The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
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 5,000 queries per year, and if you 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, long-term researcher projects have included:
- The Paleology Hall/Hall of Extinct Monsters at the National Museum of Natural History
- The National Museum of American History (The museum's 50th anniversary is coming up!)
- Smithsonian Castle Building fire, 1865
- Collecting and interpreting George Washington at the Smithsonian
- The Smithsonian International Exchange Service
- United States Exploring Expedition
- New Guinea
- American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
- Gender and science at the Smithsonian
- Predator control in the American West
- Joseph Henry House in Princeton, New Jersey
- History of marine biology
- History of Arctic research
- History of psychical research
- Historical bird records
- Salvador Dali paintings used in Hitchcock's Spellbound
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Gregory J. Dehler, The Most Defiant Devil (reviewed here)
- Anthony J. Connors, Ingenious Machinists: Two Inventive Lives From the American Industrial Revolution
- Jane Maienschein, Embryos Under the Microscope: Diverging Meanings of Life
- Glenn Smith, "Faraday's First Dynamo: A Retrospective," in the American Journal of Physics
- Mart Sears/R. Woollacott, chapter in Annals of Bryozoology 5
- Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers
- Sam Bardley, Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity
- Mysoon Rizk, Dirty Work: The Art and Legacies of David Wojnarowicz
Our congratulations go to Martin Thomas, who conducted research on the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the National Anthropological Archives. His book, Because It’s Your Country: Bringing the Bones Back to West Arnhem Land, won the seventh Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay.
According to the Australian Book Review:
Dr Thomas’s essay, ‘“Because it’s your country”: Bringing the Bones Back to West Arnhem Land’ stood out in a particularly strong field. The topic – the violation and restitution of Aboriginal remains – is both troubling and pressing, and the author examines it with marked empathy and an immense knowledge of the personalities and sensitivities involved.
Mr. Thomas says of his work on the repatriation of Aboriginal remains, “I feel supremely fortunate that my archival research has opened a dialogue with living communities. Good writing starts with great content.”
- Andaluisan Dogs Productions researched the Harry Hoogstrall Papers for their documentary on lyme disease
- Insurgent Media will use American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists photos in their upcoming film about oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue
- HBO researched audio tapes of a proposed WETATV/Smithsonian Institution television series featuring Norah Ephron for an upcoming biography of the late author
- NPR station WAMU listened to oral history interviews with Lucille Quarry Mann for an upcoming episode of Metro Connection
Wrapping It Up
September 30 marked the end of Fiscal Year 2013 for us. Here are the Reference Team research annual staistics:
- In-person reference - Researchers' daily visits: 838
- Long distance reference - Researchers: 5,114; Transactions: 10,060
- Total collection material provided - 11,065 cubic feet
- Duplication - AV, PDF, photocopies, and scans made: 12,536
- Permission Requests - Granted: 171
Is it any wonder we're exhausted?
- Reference Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, our website is built on top of a content management system (or CMS) called Drupal. For those of our readers unfamiliar with Drupal, it's an open source project that started its life as a message board system originally intended to help keep some University of Antwerp alumni in touch. The creator of the system, Dries Buytaert, wanted to call the site Dorp.org, dorp meaning "village" in Dutch. However, when seeing if dorp.org was available, he accidentally typed drop.org, and liking the sound better, saved the domain. Once he decided to release the site's code, he decided to name it Drupal, which is the English phonetic spelling of Druppel, the Dutch word for drop.
Currently, the Drupal community maintains a policy of only supporting two versions of the CMS. Currently, those two versions are Drupal 6, and Drupal 7. Our site was running on the former. However, Drupal 8 recently went into alpha testing, which means its release isn't too far off. So soon Drupal 6 will no longer be supported by the community.
To be proactive, I started on a 6-month project to upgrade our site to Drupal 7 before support disappeared. On August 28th, that project was complete and our new Drupal 7 website was rolled out.
Don't worry if you didn't notice it.
Aside from allowing the site's theme to respond to the browser's width (for those who are in modern, standards compliant browsers), the vast majority of the work was all on the back end. The functionality in Drupal is provided by modules, which are little add-ons that extend Drupal's functionality. Module developers tap into functions called "hook functions." These functions are fired off by Drupal whenever it performs a given task, and allows the developers to modify processes or data, or even piggyback off of it and provide their own tasks for the site to run. The premise is similar to one individual saying to another "Let me know when your going out for milk, 'cus I have some mail I would like you to drop off while your out." Drupal 6 contained 83 hook functions for developers to use. Drupal 7 has around 403.
Further complicating the issue, some of the hook functions had been changed, renamed, split into multiple functions, etc. All of these changed hook functions in the modules needed to be updated.
Luckily, I didn't have to upgrade all of the 170 or so modules used by our site. Some modules are in the "Core," or modules that Drupal comes with. Others are contributed modules, which are created by other Drupal developers and released to the community. These modules were updated by their maintainers. What were left were 14 completely custom modules that needed upgrading.
Another large part of the upgrade was coming up with the exact step-by-step process I needed to go through to get the site upgraded without any issues. This included duplicating the site on a localized server. Then the theme, contributed modules, and custom modules needed to be switched off. This would keep the site from crashing when the code base changed.
Then, Drupal 7 was downloaded, the database updated. After the database had been updated, the new versions of the modules had to be downloaded and re-installed. Luckily, I was able to create a command line script that ran on the server to do much of the heavy lifting. This scrip contained over 330 commands sent to the server in order to run the full update. The process took about 6 hours to complete. Once that was done, the code and database was uploaded to our new server, and the domain address was switch so the whole process was seamless.
