The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
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
“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