The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
What happens when an organization turns to the Internet 'crowd' for help to make its online collections as accessible as possible? The Archives is several years into its crowd-sourcing initiatives: tagging photographs and solving mysteries on Flickr Commons and transcribing text-oriented materials on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Our goals are focused on enabling people to virtually look inside these materials and apply data mining and other techniques, enriching and speeding their own work.
In just the past 18 months, over two thousand new volunteers plus an untold number of anonymous contributors have given us a big boost, and the results are remarkable. While the quality and quantity of the effort is impressive – over 300 transcription projects and hundreds more photos available to tag on the Flickr Commons, I am more excited by how I see volunteers' passion for knowledge grow, having an empowering and domino effect.
Looking for the Inside Stories
As the institutional archives documenting the Smithsonian's history of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, we hold a wide variety of both scientific and humanities oriented primary source material that reflects that diversity of the Smithsonian's activities from its earliest days over 169 years ago.
As we selected material for our digital volunteers, I expected them to engage with it, gaining insight and appreciation for the personal efforts and experiences of the individuals behind them. However, volunteers soon uncovered additional, noteworthy individuals and events buried inside those texts.
Going one step further, they began to find connections between different Archives projects, such as the professional and personal relationships between scientists and examples of their work.
Amidst all of these discoveries, the depth of access these volunteers have helped us create has enabled researchers to include these historical sources in computer-driven longitudinal studies.
#WeLearnTogether: The Domino Effect
#welearntogether is a Twitter hash tag these 'volunpeers' have taken to when discussing the projects they are working on. It reflects the community culture we have striven for since the first days of our crowd-sourcing initiatives. So what's this domino effect?
Domino 1: Our volunpeers are using the information they have found, finding links to data held by museums, libraries, and archives at the Smithsonian and helping us to connect those resources to each other.
Domino 2: The volunteers are reaching out to other organizations, and sharing what they have learned so those organizations, too, can update and enrich their own information catalogs. These include JSTOR and the United States National Herbarium.
In the end, the knowledge of our collections has grown, their accessibility improved, resulting in tangible benefits for today’s and tomorrow’s Smithsonian collections users. It is so rewarding to watch these volunteers’ voyages of discovery stoke a passion to discover more and fire an enthusiasm about these collections that has proven to be contagious.
- Record Unit 7148 - David Crockett Graham Papers, 1923-1936, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7272 - Frederick Vernon Coville Papers, 1888-1936 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7267 - Vernon Orlando Bailey Papers, 1889-1941 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7417 - Florence Merriam Bailey Papers, 1865-1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Hidden in Plain Sight: Reading Between the Lines with the Smithsonian Transcription Center Volunteers
The Smithsonian Transcription Center volunteers have been busy unlocking the hidden stories from the Smithsonian's collections - including the women in science hiding in plain sight in these digitized pages. From amateur collectors to seasoned gardeners, women made valuable contributions to the Smithsonian's collections. Here's what we're learning and doing together with their information.
Last July, I shared some of the progress of volunteers and their growth as a community. The highlights? Over 450 volunteers transcribed 13,412 pages including 46 different Archives projects. Since then, we have grown our community to over 4,500 volunteers and the completed text of 66,598 pages can now be indexed. This remarkable growth includes 247 completed Archives projects as well.
Updated statistics: Over 450 volunteers at that point had transcribed 46 different Archives projects. That was part of the total 956 volunteers who had completed 13,412 pages by July 2014. Since then, 2,147 volunteers have helped wrap up a whopping 247 Archives projects! The community has grown to over 4,700 volunteers total; they have worked together to completely transcribe and review 67,205 pages - to make searchable text in Smithsonian's Collections Search Center.
Through mysteries, connections, and achievements, the Archives continue to recognize the women in science in their collections. The Archives also shares field notes and books in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, where we have fully transcribed field notes and photo albums from women scientists including Doris Cochran, Cléofe Caldéron, Florence Bailey, and Mary Agnes Chase. Volunteers - whom we call #volunpeers - have also been able to identify at least 25 women who contributed specimens and were recorded in field notes by Joseph Nelson Rose.
Rose was a botanist with the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian Institution; his work was prolific and highlighted his great commitment to botanical work and cooperative discovery. How fitting that by transcribing his detailed notes, volunpeers would open a window: private citizens and researchers alike sharing specimens with the Smithsonian Institution. Many of the women in science we've uncovered in the pages were involved in science with informal work or non-institutional roles. The collectors in Rose's pages were professional botanists, and collecting sisters, wives, and amateurs.
