The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
“We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.” – Max DePree
Many organizations are affiliated with the Smithsonian. The Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) in Oklahoma City has a mission to "collect, preserve, and share the history and the culture of the state of Oklahoma and its people." As the digital archivist of this Smithsonian Affiliates organization, I was able to participate in a two-week Visiting Professional Program at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). During the information-packed two weeks, I gained a plethora of experience and knowledge about innovative digital processes that are valuable to the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division's present and future collections.
Currently, the OHS houses more than 3 million digital pages of newspaper with 1 million digital pages online free to the public. The photographic archives contain more than 10 million images. More than 150,000 are digital files. In addition to print media, the OHS houses audio and visual materials that contain sound recordings on a variety of formats. The digitization of these in-house collections has become more prevalent and the imminent step, today, is to continue this mission by creating effective digital content management practices. My residency with the Digital Services Division was an initial step toward this goal as OHS' digital archivist.
Riccardo Ferrante, Director of Digital Services & IT Archivist, supervised a well-orchestrated schedule of events, workshops, lectures and internal collaborations, to direct my residency toward fulfilling the goals to improve the digital content management practices of the OHS. During my residency I learned about the Digital Services Division's mission and their current and future projects. Time was spent exploring conservation processes, and multiple practices and methodologies.
Of particular interest to me, I learned about the Collaborative Survey of Born Digital Collection Holdings. "Born Digital," describes all items that were created in electronic or digital form. A two-phased survey, this project focuses on born-digital holdings across the Smithsonian's archival units, by addressing the challenges faced by the inflow of digital materials. Participants include the Archives of American Art, the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives at the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum Archives, the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The survey goal is to conduct a multi-archive inventory of born digital holdings and identify the level of risk these historic digital files face in terms of current and future accessibility, and current and future requisites of care. Based on the survey findings, the best practices of the Archives' Electronic Records Program can be refined and implemented at the other archival units.
The survey directly relates to OHS goals by identifying endangered or obsolescent materials and preventing future deterioration through specific measures, which has been developed through collaborative efforts among the Smithsonian units. These efforts combine multiple-processes concerning reformatting and migration of data, database creation, and the importance of well-developed workflow management. The Archives provided plan initiatives and its changes to initial methods as a learning model to serve as a guide for implementation within OHS' current processes and, specifically, how the survey model can be applied to various digital projects. As technology changes and adapts to newer ideas, establishing a firm platform to build upon can be the most imperative step through the starting line into the progress.
With well-orchestrated scheduling, the Archives guided my experience in a practical and valuable manner. By learning about the processes, templates, workflows, and techniques used at the Archives, it is without doubt that the OHS will be better positioned to fulfill its mission.
Will our photos help researchers authenticate the Kensington Runestone, or prove once and for all that it is a fake? The investigation is ongoing.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- History of the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists
- History of the Waterbird Society
- Plant Geography
- History of botany
- George Washington University's Methods in Museum Anthropology class made its annual visit to use the microfilm of the Smithsonian's accession files
- Postmodern historicism on exhibit
- Early 20th century museum pedagogy
- Smithsonian educational initiatives
- The Kensington runestone
In addition, the movie, The Galapagos Affair, brought renewed interest in our records of 1930s Galapagos colonists and explorations.
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
The Department of State used numerous Smithsonian Institution Archives images in their American Spaces Program, including the Richard M. Nixon Inaugural Ball, January 20, 1969 at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History)
- Mary Bird, “Experience Civil War Photography”, Government Executive magazine
- Julian Zelizer, A Great Society: the Fight for Liberalsim 1963-1968
- Robert Kett, Ornithologists in Olman: Ecological Knowledge and the Field Museum
Most Unusual reference Inquiry:
Question: We recently came across an article published in the Evening Star January 19, 1863. A similar article appeared in the paper the day before. We were curious if there were any records about this in the Archives, and if any more information was available about this case. The article reads:
It should be known that Mrs. Wren, by hand magnetism, has caused eight living reptiles to be expelled from a boy named Williams, living on 23rd street, between G and H, where the boy may be seen. He had been treated by the faculty without success for four months previous. At the request of Prof. Henry the reptiles have been presented to the Smithsonian Institute by Mrs. Wren. Her residence is No. 445 K street, between 6th and 7th streets.