Other Smithsonian websites using Drupal:
This week starts the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 through October 15) and the Smithsonian is celebrating with a series of vibrant performances, lectures, exhibitions, family activities and tours at various museums around the Institution. September 15th is siginificant because it marks the anniversary of independence for the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Also, Mexico and Chile celebrate their indepdence days on September 16 and 18, respectively.
The Smithsonian Collections Search Center has highlighted some sets of collections at the Smithsonian that document Latino and Mexican histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors come from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
- Hispanic Heritage Month, Smithsonian Institution
- Hispanic Heritage Month, Library of Congress
- 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Latino Center records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
When I first applied for an internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I admittedly did not know much about it. For my internship, I was asked to make a video that would explain to the general public what the Archives was, as well as what resources it could offer them. On my first day here I was told that the Archives held the records and history of the Smithsonian Institution. I thought this sounded straightforward enough, but as I began to work on the video I realized there was more to it than that. With each new interview, with each day of shooting B-roll footage, or simply being around the office I heard new stories and learned new things about the Archives. I learned that there was everything here from correspondence, books, and architecture plans to photographs, negatives, and film reels. The subjects of these items range from science and history to art and literature. They cover a large span and scope of American History and give unique insight into it. There really is something to interest everyone here.
What I also discovered is that this information is available to the public. While I grew up in the Washington, DC area and have always enjoyed going to the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo, I never knew that the Archives were also there as a public resource. Visitors can request specific information from the reference archivists, explore the collections online through the Archives’ website, or get helpful advice on preservation through the forums. These resources are valuable for everyone from researchers, to archivists, or anyone simply interested in the history of just about any subject.
I quickly realized that covering the broad scope of the Archives would be difficult to do in one video. I felt that any one area of the Smithsonian could easily fill its own video, and I had to consolidate all of these into one. I decided to try to touch on every area or subject that was in the Archives, rather than trying to cover any one in depth. I felt that this would give people an idea of what was at the Archives and allow them explore more about whatever area interested them most on their own. In the end there was too much information, footage, and too many good interviews to fit into just one video. So we split the video in two: one to explain what the Archives is and one to tell people about the resources it can provide. I hope these videos will help people discover the Archives and all that it has to offer, as I have over the course of this summer.
The Smithsonian Channel collection of videos that the Smithsonian Institution Archives is preserving is so varied and, at times, so out of the ordinary, that many times per week I’m asked, "What are you watching?" Topics include: the use of insects in forensic science; (too many) airplane crashes that shaped modern-day aviation safety; the real story behind Hollywood blockbuster films, such as The Silence of the Lambs; and, of course, TITANOBOA!, the approximately 2,500-pound Paleocene-era snake discovered in Columbia. . The Smithsonian Channel’s productions draw from the Smithsonian's museums, collections, and professional expertise to explore the history of our planet, life and culture.
A major part of my internship at the Archives involved the preservation of Smithsonian Channel digital content. Though we've received video material from other Smithsonian entities, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, digital material submitted in obsolete formats will prove a trickier challenge. Starting with the still-playable Smithsonian Channel DVDs is a good test case to develop this new workflow.
It’s been a unique opportunity to participate in the praxis, or ideas becoming practice, necessary to preserving and making accessible the wealth of digital materials people are generating. With the proliferation of smartphones and the means to share video through such venues as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Instagram, or Snapchat, there has been an explosion in the amount of content to watch, but also an increase in the number of video formats that archives need to manage and preserve. Not an easy task for sure, but the Archives has been tackling the problems associated with digital video for quite some time now.
At the start of the summer, I had one personal archival project on my to-do list: organize and sort the many Spotify playlists I amassed but didn't alphabetize when I was busy with coursework. However, if we add VHS and digital recording to the mix, I'll return home with a new digital archives preservation agenda. Personal archiving methods are a super-hot topic right now, so the most important thing that I’ve learned about preserving video from my time here at the Archives is the importance of collaboration in the form of open-source software development. Cultural heritage organizations, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and academic institutions are developing programs collaboratively, as well as relying on users for feedback and/or improvements to the software. For example, a consortium of Illinois universities developed a project, "Preserving (Digital) Objects with Restricted Resources," to suggest sustainable digital preservation solutions. The outcome was a directory of preservation tools—a mix of open source and commercial—recommended by the preservation community.
It's been great to see how the digital preservation community rises to the challenge of creating software programs that pay attention to preservation needs. Have you ever tried to simply copy an audio or video file from one location to another, but found that the video won't play? Preserving all the files that accompany a video are key to making sure the video plays properly. The Library of Congress' creation of the BagIt specification helps solve this problem by creating a "bag" that captures and contains all the related elements of a transferred video file. Being able to "bag" a set of files ensures full file transfer and future playability with the right tools.
What we've found with developing a workflow for the Smithsonian Channel programs is that no one tool covers all of the necessary steps for preserving video. Some of the steps include ingesting or transferring of the video for preservation work, running a checksum, bulk renaming the files to follow standards, and embedding metadata.
In assessing your video preservation needs, have a look around at some of the digital preservation tools available, bearing in mind that some are recommended for institutional use. Jumping in and spending hundreds of dollars for fancy software that doesn't always do what it says on the package isn't something that institutions can afford to do and, likely, neither can you.
I'm returning to my archives program with a new sense of the cooperation and flexibility required to create from scratch a process for keeping up with our evolving digital preservation needs. And, thanks to the Smithsonian Channel's vivid creations, I now have a reservoir of weird and wonderful information for a winning bar trivia strategy.
- Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs, 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
- Digital Video Preservation: Continuing the Conversation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Channel on YouTube
- Accession 12-610, Smithsonian Channel, Productions, 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives