The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
In the fall of 2015, we officially moved over 3 million photographic negatives from the cold storage vault in the basement of the National Museum of American History to our new space at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Thanks to that move, there are new possibilities for projects that will bring great discoveries for the Archives. The first project we started was scanning glass plate negatives from the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts. The collection of glass plates range in date from 1860 to roughly 1920. Sadly, this collection came to SIA with little to no information, so each glass plate is a mystery to be solved.
The question becomes, how do we determine what each image is? The majority falls on institutional knowledge. It seems as though the longer someone has worked at the Smithsonian, the more images they’re able to recognize. One example I’ve discovered is when trying to determine if an image is from the Castle or the Arts and Industries Building. Images from within the building at first glance appear to be the same. However, I started to look at the light fixtures or the windows, and slowly I started to recognize the differences between the two. Knowing the history of the Smithsonian can do wonders when identifying unknown images!
Possessing a strong background in history can also help one identify unknown images. The Smithsonian has pictures of important landmarks, persons, objects, expeditions; the list goes on and on. Some of us are able to recognize people or places because we might be familiar with that subject matter. Each individual becomes invaluable for his or her own specialty.
When all else fails, we have the benefit of reaching out to our Smithsonian Institution colleagues. Curators who specialize in certain subject areas such as textiles, aircrafts or ship models can help. Sometimes, we even reach out to the public to help identify unknown images. Especially for images of buildings or geographic areas that are unknown to us, the general public may be able to help identify them.
With nearly 20,000 glass plates to scan from this collection, we have many more mysteries to solve. Ultimately, we hope to identify each image, but we have to have a realistic expectation and understand that we might not be able to accomplish that. In the end, we want to use all the resources we have available to make this wonderful collection more accessible. This project is a fantastic way to gain more knowledge of what was occurring at the Smithsonian over 150 years ago.
What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr Commons, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Riding in on the coattails of Preservation Week, MayDay is an annual tradition where libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and preservation organizations set aside May 1 to participate in preparation activities for potential collections emergencies and disasters. First established by the Society of American Archivists and Heritage Preservation, and now taken on by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, MayDay can be observed in several ways:
- Revisit your emergency preparedness plan. If you already have one in place, take time to reexamine elements that may have changed in the last year – contact information, emergency team roles, salvage priorities, etc. If you don’t have a plan quite yet, sit down and make a realistic timeline for its development.
- Participate in workshops and lectures covering emergency response and recovery. Having a written response plan is important, but understanding the hands-on salvage and recovery process can be invaluable if/when you find yourself in the situation. Sign up for local workshops to hone your skills, or, if you have the expertise, run your own workshop for local organizations!
- Inventory and replenish your emergency supplies. You may have used up some of your supplies over the last year for small emergencies or other collection activities. Take the time to inventory and replenish any supplies that may be missing from your kits.
- Don’t forget about the safety of your staff and volunteers! The safety of people always comes first. Lead a building evacuation and identify areas for improvement. Conduct a walkthrough of collection and office spaces and remove any potential hazards, such as boxes blocking a hallway, improper storage of chemicals (including cleaning supplies), and office ergonomics. Make sure that emergency exits, shelter-in-place locations, and evacuation routes are all clearly labeled.
The idea of creating an emergency preparedness and response plan, or simply revisiting an existing one, may be a bit daunting and tough to know where to start. Luckily, there are lots of resources out there that can help you in the initial planning phase. Here are a few key elements that I think are vital to include in, and tailor to, your unique plan.
- Clearly-defined staff roles – Each organization is unique not only in terms of their collections, but also in staff size and expertise. Identify who will be responsible for what during an emergency, and write it down in position descriptions. Here at SIA, the four roles we’ve identified for our emergency response team are: Emergency Coordinator, Assistant Emergency Coordinator, Emergency Recovery Coordinator, and Emergency Registrar.
- Salvage priorities – Get to know your collection well. Meet with other staff members and identify the highest priority collection materials based on factors such as: intellectual value, instability of materials, overall preservation concerns, use by researchers and scholars, and appraised value. Include dimensions and locations in your list to aid in the recovery process.
