The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I wrote a post when I first started working here a few years ago about what a photograph archivist does and very briefly referenced the photographic collections I manage and attempt wholeheartedly to control. While I do share images from these collections here weekly, I have never actually talked about the collections themselves, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly discuss the history of the Smithsonian Photographic Services cold storage vault before following up with a series of blog posts that examine each of these collections in greater depth, and illuminates the abounding wealth of Smithsonian history we have to share.
In the mid 1970s, Jim Wallace, director of Smithsonian Photographic Services, articulated the need to build a facility to meet archival standards for storage of photographic materials capable of accommodating the rapidly growing photographic collections across the Smithsonian. A cold storage room was built in the basement of the National Museum of American History which served as a centralized location to store an estimated 3 million photographic negatives in a climate and humidity controlled environment. In addition to housing formal collections accessioned by various Smithsonian units, the vault was meant to also house all of the negatives ever created by Smithsonian photographers, dating back to our first, Thomas Smillie, in 1869.
In 2008, Smithsonian Photographic Services, along with its cold storage vault became a part of Smithsonian Institution Archives. As managers of its content, the Archives continues to store numerous collections for other archival units and has cultivated unique partnerships with the colleagues we serve to best meet their individual needs in terms of access and digitization. We have also accessioned all of the collections that were created by Smithsonian photographers and are working to establish intellectual control over these remarkable bodies of work.
The collections within the cold storage vault contain a comprehensive visual history of the Smithsonian that documents artifacts, events, exhibits, anthropological studies, and scientific research. These images capture a microcosm of all the amazing work that has occurred at the Smithsonian practically since we opened our doors. In future posts, I’ll go into more detail about each of these collections to properly champion the hidden wonders of these vast and amazing resources.
- What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress
- Accession 11-006 - United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts, Photograph Collection, 1860-1960, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-007 - United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts, Photograph Collection, 1860-1960, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-008 - Office of Public Affairs, Photographic Collection, 1960-1970, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-009 - Smithsonian Photographic Services, Photographic Collection, 1971-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In September 2012, the Smithsonian Institution Archives began using Archive-It, a service of the Internet Archive, to crawl its almost 250 websites. Archive-It is "a web archiving service to harvest and preserve digital collections" that is used by more than 200 organizations.
This is exciting news for us as archivists. While Archive-It uses the same software for crawling and viewing websites as we had been using for the past three years, we have been plagued with hardware issues and have not been able to keep our software up-to-date. We now have access to software updates as soon as they are available. The processes of setting up a crawl and reviewing it afterwards are also more user-friendly with Archive-It. In addition, we now have the benefit of support from both the Archive-It staff and the larger Archive-It user community for those times when we just cannot figure out why a crawl is not working.
The switch to Archive-It should be exciting for non-archivists too. Our website crawls using Archive-It should be of the same or higher quality as the websites we have been crawling on our own. That means they have the potential to be more complete and with fewer errors. Most crawled websites will be available within 24 hours from the Archive-It website for both researchers and the general public alike. They can be viewed at any time from any computer without contacting the Archives or requiring any login.
To view these websites, go directly to the Smithsonian Institution's page at Archive-It or type "Smithsonian Institution" into the Explore Collecting Organizations search box on the Archive-It homepage. There are two collections listed. "Smithsonian Institution Special" includes portions of Smithsonian websites that are crawled at a specific time to capture content related to a special event such as the Presidential Inauguration. "Smithsonian Websites" includes regularly scheduled crawls of most or all of a website.
Once a website is chosen, a timeline will open, allowing a user to see the dates on which the website was crawled and to choose which date to view. Because we have only recently begun using Archive-It, there will generally only be one date available. The website will then load with a banner proclaiming the exact date and time the page was captured. Users can then click through the links as if using a live website. If a link was not included as part of the crawl, Archive-It will attempt to find a version of the page elsewhere within the Smithsonian’s collections or within the Internet Archive and will display the nearest date. A link to the same page on the live web is also provided.
As of this writing, the Smithsonian Institution has 41 crawled websites on Archive-It. Internet Archive also crawls Smithsonian websites from time to time and makes those crawls available via its Wayback Machine which is a separate search engine from Archive-It. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution Archives has more than 260 captured websites and blogs, many illustrating the same sites over time, that are not available in Archive-It (see a partial list of finding aids for these collections). We are currently working towards making both the Archive-It and pre-Archive-It web captures available via our finding aids.
- Connecting the Dots: Issues with Preserving Complex Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- For your architecturally minded child, Argentinian architect Andrea Stinga and creative director Federico Gonzalez, put together this video of significant architects from A to Z. [via Core77]
- 19 degrees of separation. New research suggests that any website is connected to another by no more than 19 links. [via InfoDocket]
- It may not come to mind at first, but the food you eat often times has a politcal narrative associated with it. The exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table,1950-2000, at the National Museum of American History explores some the cultural and political aspects that are part of our consumption of food. [via O say can you see?, NMAH]
- Amatuer street photographer Vivian Maier, who was unknown until real estate agent, John Maloof, purchased a box of hers that contained 30,000 prints and negatives, is now the subject of an upcoming documentary. [via PetaPixel]
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