Answer: A search of 1863 Smithsonian records didn’t turn up any reference to Mrs. Wren’s eight expelled reptiles. I fear that she was indulging a practice similar to the the sleight of hand tricks common to Brazilian psychic surgeons and other disreputable fortune tellers. . For what it’s worth, 19th century flim-flam artists loved to give their “discoveries” credence by stating that someone from the Smithsonian had shown interest.
- American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Waterbird Society records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Every summer, and sometimes fall, the Archives welcomes interns who are interested in getting some hands-on experience in an archival environment. The Digital Services Division wanted to catch up with some of its former interns to see what they are up to now.
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2009
- Project/Focus: Digital Preservation (migration of digital files, inventory of assets, digitization of analog materials and metadata entry, and development of digitization methodology)
- Favorite Memory: It was really exciting and enriching to get to use what I learned in the classroom in a real archival institution. I especially enjoyed getting to work with historic primary sources.
- What are You Doing Now?: I am the Digital Assets Manager for the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon, since 2010. I create, migrate, preserve, and catalog digital assets and am part of a team working hard to increase access to art digitally.
- Blog Post: To Market, To Market, The Bigger Picture blog
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2010 while I was getting my masters from the University of Michigan, School of Information.
- Project/Focus: Conversion of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recordings of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra from the 1990s. The recordings had to be converted in real time, which meant I got to enjoy jazz concerts nearly eight hours a day. However, if something went wrong, I had to start the conversion of that tape all over, which meant I had to be careful to avoid software/hardware disruptions and crashes - more delicate work than it seems! In addition to the conversions, I also prepared a report on the format and the best practices of converting DAT recordings. My internship at the Archives is one of my fondest memories of grad school. I immensely enjoyed getting to know the staff, volunteers, and other interns at the Archives, as well as all the exciting projects they were working on. Those three months went by much too quickly!
- Favorite Memory: Beyond the archives, I loved experiencing Washington, D.C., in the summertime. Having Fridays off allowed me to explore many, but sadly not all, of the museums and sights in the area. One of my favorites was the National Museum of American History and its dresses of the First Ladies exhibit. I also was able to take in a game at the Nationals' ballpark (the Giants won . . . and would later go on to win the World Series that year!), and watch the fireworks from the Lincoln Memorial on July 4th. Yes, it was hot, muggy, and very crowded, but it was all well worth it.
- What are You Doing Now?: Currently I am an instructional designer at San Francisco State University. I work with faculty to (re)design and improve their courses, whether they are face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. I also help instructors incorporate instructional technology into their courses in order to ensure every student gets the most out of the course, and hopefully help the instructors use their time more efficiently. Though not an archive or museum, working in academic technology allows me to be at the heart of a university, solve interesting problems, and work to make the higher education experience better for all.
- Blog Post: Swingin' and Swayin' in the Archives, The Bigger Picture blog
Carrie Tallichet Smith
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: June 2010 - February 2011.
- Project/Focus: I participated in a wide variety of projects, many of which involved digitizing analog materials, recording metadata, and performing quality control. I worked with digitizing and collecting metadata for a large quantity of photographs. I also contributed to a project to convert DATs to WAV format and fulfilled some researcher requests requiring audio-video migration. Lastly, I researched and prepared training materials for embedding IPTC metadata into digitized images. This involved merging metadata stored in a Microsoft Access database with the corresponding images.
- Favorite Memory: I have two. The first would be the weekly ritual of doing the crossword with Ricc Ferrante and Peter Finkel over lunch. The second would be forming the Smithsonian Human Sunburst during the staff picnic. See the picture with the arrow pointing to me.
- What are You Doing Now?: As of November 2013, I am an Archivist in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Special Access unit of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Previously, I was a Reference Archivist in NARA's Electronic Records Division.
Robin Camille Davis
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2011 as web preservation intern.
- Project/Focus: I set up the initial web preservation workflow for Smithsonian-created web content. In two months, we captured more than 680,000 pieces of content, ready to be appraised and preserved.
- Favorite Memory: My favorite place in DC is the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. After work on Fridays, some of the other interns and I would go there to listen to live jazz and eat salty chocolate cookies from Teaism.
- What are You Doing Now?: I am the Emerging Technologies & Distance Services Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. I love my job - I explore how new technologies can facilitate knowledge discovery and creation in an academic library. By night, I'm also a graduate student in Computational Linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center, studying natural language processing.
- Anything Else to Add: Doing real work in the Archives was such a blast - what I learned hands-on at the Archives, I use every day in my job!