In addition to notes on women cultivating botanical collections, we also see women in science in the entomological specimens labels and botanical specimens sheets that volunpeers transcribe. One challenge emerges: what can we do with the knowledge that emerges from the digitized pages? How can we acknowledge the effort of all of the collectors and honor the work of volunteers?
As Smithsonian staff begin to incorporate that information into official records and institutional narrative, we can discuss the challenges openly - in Google Hangouts, blogposts, and social media. By working with volunpeers and others, we might open the problem to group solutions. We can also acknowledge the scientific work in spaces like Wikipedia where challenges remain with representation of women. In this way, the knowledge generated from the Archives' and other Smithsonian collections can be shared with the public. As we approach Women's History Month, we have another opportunity to connect the women in science in these pages to the body of knowledge held at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the energy of Wikipedia editors.
You can let science talk and help the stories of these women unfold in two ways: by joining the Archives in a Wikipedia edit-a-thon on March 27, 10:00-4:00 pm EST. Here is the running list of women from Joseph Nelson Rose’s field notes:
Women Without Wikipedia Representation
- Wilmatte Porter Cockerell
- Helen S. Conant
- Grace M. Cole
- Mrs. Anna W Kidder
- Miss Jesse P Rose
- Ruth C. Ross
- Miss Gertrude Sinscheimer
- Sister Mary Regina of St. Mary’s Convent (NY)
- Elsie McElroy Slater
- Mrs. Florence A Standley
- Miss Nellie Standley
- Miss V. Tasker of Pennsylvania
- Miss F. N. Vasey
- Mrs. Irene Vera
Women With Articles in Wikipedia
Women Currently Identified by Names Other Than Their Own
- Mrs. Charles Bly
- Mrs. D. D. Gaillard
- Lady Hanbury
- Mrs. Dan Hansen
- Mrs. Eugene A Harris
- Mrs. S. L. Pattison
- Mrs. L. L. Roller
- Mrs. G. M. Wolfe
Or you can share your passion for Smithsonian collections by transcribing with other volunpeers in the Transcription Center.
Dealing with items of an unusual shape or size is a perpetual difficulty for archives. Some collections consist of a wide variety of objects with different housing needs, but need to be kept together for provenance reasons. Items that are too small or too large both pose problems, but these storage difficulties can be mitigated by careful handling, or by sorting and housing different-sized items based on their size where possible.
Extremely difficult-to-handle formats also occasionally come in that need custom housing to be safely stored and accessed. One recent example is Accession 09-296 - Office of the Secretary, Strategic Planning Records, 2009, a collection of six rolls of oversize drawings done by Lynn Carruthers of Global Business Network, a scenario planning company that assists organizations in extrapolating and preparing for possible future events. These drawings are graphic recordings of strategic planning sessions for the Smithsonian held in March and April of 2009 under the direction of Secretary G. Wayne Clough, which ultimately resulted in the formation of the Smithsonian Grand Challenges, a framework that shapes the current strategic outlook of the Smithsonian.
These rolls, one for each workshop or planning session, consist of several sheets of large drawing paper, each of slightly different dimensions. While the majority of each roll is usually comprised of sheets that are close in size to one another, there are frequently outliers that are either significantly shorter in the rolled dimension (horizontal) or somewhat longer.
The preferred storage method for oversize rolled or folded items is often flat storage; however, these drawings far exceed the footprint available in the flat storage cabinets at the Archives, and this option was immediately discarded. The simplest solution would have been to keep the drawings rolled, place them in archival cardboard tubes, and send them to the Archives' offsite storage facility at Iron Mountain. Unfortunately, the drawings are too tall to fit in the tubes and Iron Mountain only stores enclosures of standard dimensions, necessitating a custom housing that would remain in the Archives onsite storage.
The drawings were first given a strong support base - archival-quality (pH-neutral, acid-free, buffered) cylindrical cores; for extra stability and to protect the bottom of the rolled drawings, these were attached to square feet cut from corrugated archival board with preservation-friendly hot glue. The drawings were then wrapped around the cores, linen tape was tied around each roll, and descriptive labels were created and placed beneath the ties.
A custom two-piece box was made from more corrugated board to house and protect all six rolls. The lower portion consists of two pieces attached with the hot glue at mitered flaps; a rectangular piece finishes off the bottom for a level base, and another rectangle placed between the bottom flaps gives a flush interior surface for the rolls to rest upon. A lip to support the lid was created from a strip of corrugated board and adhered around the exterior surface. The lid consists again of two main pieces, assembled in the same way as the lower tray, and finished with a rectangular piece on top. All pieces were pre-scored to ensure clean folds.
