The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
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.
The Smithsonian Channel produces award-winning television programming that engages viewers much in the same way as the Smithsonian's museums and galleries do throughout the United States with their visitors. Just as the Smithsonian is working to digitize its collections for greater access and preservation, the Smithsonian Channel and the Smithsonian Institution Archives are also undertaking various efforts to ensure the digital preservation of these television programs.
The reformatting workflow for this project has been dynamic, and it should be. During earlier accessions of Smithsonian Channel programming, the progams were transferred on DVDs, numbering in the hundreds. In order to preserve the files digitally and prepare them for ingest into the Smithsonian's Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), the DVDs undertook a lengthy workflow process to ensure the highest level of playability and playback quality.
As part of the project's workflow, and best practices at the Archives, each disc is individually scanned using virus detection software. While this process is lengthy, it is critical to ensuring the security of the Archives' IT infrastructure. The next step in the workflow is to individually create .ISO images of each disc, which retains each program's DVD menu functionality. After creation of the .ISOs, the individual .vobs are extracted and converted to a single .vob using a command prompt script. This single .vob is then converted to an .mpeg, also using command prompt, to ensure the greatest playability across multiple software programs. This process is individually repeated for every DVD within the collection and can take months to complete.
After creation of the mpegs, the associated metadata must be created for each individual file in preparation for ingest into the DAMs. The metadata is applied to each file using Adobe Bridge; however, the metadata cannot be embedded into the actual video files, thus creating a sidecar .xmp file is necessary to hold the associated video file's metadata. Once this process is complete, the .ISO, .mpg, and .xmp files are entered simultaneously into the DAMs to ensure to proper parent (.iso)/child (.mpg and .xmp) relationships are maintained.
Throughout the entire workflow, upon initial receipt, after each conversion, and after upload to the DAMs, each file has been viewed for quality assurance, furthering adding time to an already lengthy workflow. In total, processing the collection of 136 DVDs within the accession took roughly 300 hours to complete.
In an effort to simplify the workflow, archivists from the Smithsonian Channel and the Archives met to develop a plan to achieve maximum efficiency with the preservation of Smithsonian Channel's programming. During the meeting, it was decided to test a pilot program wherein the Smithsonian Channel would send a number of .mov files through a secure server to the Archives to develop a new workflow based solely on the digital transfer of the Smithsonian Channel's programs. While not eliminating the original DVD transfer yet, this process significantly decreased the workflow and time involved in the entire preservation process.
With the transfer of the .mov files, the conversion process was removed entirely from the workflow. Further, the metadata can be directly embedded into the file header of the .mov files, eliminating the need to create a separate file for the metadata. For DAMs ingest, only the .mov file is needed, as opposed to the .ISO, .mpg, and the .xmp file. In essence, what used to take nearly 300 hours to complete could essentially be completed in as little as a day for a collection of programming.
By making the process of preserving the Smithsonian Channel programs simpler and easier, programs can be preserved more quickly and with less files to work with and a more straightforward workflow there is less likelihood for errors to be made. The collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Channel and the Archives is a prime example of two institutions working together in the effort of digital preservation.
- What are You Watching?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- And Action: The Ins and Outs of DVD Video Preservation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Channel records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives