The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- Discovered 20 years ago, the Kennewick Man gets a closer look in a new book. [via Smithsonian Science]
- A look at rethinking searching museum collections from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. [via Cooper Hewitt Labs, CHSDM]
- NPR reports on the lifespan of CDs. [via InfoDocket]
- A mysterious trove of the unknown - Unclaimed films at DuArt, a film lab in New York City that started in 1922. [via The New York Times]
- Now available - The newly declassified multi-volume history of the Manhattan Project, The Manhattan District History, at the Department of Energy. [via Transforming Classification blog, NARA]
- A close look at the issues involved in preserving CAD drawings. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Welcome back! American Bison now at the National Zoological Park. Also check out our very own champion of the American Bison, William Temple Hornaday. [via NZP and SIA]
The natural world is riddled with complex mathematics that only adds to nature's allure and depth. Don't fear, no math equations will be used in this post, nor will you be required to prove a theorem after you finished reading. Those attributes can be used to relate the digitization efforts of the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the work transcribers contribute to the Field Book Project. Do I still have you?
Remember what I said about no math being required. The mollusk shell pictured here was drawn by William Healey Dall and is a prime example for this analogy. Each subsequent layer of the shell is dependent on the previous curl’s proportions and formation. Much like the shells collected and cataloged by Dall, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is built on the contributions (or layers) of its digital volunteers. This progressive and symbiotic relationship is best explained by following the progress of the digitization of the William Healey Dall field books.
As part of the Field Book Project, many field books have now been preserved and cataloged. During the course of these activities, if a field book is identified as being a good match for the needs and interests of the digital volunteers of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the materials are then digitized.
In the case of William Healey Dall, there is a plethora of potential candidates for transcription. Most recently his field books from Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection were digitized. This collection spans the course of several years and describes most of the Pacific coastline as well as the specimens Dall collected during his travels. Dall collected mollusk and cephalopod specimens, drew detailed geological accounts of various volcanos and coastlines, as well as documented his daily travels, routines, and remarkable geological and malacological discoveries. The conditions he endured and recorded during his time in Alaska and the Yukon offer a glimpse at the mental fatigue of the Arctic as well as the reverence Dall held for nature.
The fortitude required to keep from becoming fully engrossed with his writing myself is almost comparable to what was required of Dall during his lonely but fulfilling travels. While I didn’t endure weeks in sub zero conditions without respite, digitizing documents does involve long hours scanning hundreds of pages, building spreadsheets, and arduous metadata creation. Yet, in both Dall and my case, our labors were rewarded.
Creating rich metadata for the digitized field book ensures that all documents are properly cataloged and available for users to access as soon as they are made available online. At that point, anyone can see and download the images of the field book. The field books are also simultaneously loaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s database and launched as a transcription project. Digital volunteers can then choose the collection to work on and engage in a collaborative endeavor to decipher the handwritten documents. In some cases, the penmanship is unique but legible. In others, collaboration is involved to figure out the meaning of the scrawled text and how to best catalog the field books in a uniform manner. The conversation to the left illustrates the iterative process of transcribing and building a set of standards for cataloging.
Once a field book is completely transcribed, the second half of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s work begins.
For the second part of this post about the further work of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, check back at the beginning of September. Until then, if this post has sparked your interest in becoming a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian Transcription Center please sign up and start transcribing. If you’d simply like to see the digitized field books, we invite you to browse the collections.
- Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection, 1865-1867, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 95-121 - William Healey Dall Papers, 1871, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Three years ago, on August 22, 2011, Smithsonian staff members in buildings on the National Mall and the Museum Support Center stopped whatever they were doing and headed into doorways as they experienced a rare event in this region – a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Next as we headed down the staircase to evacuate the Capital Gallery building, my colleague, Courtney Bellizzi, and I took comfort in knowing that Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough was an expert in earthquake engineering. While the damage was not devastating, facilities like the Museum Support Center did have significant damage as shelving vibrated away a foot or more from its normal location. Dr. Clough knew just what to do.
Clough is the third Secretary of the Smithsonian with seismological expertise. The first Secretary, Joseph Henry (1795-1878), a physicist, was very interested in documenting reports of earthquakes and developing measurement tools. After an April 1852 earthquake on the East Coast, Henry sent out a “circular,” asking his meteorological observers to describe its effects on their region.
Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927), the fourth Secretary, was a paleontologist who had directed the US Geological Survey and is best known for discovering the bizarre Burgess Shale deposits in Canada. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst in history, destroyed the city and took over 3,000 lives, galvanizing the scientific community into action. Walcott was a central figure in an effort to create a Seismological Institute to compile data and ensure long term documentation of these geological events to understand them better – and this effort was to be part of the Smithsonian.
Members of the US Congress knew the country needed to be better prepared for these events and were concerned that earthquake work was carried on by numerous government programs, with little coordination, creating duplicative work that wasted taxpayers’ resources. Walcott proposed that the Smithsonian serve as the central point for earthquake research – compiling scientific data, specimens, images, news reports, etc., in one place, and making these resources readily available to all government agencies involved in responding to earthquakes. This was similar to the role of the Smithsonian’s US National Museum which held the collections amassed by government scientists, so duplicate collections were not created, and made the collections available to all who needed to study them.
In Record Unit 45 - Records of the Office of the Secretary, are four folders documenting the plans for the Seismological Institute. Walcott had the support of the American Philosophical Society, Geological Society of America, National Academy of Sciences, and distinguished scholars, such as Harry F. Reid at The Johns Hopkins University. In 1907, the secretary of the Seismological Society of America, George D. Louderback, wrote to Walcott that the society had approved a proposal to create a Seismological Institute under Smithsonian aegis – with its headquarters in California. In 1910, the Seismological Society of America passed a resolution supporting the creation of a seismological institute which would:
- collect seismological data;
- establish observing stations;
- study special earthquake regions;
- cooperate with organizations and individuals to develop and disseminate seismological knowledge; and
- be placed under the Smithsonian’s aegis because of its tradition of active cooperation with government science units and other scientific organizations.
Initially Walcott worried about funding for the Institute but David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, A. C. Lawson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and other proponents lobbied the Congress and approached philanthropists for financial support. Walcott coordinated the effort to push for the Institute. Legislation was introduced every year between 1907 and 1913, with some congressional support, but the legislation never made it through to law. The National Weather Service objected, since they wanted to retain their appropriation for collecting seismological data, and the legislation languished in committee through 1913. But then the nation was confronted with an even bigger crisis – one that would take more lives and cause more destruction than the 1906 quake. As World War I broke out in 1914, plans for a new institute were lost amidst the need to prepare for war.
Archives do not just trace past accomplishments, they also show us the roads not taken.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Joseph Henry and the Origins of American Seismology, O say can you see? blog, NMAH
- The San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, in color, O say can you see? blog, NMAH
- Earthquake Shakes DC, Chronology of Smithsonian History
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