Time will tell whether this housing solution functions as well as hoped. Though the cores with their stabilizing feet are sturdy enough, because they are unusually tall they remain prone to wobbling, which makes moving the entire box difficult. At the moment, it is envisioned that only one or two rolls will be removed for a researcher because of how cumbersome they are, leaving the remainder in their box in the designated storage location. While this solution was not ideal, it is effective and was an excellent opportunity to experiment with custom enclosures.
Though this collection is an unwieldy one, it provides a valuable snapshot of the beginning of Secretary Clough's tenure, and documents his desire to provide the Smithsonian with a clear vision for its future as a repository of the United States' cultural heritage. As Secretary Clough's plan continues to shape the direction of the Institution, it may be that succeeding secretaries will revisit the origins of the Grand Challenges by studying these drawings, and be inspired with new ideas for the future.
As some of you reading this know, we enjoy getting to know fascinating women in science throughout our collections and in the Smithsonian's history. We enjoy it so much that one of us decided we needed a set of LEGO women scientists. Over lunch, we assembled the the sets with some trepidation as it had been years since our previous LEGO adventures. We had fun playing and thinking about the non-LEGO women that came before them. As a final touch, I photoshopped them into Smithsonian settings. If you visit us today, you just may see our scientists conducting research in our hallowed halls.
Meet the LEGO paleontologist conducting research on a t-rex (Perhaps the #NationsTrex) in the Paleontology Hall of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History:
Here is the LEGO astrophysicist gazing at the sky near the Great Hooker 100-inch telescope used at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California which served as a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory station from 1905 to the mid 1930s.
And finally, while we don't have strict chemists at the Smithsonian, we do have several conservators who conduct chemical feats of wonder on our collections. Here is the LEGO chemist/conservator at the Lunder Conservation Center of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- Women in Science Wednesdays, Bigger Picture Blog
The Secretary’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service was created in 1964 and is the highest honor given to Smithsonian staff for exceptional service over a long period of time. On December 4, 2014, Secretary G. Wayne Clough presented this award to Pam Henson for a lifetime of exceptional service to the Smithsonian Institution. She began her career here in 1973 and has been in service to the Institution for 41 years. After a brief stint conducting visitor surveys, she became a young historian in the Smithsonian Institution Archives where she was responsible for research, writing, and interviewing staff to better document the history of the Smithsonian and the history of American science. In 1993 she became the Director of the Institutional History Division and has continued to build a substantial body of knowledge about the Smithsonian and its role in American science and culture.
Along the way, she has maintained a very high professional profile in several organizations. She has been a professor at George Washington University and at American University. Her publication record includes well over one hundred different contributions to books, journals, exhibitions and web sites. She has served as mentor to countless interns and graduate students, and in addition her expertise, has been recognized with several other awards including the Forrest C. Pogue Award for her contributions to oral history and the Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize for excellence in the teaching of history of science.
Having solicited background for other award nominations, I want to share some quotes from her colleagues that reflect the enormity of her long time service:
- Marcel C. LaFollette, a Research Associate with the Archives and long time colleague of Pam’s, stated, “Her research and writing about the history of the Institution is substantial, and is characterized by an unflinchingly honest examination of what can sometimes seem, from inside as well as outside, an unfathomable organization, a hybrid conglomeration of goals, missions, museums, carousels, world-class scientific research, zoos, conservation reserves, and brilliant people. She has celebrated the eccentricities and accomplishments of the staff, documented the evolution of successive administrations, and above all, insisted that the record for all be accurate, be based on the archival evidence and preserve some sense of what it has been like to ‘be’ part of … the Smithsonian history.”
- Brian Daniels, another Research Associate with the Archives, and now on the faculty of University of Pennsylvania, said, “I came to the Smithsonian’s Institutional History Division as a pre-doctoral fellow in 2007, and have since had the privilege to have Dr. Henson as a mentor and guide as I completed my dissertation. Indeed, I am fortunate to have continued this relationship. Dr. Henson’s diverse research interests, record of careful scholarship, and tireless mentoring of researchers—from graduate students to tenured faculty—have established her as one of the most prominent living scholars in the history of the sciences.”
Dr. Clough acknowledged all of these traits and more. In his remarks at the medal ceremony he said, “I often delve into the rich history of the Smithsonian, for speeches, writing, or for my own curiosity. As Secretary, I cannot make a factual mistake in public or private – Pam is there to keep me on track, and she’s done that for numerous Secretaries across the years. I count on Pam because the information she gives me is always detailed, reliable, and fascinating… More importantly to those who work with her day in and out, she is a trusted colleague, mentor and friend. … For her years of dedicated service to the Smithsonian, and for bringing the history of this American treasure to life every day, I am pleased to give the Secretary’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service to Pam Henson.”
From all of her colleagues here in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, we send our congratulations and kudos to Pam on this very special recognition.