The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
Websites are important records of institutional history, but they are also always being updated, redesigned, or taken down. How do we access important information from outdated versions of websites? The Archives is currently using Archive-It, a tool created by the Internet Archive, to capture Smithsonian websites and social media accounts for future use. Archive-It uses a crawler - a program that browses the Internet like Google - to replicate a website at that specific moment. These “crawls” are later accessible using the Wayback tool. While the research potential for these crawls is enormous, two areas stand out in particular; to document the evolution of website features and to capture public participation during a specific event or program through social media.
Crawls show the progress of how technology is used and how websites have evolved over time. Above and below, we have two examples from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). This is the Virtual Echinoderm Newsletter, which was last updated in 2002. Though it may seem simplistic to us today, this is very representative of a typical website from the early 2000s.
Fast-forward to 2014: With the new Human Origins Initiative website. We have a slideshow of features, live updates from Facebook and Twitter, and a text box that allows visitors to participate in the project - all located on the first page. While both of these sites are pretty typical for the respective years they were created in, they also are demonstrative of how much websites have changed in just over a decade.
The Archive-It tool is also being used to capture certain programs and events using social media. A great example of this is the crawl of the National Museum of American History’s #HistoryTalkBack Tumblr page. This site documented an ongoing project at the museum where curators invited visitors to respond to a question every day and to post their answers on a wall at the museum. The Tumblr page broadcasts some of the favorite posts and then invites commenters to respond to the question as well. We were pleased with the amount of public participation captured in our crawl - not only do we have the visitors’ comments, but because the site is Tumblr-based, we also captured the number of likes and re-blogs. Now that this site is defunct, this crawl becomes important for documenting the scope and impact of this project.
I especially like these social media crawls. Social media - instantaneous, constantly updated, and therefore often thought of as transient - is transformed into something more lasting. By looking at crawls from blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr, we can examine the public’s response to a project and the strategies museums use to engage with their audiences. The #HistoryTalkBack crawl shows this. Tumblr users spread these images, sharing the posts to express their own love of history to friends and followers, while the National Museum of American History used this platform to engage both their real-life and virtual visitors. Capturing these moments using social media gives us a greater understanding of how the public participates in museum programs, and also how museums reach out to people.
The Archive-It tool promises incredible potential in the coming years, especially as the Archives continue to grow. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out the Archives’ Archive-It crawls.
- Smithsonian Now Using Archive-It to Crawl Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Connecting the Dots: Issues with Preserving Complex Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Saving the Smithsonian’s Web, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Instituion Archives
- Accession 14-039 - National Museum of American History, Website Records, 2011-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-079 - National Museum of Natural History, Website Records, 2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This summer I had the pleasure to intern with Collections Care in the conservation lab under Nora Lockshin, Paper Conservator. As a painting major in undergraduate school, I had no idea what to expect coming into a paper conservation environment. What I thought was going to be all book and paper turned out to be a much different experience and a little more up my alley. Here I’ll briefly explain how I repaired the leather bindings of some of William H. Dall’s field books using Japanese tissue and acrylic paint.
To start things off, I applied a thin adhesive, or 20% Lascaux 498 HV in isopropanol, to consolidate the deteriorated areas of the leather. This keeps the brittle pieces in place while the repair is being executed. When applying the solution of Lascaux, I made sure to keep the immediate area properly ventilated to prevent inhalation of the solvents.
While the Lascaux is drying, tinted Japanese tissue is cut to the size of the damaged space on the book’s spine. In the case of the Dall books, the damage extended past the spine and a little onto the boards. In order to create continuity in the repair and book, I used black and blue acrylic paint to dye the color of the paper to match the color of the book. You want the color to be almost exactly the same so that there is no distraction from the book itself. After a few trials, and with my experience as a painting major, I was able to get the perfect mixture of dark blue that matched the color of the field book.
For these field books, I applied the tissue that reinforces the hinges in a “baggy back” style over the remaining spine fragment. This means instead of exactly replicating the original tight-back construction, the tissue was attached to the hinges and boardswithout adhering directly to the spine so that the spine may arch and flex, as opposed to being very tightly held together. The adhesive used here is also Lascaux 498HV, however the solution is 100% Lascaux as opposed to the dilute 20% used earlier. After the tissue is applied it is placed under weight and left to dry.