- Blog Posts: Five Tips for Designing Preservable Websites and Saving the Smithsonian's Web, The Bigger Picture blog
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Summer 2011
- Project/Focus: Assessment and preservation recommendations for digital video accessioned at SIA.
- Favorite Memory: Crossword puzzle lunches. It's amazing how quickly a group of archivists can solve a crossword puzzle. A close second were daily, rooftop lunches overlooking DC. Tied for second was riding my bike over a closed-to-traffic Arlington bridge after 4th of July fireworks on the Mall.
- What are You Doing Now?: I'm an interaction designer in San Francisco at Practice Fusion, which is a free, web-based electronic health records (EHR) platform for ambulatory care. I get to design the user interface for a records management solution that holds more than 80 million patient records.
- Blog Posts: Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs and Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog
Julianna M. Barrera-Gomez
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: I interned at the Archives in the summer of 2011, as part of an IMLS-funded project from the University Of Michigan, School Of Information that linked aspiring archivists with host institutions for internships.
- Project/Focus: I got to work with Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig and Ricc Ferrante in the Digital Services Division, where I learned how to process digital material that came in with various accessions.
- Favorite Memory: I was absorbed in processing the born-digital collections of Dr. Devra Kleiman, a research scientist at the National Zoological Park. It really made me think about the issues involved in accessioning born-digital collections, the dangers of obsolescence, the importance of metadata (and how it can be missing, lost, or changed) and the impact archival processing can have on users who may need to make sense of her data. Processing this collection really sparked my interest in research and academic records, which was a major driver in my future career decisions.
- What are You Doing Now?: I am the University Archivist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, busily accessioning, processing, describing, curating, and facilitating access to our many collections, which are in nearly every format imaginable.
- Anything Else to Add?: I felt like I'd landed the Most Amazing Internship Ever while I worked at the Archives. I still can’t believe how beneficial it was for me to get the chance to process digital collections, and even take charge of a collection I could explore in-depth. But working at the Archives did more than build my archival skills. All of the archivists, volunteers, and other staff at the Archives were generous with their time and shared their skills and knowledge freely. It was an excellent place to learn.
- Blog Post:Passwords and Paper Printouts: Preserving the Electronic Records of the Devra Kleiman Papers, The Bigger Picture blog
- Interned at the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Fall 2011
- Project/Focus: CAD (Computer Assisted Design) archiving and preservation research of Smithsonian architectural plans.
- Favorite Memory: My favorite part of interning at the Archives was getting to work with records from around the entire Institution. On a day-to-day basis I was able to work with a wide variety of materials from a number of different and interesting disciplines. I also enjoyed being able to take part in collaborative efforts with other organizations and institutions around the country, and the world, as we continued to develop strategies and methodologies for archiving born-digital materials.
- What are You Doing Now?: I now work as a contractor for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. As part of the Office of Curatorial Affairs, I manage our digital assets, including audio, video, and still images, as well as oversee our rights and reproductions efforts.
- Blog Post: Digital Dilemma: Preserving Computer Aided Design (CAD) Files, The Bigger Picture blog
The Smithsonian Institution has many internship opportunities. Learn more from the Office of Fellowships & Internships.
Today is "MayDay -- Do One Thing for Emergency Preparedness" sponsored by Heritage Preservation which encourages libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and preservation organizations to set aside May 1 to "do one thing for emergency preparedness." As in past years, we are devoting a blog post to news and thoughts about emergency preparedness.
Recently, colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution have discussed the roles that we play in preventing, preparing, and responding to emergencies. Even with a robust disaster management program at SI, we discovered that we needed to do a better job of planning for emergencies that affect collections. We know that the offices charged with life safety at the Smithsonian will do a great job managing the people and many visitors at the Institution in an emergency, but what about the collections? Our team came up with a concept that we are bringing to the administration of the Smithsonian, called "PRICE" – Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies.
Each of the museums at the Smithsonian functions with its own set of plans for emergencies, but we recognized that at a big place like the Smithsonian there might be scenarios that require the help of the Institution at large. What if a museum needs help from a team of external conservation experts because it is overwhelmed with recovery? What if having a collections emergency recovery contract in place ahead of time, for instance, from a dry-freezing company, would spare a collecting unit from spending the valuable post-recovery time having to write and execute a contract? What if one unit has equipment and supplies needed by another unit? The PRICE concept would provide staffing, training, logistics and administrative support that pertain especially to collections before, during, and after a disaster.
