The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
James Smithson’s original purpose in bequeathing his estate to the United States was to establish the Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” And the saying goes - learn by doing. To this end, the Smithsonian has been increasing its interactive opportunities across its entire network of museums and research centers, and the Archives are no exception.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern with the Digital Services Division (DSD), mainly working on the digitization of special collections. During my time here, I noticed that both the DSD and the Archives as a whole place a heavy emphasis on public engagement with the Archives collections. Peoples' use of collections definitely plays an important role in guiding the Archives decisions on what to prioritize for digitization. This aspect combined with other factors such as the physical condition and size of the collection, the available information about the materials, and the use of digitized collections for special projects inform the Archives as to what collections to digitize.
My work this summer, along with a few other interns and volunteers, was to digitize some of the Archives collections for special projects. All of us came from different backgrounds and had varying degrees of experience with digitization. With the ever increasing demand for digitized materials from the Archives, it is constantly in need of as many helping hands as possible. As a result a great deal of the digitization work is done by interns or volunteers.
The digitization of materials allows the Archives to share its collections with those who are not able to physically come to the Archives. By making its content as widely available as possible on the Archives' website, in the Collections Search Center, and in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) its collections can be discovered by as many people as possible. A new avenue that people can interact with the Archives collections can be found in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, where “volunpeers” can help transcribe text from digitized materials. Meghan Ferriter, Project Coordinator, Smithsonian Transcription Center, talks about the role of volunpeers in her blog post Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery.
Making archival collections available online and engaging people to help make them more accessible are just some of the many steps towards connecting people to collections. As more museums, libraries, and archives put their collections online there will be more opportunities for people to see materials from across the country and from across the world. The Smithsonian has made great strides in the past few years in getting its collections online and is now poised better than ever to work with other institutions and organizations to make it collections more readily discoverable.
Indeed, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough mentions in his e-book, Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, that one of the Smithsonian’s next endeavors is collaboration with other institutions. With the expanding role of Wikipedia in research archives around the world are recognizing that collaboration with sites that get heavy traffic is highly beneficial in making people aware of their collections. Indeed, the Archives continues to experience an increase in traffic on its website and in its use of collections as a result of hosting regular Wikipedia edit-a-thons.
The Archives is currently engaged in work with Gale Cengage Learning, and also often cooperates with other folks at the Smithsonian such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History. By collaborating with other museums and institutions in making its collections available, the Archives is following the tenet laid out by James Smithson for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."
- Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Location! Location! Location!, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, by G. Wayne Clough, Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Transcription Center has been around for over a year and the community of #volunpeers who expertly transcribe and review texts has grown and grown. This summer, my project was to get to know the community of #volunpeers who contributed to Smithsonian Institution Archive’s projects by looking through pages and pages of data reflecting the quantity and frequency of completing transcription and review activities. Here is a graph of the activity of Archives #volunpeers during the first 6 months of the year.
To understand why activity was high during certain moments and low during others, and to explore how the Transcription Center operates as a system with multiple moving parts, I took a systems approach and a landscape ecology perspective.
The three parts of the system that I explored are:
- #Volunpeer behavior - The frequency and quantity of transcription and review activities completed by users
- Project landscape - The amount and type of Archivesprojects available for activity
- Social media communication - Transcription Center special events and social media posts by Smithsonian units and the #volunpeer community
Each of these components is related to one another. For instance, #Volunpeer behavior is affected by the types of projects available for activity and the type and quantity of social media communication at a given moment. #Volunpeers generally gravitate towards projects with a narrative component, like diaries or field notes written poetically. Furthermore, events like #7DayReviewChallenge and #CandC (Contribute&Connect) foster the re-engagement of formerly dormant #volunpeers and boost the activity of existing active contributors.
The most prominent characteristic of the Archives community of #volunpeers is that the majority of all activity is completed by a handful of top contributors. Does this matter? Is this trait good, bad, or both? The answer is both.
The Archives is incredibly lucky and thankful to have such amazing power #volunpeers, which corresponds to a high-volume of transcription and review activity and opportunities for knowledge discovery, but this trait has the potential to threaten the overall health of the Transcription Center system. Why? Let’s turn to landscape ecology and Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence to understand.
A healthy and sustainable system, meaning that it is productive and exists long term, requires resiliency, meaning that if threatened or damaged, the system can recover quickly and fully. If a system is not resilient, it is vulnerable and fragile, meaning that its vitality is at risk if the system suffers a loss.
In his Index, Baird corresponded with hundreds and hundreds of natural history collectors and citizen scientists, some of whom collected the same things from similar geographical locations. For example, there was a redundancy of shell collectors from Grand Rapids, Michigan listed in Baird’s Index.
One of the many benefits of having a large, diverse, and redundant network of collectors was that if one collector stopped collecting, or his/her items were damaged during transport to the Smithsonian, Baird could draw upon the collections of another correspondent who had a similar collection. Seemingly redundant collectors become the saviors of the system! This allows it to continue uninterrupted, which increases its sustainability and stability.
The same is true for the Transcription Center.
Having a large and diverse group of #volunpeers who complete activity instead of a tiny group of power #volunpeers contributes to a healthy, resilient, stable, and sustainable system. Since the Archives still has numerous projects that need transcribing and reviewing, striving for the sustainability of the Transcription Center is a top priority for us and we hope that you feel the same way!
Check out the Transcription Center for yourself!
And if you want to know more about Baird’s Index, check out this interview with Smithsonian historian, Pam Henson.
- Accession 91-069 - Spencer Fullerton Baird Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Increasing Access: The Smithsonian Transcription Center, by Kristin Conlin, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Paper Painting: Using Acrylics to Repair Leather Bindings, by Breann Young, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Transcription Beyond Description: Engaging Opportunities and Weaving Webs of Knowledge, by Meghan Ferriter, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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