Leather repair is a fun process that is much different from other processes in the paper conservation field. While there are more steps taken to repair the leather, this brief explanation gives you the very basics of what it takes to conserve a deteriorating book like Dall’s field books.
- Priscilla Anderson & Alan Puglia. Solvent-Set Book Repair Tissue, 2003, The Book and Paper Group Annual 22
- Record Unit 7073 - William H. Dall Papers, circa 1839-1858, 1862-1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What do you do when you need information about a business? Check the website? Send an email? Compose a Tweet? There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the answer was to pull out a pen or sit in front of a typewriter and write a letter.
The Smithsonian Institution once had a very large snail mail operation (previously referred to simply as "mail"). All mail that was not specifically addressed to a specific individual was delivered to the Public Inquiry Mail Service (PIMS), a division of the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center. In approximately 1982, PIMS produced a brochure for staff advertising the services they provided. It notes that they received over 28,000 pieces of mail during the previous year. That's over 75 letters a day (not taking into account Sundays or holidays) that either needed to be rerouted or contained routine questions that needed to be answered.
As a fun side note, one of the services advertised in this brochure was the writing and editing of preprinted materials using a word processor, "a marvelous tool for keeping information up to date." Staff from across the Smithsonian could send draft texts for bibliographies, fact sheets, and other preprinted reference materials to PIMS. The PIMS staff would "put the text into the machine's memory," edit it according The Chicago Manual of Style, and return it for final approval. If there were additions or corrections to be made, "the changes can be printed out within moments."
Almost two decades later, email had become a common form of communication. An article in the Winter 1999 issue of "The Info Special: A Newsletter of the Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center," an article noted that email traffic from the public had increased 89% from the previous year. In August 1999 alone, PIMS received 1,375 inbound emails.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to receive emails and even letters from the public, but also conveys information to the public via its websites and social media accounts.
- Contact Us, Smithsonian Institution
- Where is the Smithsonian?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-034 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Typewriters at the Smithsonian
In just over a year, the Smithsonian Transcription Center has grown in size, scope, and participation. Every day, members of the volunteer community visit the Transcription Center to split projects into tasks and share their discoveries with us.
We have 956 active contributors on the site and we’ve completed over 13,412 pages, from 18,494 available pages. Over 450 volunteers have worked on the 46 different Archives projects; there are over 75 other projects in the Transcription Center. Volunteers made connections between Smithsonian collections, to other cultural heritage institutions, and opened doors to discovery while transcribing. Through daily work and targeted campaigns, our volunteers have moved from individuals to a community of “volunpeers” – taking pride in the ways they’re learning with us in this pan-Smithsonian project.
As we opened to the public last summer, we knew volunpeers would have to “work together,” yet we didn’t know what that would look like. What we've discovered are the ways that they use the features of the site and other tools to interact - indirectly and directly.
So, how do volunteers get integrated into the community? Typically by transcribing! From the homepage, there are 3 ways to jump into projects: from the main carousel "Featured Projects," from the dropdown "Projects menu," and in the "Latest Updates" section. Some volunpeers tell us that they check the "Latest Updates" section to see what others are working on - then they'll join a project that looks like it needs help (or looks interesting). Volunpeers also explain how they return to projects using the browse by Museums & Archives feature to check on their progress.
Many volunteers use the Notes feature we implemented on all projects in the Transcription Center this spring. This box under the transcription field allows them to communicate with the Smithsonian staff sharing the project and also share or discuss information with other volunpeers. For example, in the recently posted Lepidoptera notes project:
Here’s some insight into collaboration on a project: There are 34 completed Archives projects in the Transcription Center, with an average size of 83 pages and 25 contributing volunpeers each. When you enter a project page, you can see the status of each page and, by hovering over the thumbnails, how many people have worked on each page.
Let’s look at a completed project: Botanist Ellsworth Paine Killip’s field notes from Colombia (1944). This Archives (and Field Book Project) project is 59 pages and was completely transcribed and reviewed by 12 volunpeers. We can see collaboration on a microscale by looking at the number of members and contributions it took to finish a page. For Killip’s field notes, that was an average of 4 volunpeers and 12 contributions per page. That suggests that peer review is a process that can inform reliable results in the Transcription Center.