At the Smithsonian we follow the Incident Command System (also known as ICS) for emergencies, and the PRICE concept would fit right into the structure as one of the reporting nodes to the incident commander. If you are not familiar with ICS, today would be a good day for you to look at an important publication on the topic: Implementing the Incident Command System at the Institutional Level: A Handbook for Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Other Cultural Institutions by David Carmichael.
We think that the model that we are proposing will help the Institution take care of its 137 million collection items. Stewardship of our collections must include ongoing review of collections emergency plans and put the emergency preparation, response and recovery experts in touch with one another.
- Museums Emergency Programme, International Council of Museums
- Cultural Heritage Disaster Preparedness and Response, International Council of Museums
- Select Resources for Disaster Prevention, Preparedness, and Response for Archives, Museums, and Libraries, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- May Day posts, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Talking and Doing About Emergency Preparation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As people versed in Integrated Pest Management, we're used to urgent emails that start, "can anyone identify this beetle invading my collection?" Recently, I received an inquiry regarding a very different species of invader. In February, everyone was talkin' 'bout the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Invasion, or their arrival on the American shores to play the Ed Sullivan show (complete with its own hashtag #Beatles50). Beatlemania was alive again, especially in D.C., where the Fab Four had performed their first concert in the United States at the Washington Coliseum. Over at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, "on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the concert . . . archivists discovered a personal note on the back of a photo . . . written to [Harry Lynn, the owner of the Coliseum] and signed by the band." The only trouble was the archivists couldn't read it because the photograph was mounted to thick board – they could only see the impression of a couple of words, as you can see when Zachary Levine turns it in his hands as he shows it to the reporter in this news video (at about 1:23). So they contacted us to see if we could be of assistance, and sure enough I thought this would be a great way to test the limits of some techniques over at the Museum Conservation Institute's Imaging Studio.
I asked my colleague E. Keats Webb, if Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a technique that enhances dimension of surface features in low profile, could be used to augment the profile of signatures. Essentially, RTI uses multiple images of the same object photographed with raking light from multiple angles, and then with software, layers and interpolates them to create a moving image that can be adjusted to enhance the visible dimensionality.
As Keats moves the green virtual mouse ball to change the direction of the raking light, and changes surface interpolation filters, you can watch the writing below the boys' heads emerge. You can observe that the largest, but also deepest, signature is John Lennon's. His signature literally makes a strong impression – in a detail at high resolution in the Flickr set, you can see that the pressure he exerted created almost arrow-like cracks in the baryta layer below the silver. From this we can surmise that either he had a naturally heavy hand, or possibly he signed his name over a softer surface than all the others – allowing the pen to sink deeper.
Showing opposite characteristics, you can see relatively how much less deep George Harrison's autograph lies; he either wrote with a light hand, or on a hard surface. Another interesting feature is seen in in Paul McCartney's autograph. Can you guess what it is? Not being the biggest Beatles fan in the room, as the image became clearer to my eyes, I gasped and asked aloud, "Is Paul McCartney left-handed?" This is apparently a well-known fact to all those who are saturated with images of Sir Paul holding his bass guitar in the opposite direction to his bandmates. I guessed at it by observing the slant, direction and loops in which the 'P' and 'a' and other letters were started and continued across his name, and confirmed my speculation with a swift Wikipedia search. This observation is of an individual characteristic of Mr. McCartney's handwriting. Lastly, from the matching directional slant, and the center placement of Ringo Starr's autograph, the evidence suggests that Ringo wrote the full dedication: "To Harry Lynn | with fond memories from the | BEATLES", signed it himself and handed the photograph off for others' signatures, seen below.
We also used hyperspectral imaging but the silver and the baryta layer blocked the non-visible wavelengths of light from passing through the photographic print to the ink. However, ultraviolet induced fluorescence photography did reveal a history of adhesives. Also in the Flickr set, you'll see both the residues of a typical address label on the front at lower left corner, and on the back, traces of the damaging so-called "magnetic" adhesive that is common to some photo albums. In fact, the item had been stored in "the sticky embrace" of one, as colorfully described in this lovely article about the provenance of the photograph.
This was a really fun project, but also one which raised serious philosophical questions. Some may ask, but why didn't you just take the backing off to see the autographs? Well, excavation and solvents carry risk for both the object and the conservator. In modern archaeology, sites may be investigated with remote sensing equipment, uncovered, documented, and recovered to protect the integrity of the site. Do we really need to dig for what is definitely there when we have non-destructive ways of seeing? Seriousness aside, can anyone tell me what is going on in this image with the bow and the stuffed cow?