinting their designs onto the paper during the paper making process. What makes watermarks so fascinating is that they are like secrets hidden in the paper, invisible except when held up to the light, giving us clues as to where and when the paper was made.
Why would papermakers bother to include these fanciful and superbly executed shapes in the paper, especially if you cannot see them very well, you may wonder? While their original purpose remains a mystery, it is widely believed that watermarks were used as the papermaker’s trademark and to indicate the size and quality of the paper. Especially fancy chiaroscuro watermarks were even used to promote the superior quality of the artisans of certain workshops. More thrilling, perhaps, is that it is also thought some were used as symbols of secret brotherhoods and were used to identify their members.
Today, many of us are probably most familiar with the term watermark from its carry over to the digital realm as a "digital watermarking," where interestingly, no physical watermark exists or water for that matter (rather a sequence of codes embedded into electronic documents and images)! As for traditional watermarks, at present we are likely to encounter them mostly in our currency, government documents, and more as a security device.
Many of the watermarks in our collection are from American papermills, which tended to favor images of doves, eagles, tobacco plants, post-horns, stars, and lambs. It may seem odd to us now, but there was a time in America before the 1800s when foreign papers, with their watermarks of Britannia and the crown, were considered far superior to domestically produced paper. By the 1800s, though, paper with unique American watermarks had found their way into the hands of the most famous scientists and politicians, such as John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Sadly, with the advent of large scale paper manufacturing at the end of the 19th century, the ancient craft of making paper by hand nearly came to an end in America. The art of watermarking all but vanished and the tradition was on the verge of collapse. Enter Dard Hunter, born on this day in 1883 in the town of Steubenville, Ohio. A gifted artist and craftsman, Hunter was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement and revived the art of handmade paper making. His knowledge and experience led him to write the most comprehensive history of western papermaking of the time. To celebrate Hunter’s birthday, I would like to share with you a sampling of the watermarks I have captured in our watermark gallery
below above. An examination of our watermarks will lead you through the fascinating history of American papermaking. It is an ongoing project and I will be adding interesting watermarks to the site often, so keep checking!
You too can make paper the way they did thousands of years ago or learn how to make watermarks.
- Record Unit 7051 - Columbian Institute, Records, 1816-1841, with related papers, 1791-1800, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As any archivist would find familiar, during a recent survey of a collection consisting of thousands of archival materials dating from the early 1920's and onward, I discovered a wide variety of traditional paper attachment methods. From an archival standpoint, fasteners such as wire paperclips, straight pins, staples, and rubber bands are deemed inappropriate for long term archival storage. Although the creator and original custodian of this collection had thoughtfully and carefully organized its contents using common fasteners with the best of intentions, the passage of time in conjunction with an uncontrolled storage environment have actually had adverse affects on its overall condition. This collection is being surveyed as part of a risk assessment that will help the archivist and conservator decide on a course of action for the collection overall.
The following photographs along with a highlight of beneficial storage practices show examples of how these inappropriate attachments have caused damage despite its' creator's good intentions.
Staples, paperclips, and straight pins found in this collection were manufactured using galvanized steel, not stainless. Therefore, when exposed to sources of indirect moisture such as high humidity or direct contact such as flooding, rust corrosion products formed on the surface of the fastener. Once a corrosion material is present, it may transfer to other surfaces with which it is in direct contact. This transfer is evident in the following photos where a dark discoloration formed on the paper where it was touching the fastener.
One way this discoloration can be removed is through a chemical oxidation reduction process, which is labor intensive. All of the damage shown was sustained during long-term storage prior to intake into our collections. Since it was known that these paper materials were previously stored in an uncontrolled environment where they were exposed to high levels of moisture, the removal of all metal fasteners from within the collection was a priority, so that further damage will not continue.
Other issues associated with fasteners include distortion of paper from tight-fitting paperclips and holes caused by straight pins and staples, especially when the paper is brittle. Remaining impressions, acidic rust burns, pinholes and gouges create a weak point in the paper making it more susceptible to tears, especially if the paper is thin or embrittled.
Another inappropriate attachment method noted in this collection is the use of rubber bands. In general, rubber bands tend to degrade over time, becoming brittle in a cold environment and sticky in a very warm environment. In this collection, the rubber bands had dried and adhered to the paper due to age and an uncontrolled storage environment. Conservation treatments will be required to safely remove the rubber bands without causing tears or abrasions to the paper, which could occur if the rubber materials were removed simply by pulling them off.
Appropriate archival storage practices are outlined in the Museum Conservation Institute's preservation document, Housing and Environmental Options for Storage of Documents. The National Park Service has also produced helpful publications including Removing Original Fasteners From Archival Documents and Attachments for Multi-Page Historic Documents.
- Conserve O Grams, Museum Management Program, National Park Service
- Housing and Environment Options for Storage of Documents, Museum Conservation Institute
- Welcome to the Gallery of Horrors! (Enter if you dare!), The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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