The excitement of releasing a new project continues as volunpeers start reporting discoveries via tweets, Facebook wall posts, and feedback e-mails. Using Twitter and Facebook, volunpeers will ask other #volunpeers for help and share what they’ve discovered. They also invite other interested parties to join the transcribing adventure.
We find that allowing people to communicate using tools they already use facilitates better collaboration. We are able to respond to questions and discoveries via social media; or highlight complicated pages, or share praise for completed projects, allowing us to communicate more widely with our community. If you transcribe with us, we'd love to know whether you find this helpful and how we can do it better (get in touch!).
The adventure continues! As new projects are added almost every week, you can join other volunpeers while you choose-your-own-adventure. Tell us more about your experiences with transcribing – follow and tweet @SmithsonianArch and @TranscribeSI on Twitter or drop us a note.
In the summer of 2013, my family and I took a vacation that was decades in the making. I actually consider it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. More than 20 years ago my father and I talked about going on a Route 66 road trip, but it did not happen as life got busier with careers, moves, children, and other daily routines. We decided that it was finally time to do it – even if it meant only part of the 2,400-plus-mile road would be traveled due to time, expenses, and other constraints. The Mother Road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (or Santa Monica Pier, depending on whom you ask).
My husband and I previously had traveled the iconic road from Chicago to St. Louis in two trips. Of course, this was before the explosion of the Internet, GPS devices, digital cameras, and apps that can make traveling easier. The road was decommissioned in 1985 and had been on the decline for decades as interstates made travel faster.
The 10-day journey comprised three generations in a borrowed family vehicle. The starting point was San Bernardino, California, taking a pass on Los Angeles this time. We went about 800 miles into Arizona and New Mexico on the route most the time (a decommissioned road means some rough spots and mysterious or missing segments). There were side trips to the Grand Canyon and El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. We were treated to beautiful landscapes, wild burros in Oatman, Arizona, iconic Route 66 signage, and lots of old roadside lodging and diner options you won’t find near the interstates. My boys even got to enjoy a movie at drive-in theater for the first time.
Not only are vacations about places but people as well. My father and I had a nice conversation with Mauricio Perez of Seligman, Arizona. The family runs a popular gift shop, and his father-in-law is Angel Delgadillo, 87, who is considered one of Route 66’s biggest supporters through his efforts to revitalize the highway after its decommissioning. We even talked about how the Delgadillo family is featured in the America on the Move exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Perez said they needed to take a trip east to Washington, D.C., to see it.
The allure of Route 66 has grown in the decades since its closing and attracts visitors from all over the world. Delgadillo, who is a barber, was giving a haircut to a filmmaker from Spain working on a Route 66 special while we were there.
Of course, we tried to document as much as we could through our cameras, resulting in lots of digital photos (there were more cameras than travelers). I did upload the images to my computer as soon as I got home and also printed the ones that I considered special for display. But a year later I still need to finish the job of deleting some of the images that I don’t need to keep and were missed during a first review (blurry ones, duplicates taken from inside the car by the youngest passengers, etc.), as well as making sure metadata is there.
There also are steps you can take before and during the trip to get the most out of the memories you are making:
- Get to know your camera/s before the trip especially if it is new. Most digital cameras have multiple options these days that you might want to use, such as a timestamp on the image. Some cameras and smartphone cameras also have GPS capability, which will note in the metadata of where the image was taken as a geotag. Take the instruction manual along if you have space for it.
- Delete blurry photos when you have down time (waiting for lunch, waiting at the airport, waiting to go on an amusement park ride, etc). Digital cameras allow us to take more pictures than with film, which can be a mixed blessing.
- Try out apps that can track your trip to create a map of the route that can be saved, if you have a tablet or smart phone.
- Write or type up observations while they are fresh in a travel journal/blog.
- Collect impressions of others who travel with you either by video or audio recording or writing them down.
- Consider purchasing some old-fashioned postcards to round out the images especially if you forgot to take some at a particular spot.
Now we just need to complete a St. Louis, Missouri, to Gallup, New Mexico, leg.
- Route 66: The Road and The Romance, online exhibition, The Autry
- The Mystique of Route 66, by David Lamb, Smithsonian Magazine
- Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott at the Grand Canyon, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , neg. no. 83-14116, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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