The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Imagine: It's 1809 and you are tasked with traveling by carriage across unpaved city streets to deliver correspondence to society’s elites. Are you a courier? Or a page? Perhaps, but you might also be the First Lady! Social historian Barbara Carson explains the varied social duties that 19th - century First Ladies were expected to fulfill in an interview conducted by Smithsonian Productions and now found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives' Accession 03-059 - Smithsonian Productions, Productions, 1987-2001.
In the era before telephones, people delivered calling cards to initiate contact with new acquaintances or to express an intention to meet with someone in the future. Calling cards were especially prevalent at the United States Capitol, where the turnover of congressmen, foreign ministers, and other government officials required a constant stream of new introductions. As the official hostess of the White House, the First Lady had a social obligation to pay calls to new wives, resulting in long and tiresome carriage rides around Washington to deliver calling cards fifteen to thirty times a day.
Dolley Madison, known as one of the White House’s most charming official hostesses, dutifully met this obligation. Her successor, however, broke with calling card tradition by refusing to deliver calling cards. At the time of Elizabeth Monroe’s entry to the White House in 1817, Washington society was rapidly expanding and the ritual of making first calls had become unreasonably demanding. President James Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, addressed the necessary change in social protocol by issuing a statement to explain that the First Lady would no longer make first calls. Though Elizabeth Monroe was relieved of this one social burden, she continued to work diligently as a hostess and is credited with bringing European influence to White House state dinners.
Listen to the clip below to hear Barbara Carson’s discussion of calling cards.
The social obligations of the First Lady have continued to evolve throughout each presidency. Modern First Ladies are expected to wear many hats during their residence in the White House: official hostess, fashion icon, policy advocate, and campaigner are just a few. As a figurehead of the president’s administration, the First Lady is an ongoing object of public fascination.
To learn more see the National Museum of American History's First Ladies exhibition.
As an intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have contributed to the preservation of this collection by converting the Barbara Carson interview and other audio files from digital audio tapes (DATs) to Broadcast WAV files. DATs resemble the once-popular analog cassette tapes except that they are smaller, measuring roughly 2x3 inches, and are able to record digital audio. Since the advent of compact discs (CDs) and other newer audio formats, DATs have become obsolete.
In the DAT transfer process, short periods of missing audio, known as "drop-outs," are a common problem. A drop-out, like the one that occurs in the above clip at 1:57, is generally caused when existing damage on a DAT prevents the proper transfer of audio. Without the current interventions being taken by the Archives, these tapes would linger in archival boxes and, eventually, the recordings would become inaccessible due to either the deterioration of their magnetic tape or the disappearance of DAT reading equipment.
- Swingin’ and Swayin’ in the Archives, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The First Ladies at the Smithsonian, online exhibition, National Museum of American History
- Accession 03-059 - Smithsonian Productions, Productions, 1987-2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- For your use: a new guide to archiving digital video. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- An interesting intersection between artists, museums, and digital records: The XFR STN at the New Museum will be used to preserve audiovisual materials from the New Museum’s archive as well as be open for use by any artist to preserve their moving image or born-digital materials whose formats have become obsolete. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- Just a little stale: Folks at the National Museum of American History open up a can of fortune cookies from the 1930s for the first time. [via O Say Can You See?, NMAH]
- The Smithsonian's Transcription Center is continuing to evolve and engage with users in order to make collections more accessible. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog, SI]
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently acquired 100 photographs by legendary photographer Irving Penn. [via The Torch, SI]
- Free for use: The Getty has just made available 4,600 high-resolution images of the Museum's collection free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose. [via InfoDocket]
- Out of this world: NASA's efforts to digitize lunar film are hightlighted in this video. [via PetaPixel]
The Smithsonian Channel collection of videos that the Smithsonian Institution Archives is preserving is so varied and, at times, so out of the ordinary, that many times per week I’m asked, "What are you watching?" Topics include: the use of insects in forensic science; (too many) airplane crashes that shaped modern-day aviation safety; the real story behind Hollywood blockbuster films, such as The Silence of the Lambs; and, of course, TITANOBOA!, the approximately 2,500-pound Paleocene-era snake discovered in Columbia. . The Smithsonian Channel’s productions draw from the Smithsonian's museums, collections, and professional expertise to explore the history of our planet, life and culture.
A major part of my internship at the Archives involved the preservation of Smithsonian Channel digital content. Though we've received video material from other Smithsonian entities, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, digital material submitted in obsolete formats will prove a trickier challenge. Starting with the still-playable Smithsonian Channel DVDs is a good test case to develop this new workflow.
It’s been a unique opportunity to participate in the praxis, or ideas becoming practice, necessary to preserving and making accessible the wealth of digital materials people are generating. With the proliferation of smartphones and the means to share video through such venues as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Instagram, or Snapchat, there has been an explosion in the amount of content to watch, but also an increase in the number of video formats that archives need to manage and preserve. Not an easy task for sure, but the Archives has been tackling the problems associated with digital video for quite some time now.
At the start of the summer, I had one personal archival project on my to-do list: organize and sort the many Spotify playlists I amassed but didn't alphabetize when I was busy with coursework. However, if we add VHS and digital recording to the mix, I'll return home with a new digital archives preservation agenda. Personal archiving methods are a super-hot topic right now, so the most important thing that I’ve learned about preserving video from my time here at the Archives is the importance of collaboration in the form of open-source software development. Cultural heritage organizations, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and academic institutions are developing programs collaboratively, as well as relying on users for feedback and/or improvements to the software. For example, a consortium of Illinois universities developed a project, "Preserving (Digital) Objects with Restricted Resources," to suggest sustainable digital preservation solutions. The outcome was a directory of preservation tools—a mix of open source and commercial—recommended by the preservation community.
It's been great to see how the digital preservation community rises to the challenge of creating software programs that pay attention to preservation needs. Have you ever tried to simply copy an audio or video file from one location to another, but found that the video won't play? Preserving all the files that accompany a video are key to making sure the video plays properly. The Library of Congress' creation of the BagIt specification helps solve this problem by creating a "bag" that captures and contains all the related elements of a transferred video file. Being able to "bag" a set of files ensures full file transfer and future playability with the right tools.
What we've found with developing a workflow for the Smithsonian Channel programs is that no one tool covers all of the necessary steps for preserving video. Some of the steps include ingesting or transferring of the video for preservation work, running a checksum, bulk renaming the files to follow standards, and embedding metadata.
In assessing your video preservation needs, have a look around at some of the digital preservation tools available, bearing in mind that some are recommended for institutional use. Jumping in and spending hundreds of dollars for fancy software that doesn't always do what it says on the package isn't something that institutions can afford to do and, likely, neither can you.
I'm returning to my archives program with a new sense of the cooperation and flexibility required to create from scratch a process for keeping up with our evolving digital preservation needs. And, thanks to the Smithsonian Channel's vivid creations, I now have a reservoir of weird and wonderful information for a winning bar trivia strategy.
- Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Continuing the Conversation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Channel on YouTube
- Accession 12-610, Smithsonian Channel, Productions, 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives