The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
A number of years ago, I was asked to pick up research materials created by a deceased scientist that she had maintained in her home office. When I arrived, her family was holding an estate sale. When I asked about the “records,” a man nearby overheard and immediately offered double whatever price I was paying for them. He clearly assumed that I was referring to record albums. I explained that I was there for her institutional records – her files – that belonged to her office, and he didn’t seem to quite understand. I had to assure him that there were no record albums in the boxes.
My team uses the word “records” a lot. We define records, we appraise records, we provide records management guidance, we manage a records center, we accession records into the archival collections, and we describe and preserve those records. We also understand that “records” is a term that many people don’t fully understand.
As many organizations around the country celebrate Records and Information Management Month, this is a good time to answer the question, “What is a record?”
The Smithsonian Institution Archives defines a record as any official, recorded information, regardless of medium or characteristics, which is created, received, and maintained by a Smithsonian museum, office, or employee. This definition encompasses almost any piece of paper, electronic file, email message, photograph, architectural drawing, audiovisual recording, or website that passes through the hands of a Smithsonian employee while conducting business. We often use the term “files” as synonymous with “records” since it tends to be a more familiar term. However, files include some materials (such as documents collected simply for reference purposes) which are not considered to be records, and does not necessarily include materials such as film, videotapes, or audio recordings.
Our definition of a record has been in use for decades and is rather broad. Recently, many definitions of a record have become narrower and refer to the need to preserve information. An example is A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology by Richard Pearce-Moses and published by the Society of American Archivists in 2005 which defines a record as “data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference.”
Definitions that include a preservation clause have opened the way for a new category – the nonrecord. Non-records are data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of activity but does not warrant preservation. Institutions define non-records differently, but they often consist of copies, drafts, information entered into a database, or logistical materials.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives does not use the term “nonrecord.” Materials are either personal (not created within the course of business) or institutional records. We do, however, recognize that not all records are valuable for the same length of time. Some records will hold their historical, legal, or evidentiary value forever, and will become part of the archival collections. Other records will be valuable for a certain number of years after which they will be eligible for destruction. Still others will only be of immediate value and no longer necessary to keep after a very short period.
There are many variations in the definition of “records,” but the term typically refers to something different for an information professional than for a collector of vintage audio recordings. That doesn’t mean that a record album couldn’t be a record, though.
Records Management, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore), The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, over 30 volunteers showed up at the National Museum of the American Indian to write minority women into digital history during a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in honor of Women's History Month. On the to-do list were artists, educators, activists, Smithsonian employees, the first Chinese-American female dentist, and the African-American woman who founded the Black Fashion Museum.
To kick off the day, while enjoying pastries from local baker, Frenchies, participants learned about African-American archival and library collections at the Smithsonian and the U.S. National Archives. Following that, a fellow volunteer showed new Wikipedians how to edit and create articles. After an amazing banh mi lunch from a local Asian restaurant, Maketto, participants worked together to write and edit articles. Our food and coffee were generously funded by Wikimedia DC and it was wonderful to have so many long-term Wikipedians to help the new folks out.
Six new articles were created:
- Claudine Brown, Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, who passed away just days before the event.
- Faith Sai So Leong, the first Chinese-American female Dentist
- Edith T. Martin, Artist and museum curator
- Vaino Spencer, the first African-American woman to be appointed judge in California
- Toyo Suyemoto, Japanese American poet
- Grace Lincoln Temple, an interior designer who worked on the Smithsonian's children's room and many other federal buildings including the White House (she is not a minority, but a staff member had been researching her.)
In addition to that, thirteen articles were improved. It was wonderful to see our archivists and librarians helping participants find resources for their articles, and there was a happy buzz in the air.
My favorite comments on Twitter about the day are below. It is indeed empowering to write deserving people into history. There is a lot of work to do in that aspect, so join us as there are a lot of great resources to help you get started!
— *like the bird* (@Ravon_Ashley) March 19, 2016
All the pictures of the day can be found here.
For years office workers, college students, and others relied on saving their electronic documents to 5.25” floppy disks and then to 3.5” diskettes. These documents were typically small word-processing or datasheets, as a floppy would only hold about 160 kb to 1.2 mb of data, and the PC home user was not creating and storing the gigabytes of audio, video and image files that are commonplace today. The 5.25” became obsolete in the early 1990s, but as you might guess, they still show up to this day at the Archives. There are about 400 of them in our collections, which also include the 3.5” diskettes, ZIP disks, CDs, DVDs, external drives, and USB flash drives.
For a while we were able to access the 5.25” floppies on an older PC running Windows 2000 not connected to the network. That machine was affectionately known as “Granny” due to its lack of speed and was later replaced by another machine running Windows XP. Accessing floppies was hit or miss with that operating system because XP does not support all 5.25” formats. There would be “disk not formatted” errors even though we were sure there was data on the disk.
We recently acquired some hardware and software called the FC5025 that now allows us to access most of those files in our current Windows 7 environment. Nevertheless, there are some disks that are just inaccessible and can no longer be recovered due to previous storage conditions, handling, or other issues.
In addition to being able to access these older files, we are able to do this on the secure Smithsonian network. This saves us time with our processing workflow by not having to save files to an external drive and then copying to our network server for preservation work.
The 5.25” drive with a floppy controller is attached to the PC using a USB plug. The user interface software runs to access the contents on the disk. If it is successful, there is the option to save the files directly or to create a disk image of the floppy. We have opted to do the disk image and then extract the files since this method retains the original file date. The software also indicates if it cannot recover the files.
