The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
Back in 2010, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives launched the Field Books Project, a joint initiative focused on enriching access to the institution’s collection of field books, notes, images, and journals related to field research. Since then, field books have become a common theme on this blog, as well as popular projects on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. There was just one slight problem:they weren’t searchable on our website. In fact, not only were they not searchable, they weren’t actually anywhere on our website at all.
That recently changed as work was completed that made over 9,000 field book related records available on our website. Those 9,000 records contain collection descriptions, organizations information, collector information, expedition information, and finally the field books themselves. Each of these records contains detailed metadata, which helps our search functionality (and you!) find these field books, much like the large collection of images found on our website. As cool as searching for them by metadata is, the field books contain a lot of information that just won’t show up on a metadata search. To be able to truly search the field books, they really need to be fully text searchable.
Thanks to the contributions by the digital volunteers at the Transcription Center, we are now working on doing just that. As the field books are largely hand written notes, they need to be transcribed into machine-readable text before we can index their content. Once the volunteers at the Transcription Center complete transcribing a field book, we pull the resulting full text and encode it with the field book item on our site. The text is then crawled by our search appliance and indexed with the full text.
The result is that a search for “bipedally” will return James Peters’ Field notes from his 1949 Mexico trip, as the phrase “I saw a very large lizard which stayed too far ahead of me. To get a shot at it, that got up on its hind legs and ran, bipedally” appears in his entry for March 8, 1949.
The really cool thing about all of this is that you can help us with this project and be a part of making our field books searchable and findable. As I mentioned before, none of this would be possible without the work done by the digital volunteers over at the Transcription Center, and they’re always looking for more volunteers.
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The problem of dealing with mold on papers and books in collections has been an ongoing concern of mine for a number of years. I have responded to biological damage on library and manuscript materials--beginning with a mold damaged photograph that had weathered both Hurricane Katrina and irradiation treatment used for decontamination.
My goal of late has been to develop procedures for mold contaminated collections that keep staff safe, and to develop an isolated collections cleaning space. Hagley Museum and Library, where I am Library Conservator, became a Smithsonian Affiliate a few years ago. When I learned of the Smithsonian Affiliations Visiting Professionals program, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to bolster my mold I.Q. I applied for the program and was thrilled to find a kindred spirit at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Conservator Nora Lockshin who is head of Collections Care agreed to be my mentor for two weeks in Washington D.C. this summer.
I was lucky to have Nora, as she was a welcoming well-connected host. She coordinated visits to several institutions in the D.C. region, including our colleagues at the Library of Congress, Maryland State Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration. During our tours we learned first-hand from conservators who had responded to mold and water emergencies. Hearing of their experiences shone a light on the importance of having plans, and supplies and facilities readied for dealing with water damaged collections because response time is limited. To prevent the germination of mold, drying or freezing procedures should commence within 48 hours of discovering damage.
The Maryland State Archives (MdSA) shared with us their experience dealing with historic paper records that had experienced more than one flood. Besides the obvious mold growth, due to the source of the floodwaters, it was likely that bacterial contaminants were present. Because of the volume of these papers (record cartons numbering in the hundreds), they determined that gamma irradiation was their best option. In my own experience, a gamma irradiated photograph that I had treated years ago was browned and “toasted” along the edges, likely due to overheating during the dose. Others who have seen irradiated mail (from the anthrax scare and subsequent irradiation of U.S. Postal mail in the early 2000s) have documented melted plastics, browned papers, and deteriorated photographs. Those items had dosages that were not directed by conservators, however, and the irradiation of the MdSA’s historic papers seemed to have fared much better. Gamma irradiation is definitely effective for sterilization. The mold swab tests and cultures done by the conservators at MdSA as a monitoring procedure confirmed this. So far, none of the documents that they have attempted to culture contained any viable mold after treatment.
I also learned that alcohol is effective for killing mold. It must be used at the 70 percent concentration with deionized or distilled water. This mixture is able to penetrate the mold cell wall and move into the cell to cause permanent damage to the mold. The 70 percent alcohol mixture may be used for cleaning surfaces after moldy documents are cleaned, or it may be sprayed on objects to dry out active mold.
We met with Sophia Kapranos, our dedicated industrial hygienist within the Smithsonian’s Office of Health, Safety and Environmental Management. She helped sample mold residues on paper items, one with heavy black spots of mold. The method of sampling was the use of a “tape lift”, in reality a thin prepared microscope slide with a section covered by an adhesive layer that was gently placed in contact with an area of mold to pick up spores. The slide was sent for microscopic examination, and we are awaiting results.
While at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I made some great connections that will be useful for future collaborations. On the whole, it was a great experience! Thank you to all at the Smithsonian who made this possible!
The Mold . . ., The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
I've got mold in my files, Collections Care Guidelines & Resources Forums, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
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