- Local emergency suppliers and contacts – When disaster strikes, you will need to know what companies are in your local geographic region that have the expertise to aid emergency activities such as moving collections, freezing and freeze-drying, mold remediation, digital data recovery, and dehumidification. Create and maintain a list of these vendors so that if you find yourself in the midst of a disaster, you know who to contact for help.
No matter how you choose to celebrate MayDay, just make sure you do ONE thing. Dust off those plans and make sure you’re ready! Additionally, if you report your fun and innovative emergency preparation activities to Gaylord Archival, you’ll be entered for a chance to win emergency supplies, including spill pillows, weatherproof paper, and a water detector.
Additional Resources for your consideration:
- The Getty Conservation Institute’s Building An Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions
- The American Alliance of Museum’s Alliance Reference Guide to Developing a Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan
- The International Council of Museums’ Guidelines for Disaster Preparedness in Museums
- The National Park Service’s Museum Handbook, Part 1, Chapter 10: Emergency Planning
Talking and Doing About Emergency Preparation, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
May Day Motto: Be Prepared, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What to Do When More Than a Few Papers Get Wet, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The fourteen volunteers we have here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives are a vital part of the work we do every day. Our volunteers bring expertise and enthusiasm for the work of the Smithsonian Institution and the Archives, whether it is digital archiving, image research and digitization, or working with our oral history collection. From the volunteer weather observers that worked with our first Secretary Joseph Henry to the thousands of global volunteers who transcribe Smithsonian materials, the Smithsonian’s amazing accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without the help of our more than 12,000 in-person and digital volunteers.
In recognition of all the incredible work done by our volunteers, I’d like to introduce you to Kathy Boi, a volunteer with our Oral History Project. A retired Smithsonian employee, she brings her expertise from her years of work in the Secretary’s Office to making oral history interviews available to the public. As she works with the oral history interviews featuring the Smithsonian Secretaries, she tracks down place names, scientific terms, and projects mentioned in the interviews so that they have clear and accurate information.
What did you do at the Smithsonian before you began volunteering?
I had been a federal employee for several years, working at the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Forest Service, so when my husband and I returned to the Washington, D.C. area, I wanted to continue in federal service. I was thrilled to join the staff in the Office of the Secretary at the Smithsonian in 1982 as a clerk stenographer, transcribing Secretary S. Dillon Ripley’s dictation. Over the next 28 years, I advanced within the office and worked for five Secretaries (S. Dillon Ripley, Robert McCormick Adams, I. Michael Heyman, Lawrence M. Small, and G. Wayne Clough) and one Acting Secretary (Cristián Samper). I retired in 2010 as the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary.
How did you start volunteering?
When my husband, Keith, and I retired, we first took a series of classes in bookbinding and restoration; he continued in an apprenticeship, and I moved on to learn handweaving, which I still love doing. Volunteering at the Smithsonian was high on my list. The variety and number of volunteer opportunities at the Smithsonian is amazing – and mind-boggling. I was approached by a number of Smithsonian colleagues who had projects in mind. Over the years, I had worked with Pam Henson, Director of Institutional History in the Smithsonian Archives, and her suggestion that I work on the Oral History Project in the Archives sounded perfect for me.
What has been your favorite project to work on so far?
My favorite interview is the one with Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, which I am currently finishing. I really enjoyed the ten years that I worked for him, and it was a pleasure hearing his voice recount his years as Secretary. Even more fun was listening to a younger Bob Adams in an earlier interview describe his exploits and adventures over his eventful career as an anthropologist.
What is the coolest thing you have found or learned about in the Archives?
How has your impression of the Smithsonian Institution Archives changed since being here? What’s surprised you the most?
During my career at the Smithsonian, I worked with the Archives staff regularly – archiving the Secretary’s records and doing research. I was shocked to learn how little I really knew about the extent of what is done in the Archives – conservation, preservation, digitization, conducting research, mentoring researchers, the use of technology such as social media to engage the public. The Archives staff is a dedicated and creative group, and I enjoy my association with them immensely.
