The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The Archives was recently gifted an 1860 letter from Spencer F. Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian, to George N. Lawrence, fellow naturalist. The donor requested that, along with a digital version, a transcription be provided, which I undertook alongside a simple treatment.
The letter was in overall excellent condition: the thin paper exhibited only a pair of small tears. These were mended from the reverse with heat-set tissue, prepared from Berlin tissue and Avanse MV-100 acrylic adhesive. The thinness of the tissue allowed for nearly invisible mends, which was especially desirable with such a thin, translucent paper.
I turned next to transcribing the letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of Baird’s correspondence his letters—including this one—were often written in a hurried fashion, making them mildly illegible to modern readers. The immediately obvious presence of scientific names for the various animals discussed made this doubly challenging. With a bit of legwork, assistance from my Institutional History colleagues, and the help of several online resources (including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website), I determined that the letter between Baird and Lawrence details various ornithological specimens being passed back and forth between the two colleagues, several of which appear to have been collected on an expedition to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico.
One particular name proved simple to read and transcribe but difficult to verify—Demigretta rufa. Try as I might, I couldn’t find this species in modern resources. In the end I simply Googled the name as a last resort, and to my surprise a result appeared from the Smithsonian Transcription Center. The project in question was a set of bird head drawings from the personal papers of Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway. Within these drawings was the scientific name I’d had no luck finding elsewhere, and the image it was linked to helped me correctly connect the obsolete name with the modern Egretta rufescens, the reddish egret.
This was a fascinating opportunity to explore a side of the work of the Archives that I normally don’t see. It provided a chance to see the work of digitization and transcription at a closer view, and to make use of the full breadth of resources that the Smithsonian has to offer.
- Volunteer to transcribe primary source documents on the Smithsonian Transcription Center!
Starting tomorrow through next week, we will be digging into the life of entomologist Harrison Gray Dyar (1866-1929). Dyar was honorary custodian of the Smithsonian's United States National Museum's collection of Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, etc.) for more than thirty years. As a scientist, Dyar was noted for his work concerning mosquito-borne diseases. He also developed a new approach to taxonomy examining both larval and adult stages of insects that brought about major changes in the scientific community's understanding of insect systematics.
His private life was no less exceptional. Dyar made a splash in Washington, D.C. newspapers for his scandalous personal life that involved maintaining two families in two different dwellings at the same time. He also had a strange habit of digging tunnels underground, one of which caused an alley to collapse in Dupont Circle.
So stay tuned! Tomorrow we will launch five field books to the Transcription Center for which we need your help transcribing. Also, follow the Smithsonian Libraries' blog next week as author and entomologist, Marc E. Epstein Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., will share different facets of Dyar's life. Also on May 17th at 2:30 p.m., join Epstein on a Google Hangout to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the specimen Dyar collected, and hear more about his fascinating life.
Transcribe and Learn with Us!
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 401- 414, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 415-435, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 436-450, 1893-1894
- H. G. Dyar - Bluebook 451-473, 1894
- H. G. Dyar, Bluebook 474-491, 1894-1897
- Free Google Hangout, May 17th, 2:30 p.m., with author Marc E. Epstein.
- #DigIntoDyar Pinterest Board
- Evening Program and Book Signing with Marc E. Epstein, Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Go here for tickets.
- "The Unfathomable Pursuit of Personal Tunneling"Atlas Obscura, June 26, 2015.
- "Who Was Harrison G. Dyar?," by John Kelly, Washington Post, October 27, 2012 (first in a 10-part series).
- "A final look at D.C.'s tunnel-digging bug man," by John Kelly, Washington Post, November 7, 2012. (last in a 10-part series)
- Harrison Gray Dyar Papers, 1882-1927, SIA RU007101.
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