The work does not end there though, as we need to scan for viruses and determine what the file formats are and how the files can be accessed and preserved. We have encountered WordStar and older WordPerfect files. As time allows we can revisit collections that contain 5.25” floppies that we could not access in the recent past.
The Death of the Floppy, Engines of Our Ingenuity, University of Houston
Floppy Disks are Dead, Long Live Floppy Disks, The Library of Congress
Think the Floppy Disk is Dead? Think Again!, Digital Trends
Fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott, is arguably most famous outside the Smithsonian for his panoramic photographs of the Canadian Rockies, taken during his geological expeditions in the early twentieth century. Therefore, it was somewhat mysterious when an indenture from 1740 turned up in Walcott family papers donated to the Smithsonian Archives in 2015 by Walcott’s great-granddaughter. Folded into a small packet and somewhat worse for wear with broken folds and missing areas, the wax seals were nonetheless intact. The indenture also features a beautiful fleur-de-lis watermark.
What is an indenture? An indenture is an archaic legal term for a contract. Like many, my only exposure to the word was as part of the concept of indentured servitude, and as a result I related “indenture” more to the service than the binding nature of the agreement. In fact, the word indenture comes from the wavy line or indent cut at the top of the document, which was an early security measure—the copies of the indenture matched exactly, providing a quick way to detect a forgery. So, from the material object—the paper contract—the word expanded its meaning to include the concept as well as the document.
What is this document about? This indenture is a property transfer between a young couple in New York City, presumably of Dutch origins based on their names—Pieter and Susannah Bosh—and a widow, Elizabeth Carpender. Elizabeth paid them 252 pounds, 10 shillings for the property. From the signatures and official seals we learn that while Pieter was literate and signed his own name, Susannah was not; she made her mark and a scribe penned her name alongside it. Susannah was also carefully consulted in the sale—a “memorandum” on the outside of the folded document states that she participated in the transaction of her own free will. The notary who ascertained this and served as one of the witnesses, Philip van Cortlandt, was son of Stephanus van Cortlandt, the first American-born mayor of New York City.
The indenture had been folded multiple times, and exterior folds were heavily abraded with breakages and losses evident. To facilitate mending of the document and to enable flat storage, the folds were locally humidified using Gore-Tex compresses. After initial relaxation was complete, the document was lightly humidified overall using an ultrasonic humidifier and left to dry sandwiched between blotters and weighted beneath a Plexiglas sheet, leaving the portion with the seals uncovered. All humidification was performed from the verso or back of the document to avoid catalyzing degradation of the paper by the corrosive iron-gall ink, which is sensitive to moisture. The thickness of the paper made it less likely that contact would occur, and it was deemed an acceptable risk.
A three percent weight/volume solution of gelatin was prepared to use as an adhesive owing to its free-iron-ion isolating characteristics, as the indenture is written extensively in iron-gall ink. The cooled and set gelatin was then sieved through a horsehair strainer to create a gelatin mousse. Scarfed tears were realigned and gelatin applied to the scarfed areas, then left to dry under weight. Broken folds and non-scarfed tears were realigned and mended with the gelatin mousse brushed through Berlin tissue pieces. Scarfed tears needing additional support were treated in the same way.
A sympathetic paper was chosen to fill the loss areas, with a similar color, weight, and chain-and-laid-line pattern—a Mitsumata Japanese paper. A light sheet was placed beneath the indenture loss areas to clearly illuminate the shape of the losses. The repair paper was placed to cover a fill, with chain-and-laid lines aligned, and the fill was traced with a mechanical pencil. These were then cut with an electric perforating pen and placed in the losses. Pieces of Berlin tissue were shaped to mimic the loss areas with a small overlap, then placed atop the fills. Gelatin mousse was then brushed through the tissue to attach the fills from the rear. The mends were then allowed to dry under weight.
Though the connection to the Walcotts is still unclear, this document from New York Colony only a few decades before the American Revolutionary War is a fascinating look at this particular period of history that is not often represented in the Archives, and was an excellent opportunity to hone conservation treatment skills.
Accession 06-062 - Charles Doolittle Walcott Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Re-mounting the American Bison, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It is once again time to come together for a day of Wikipedia! Join Smithsonian and U.S. National Archives staff, as well as local Wikipedian volunteers, for a Women's History Month/Museum Day Live! edit-a-thon on Saturday March 19th, 10am-3pm, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. We will work on improving and creating new Wikipedia articles about notable minority women, some of whom worked at the Smithsonian.
For example, take a look at Jeannine Smith Clark, a longtime Smithsonian volunteer who served on the Smithsonian's Board of Regents as its first volunteer and minority woman. A longtime Washingtonian, Clark worked to expand D.C. Public Schools’ tours of the Smithsonian’s museums and helped to provide transportation to the museums for local children. Clark also served as the chair of the Smithsonian Women's Committee, a fundraising group, and became the Smithsonian's first head of its Cultural Education Committee which worked to increase diversity in Smithsonian staff and leadership.
All that said, she has no Wikipedia page and we'd like to solve that on March 19th. During the edit-a-thon, you will have a chance to learn from and interact with Smithsonian and U.S. National Archives staff, learn how to work in Wikipedia, and enjoy complimentary lunch and coffee which is generously being provided by Wikimedia DC.
Related, on March 12th, you can also join us for Museum Day Live! which is being held specifically to welcome young women and girls of color, their peers and their families, and inspire them to discover the arts and sciences through a series of exciting programs, including leadership opportunities, vibrant performances, special tours, and interactive activities.
RSVP now for the edit-a-thon. It will be a supportive environment where beginners are welcome!
- Sign up for Color History with the Smithsonian Wikipedia Edit-a-thon
- Museum Day Live! Programming