Want to join in the fun at the Archives? Learn more about how to intern or volunteer! You can also help transcribe materials from collections across the Smithsonian (including the Archvies!) online, at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Thank you, Volunteers!, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithsonian Volunteers, 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A number of years ago, I was asked to pick up research materials created by a deceased scientist that she had maintained in her home office. When I arrived, her family was holding an estate sale. When I asked about the “records,” a man nearby overheard and immediately offered double whatever price I was paying for them. He clearly assumed that I was referring to record albums. I explained that I was there for her institutional records – her files – that belonged to her office, and he didn’t seem to quite understand. I had to assure him that there were no record albums in the boxes.
My team uses the word “records” a lot. We define records, we appraise records, we provide records management guidance, we manage a records center, we accession records into the archival collections, and we describe and preserve those records. We also understand that “records” is a term that many people don’t fully understand.
As many organizations around the country celebrate Records and Information Management Month, this is a good time to answer the question, “What is a record?”
The Smithsonian Institution Archives defines a record as any official, recorded information, regardless of medium or characteristics, which is created, received, and maintained by a Smithsonian museum, office, or employee. This definition encompasses almost any piece of paper, electronic file, email message, photograph, architectural drawing, audiovisual recording, or website that passes through the hands of a Smithsonian employee while conducting business. We often use the term “files” as synonymous with “records” since it tends to be a more familiar term. However, files include some materials (such as documents collected simply for reference purposes) which are not considered to be records, and does not necessarily include materials such as film, videotapes, or audio recordings.
Our definition of a record has been in use for decades and is rather broad. Recently, many definitions of a record have become narrower and refer to the need to preserve information. An example is A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses and published by the Society of American Archivists in 2005 which defines a record as “data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference.”
Definitions that include a preservation clause have opened the way for a new category – the nonrecord. Non-records are data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of activity but does not warrant preservation. Institutions define non-records differently, but they often consist of copies, drafts, information entered into a database, or logistical materials.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives does not use the term “nonrecord.” Materials are either personal (not created within the course of business) or institutional records. We do, however, recognize that not all records are valuable for the same length of time. Some records will hold their historical, legal, or evidentiary value forever, and will become part of the archival collections. Other records will be valuable for a certain number of years after which they will be eligible for destruction. Still others will only be of immediate value and no longer necessary to keep after a very short period.
There are many variations in the definition of “records,” but the term typically refers to something different for an information professional than for a collector of vintage audio recordings. That doesn’t mean that a record album couldn’t be a record, though.
Records Management, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore), The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, over 30 volunteers showed up at the National Museum of the American Indian to write minority women into digital history during a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in honor of Women's History Month. On the to-do list were artists, educators, activists, Smithsonian employees, the first Chinese-American female dentist, and the African-American woman who founded the Black Fashion Museum.
To kick off the day, while enjoying pastries from local baker, Frenchies, participants learned about African-American archival and library collections at the Smithsonian and the U.S. National Archives. Following that, a fellow volunteer showed new Wikipedians how to edit and create articles. After an amazing banh mi lunch from a local Asian restaurant, Maketto, participants worked together to write and edit articles. Our food and coffee were generously funded by Wikimedia DC and it was wonderful to have so many long-term Wikipedians to help the new folks out.
Six new articles were created:
- Claudine Brown, Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, who passed away just days before the event.
- Faith Sai So Leong, the first Chinese-American female Dentist
- Edith T. Martin, Artist and museum curator
- Vaino Spencer, the first African-American woman to be appointed judge in California
- Toyo Suyemoto, Japanese American poet
- Grace Lincoln Temple, an interior designer who worked on the Smithsonian's children's room and many other federal buildings including the White House (she is not a minority, but a staff member had been researching her.)
In addition to that, thirteen articles were improved. It was wonderful to see our archivists and librarians helping participants find resources for their articles, and there was a happy buzz in the air.
My favorite comments on Twitter about the day are below. It is indeed empowering to write deserving people into history. There is a lot of work to do in that aspect, so join us as there are a lot of great resources to help you get started!
— *like the bird* (@Ravon_Ashley) March 19, 2016
All the pictures of the day can be found here.
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