The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
What better way to usher in Preservation Week 2016 than to touch on a topic often overlooked when discussing the preservation of our cultural heritage? Preservation surveys have been taking place for decades now and provide preservation and collections managers with important information regarding the overall state of collections. This information can then be used to aid in prioritization for preservation actions, in terms of conservation treatment and digitization; to advocate for the funding of preservation activities; and to assess the current state of a preservation program by identifying strengths and areas requiring improvement. Participation in surveys can be at both an individual organization level, as well as at a national level.
Currently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, partnering with seven other Smithsonian units, is conducting a comprehensive survey of our audiovisual collections consisting of analog film, video, and audio held across the Institution. This survey focuses primarily on preservation prioritization – determining the current state of our media collections, their future needs, and how those needs will be met by the Smithsonian.
Based on Harvard University’s Mellon-funded Photograph Survey and adapted for the unique requirements of audiovisual materials, the survey is a risk-based preservation assessment that collects data on several different factors – the character and extent of the collection, the physical and intellectual accessibility, current housing, format obsolescence, and physical media condition. Another facet of the survey is an item-level count of the collections, including factors such as format, film length, run time, run speed, and substrate material. This information will provide guidance in determining future staffing, supply needs, and methodologies for potential large-scale projects. In addition, we are conducting testing of cellulose acetate films using acid-detecting (A-D) strips– acid-base indicator papers that turn from blue to green to yellow in the presence of increasing amounts of acetic acid vapors.
The survey will form the basis of a plan of action for multiple units. It will provide data for future pan-institutional audiovisual preservation and reformatting projects, as well as encourage the development of standard in-house guidelines for the preservation of these unique materials within our vast collections.
Additional Surveys to Explore:
- Heritage Preservation’s Heritage Health Index, 2004 and 2014: Heritage Preservation, partnered with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), conducted these surveys to assess the current state of cultural heritage collections in the U.S. and the change in preservation practices over the ten year span between surveys. On June 30, 2015, Heritage Preservation members voted for the dissolution of the organization and several of its programs were transitioned to the Foundation of the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC).
- The American Library Association – Association for Library Collections & Technical Services’ Preservation Statistics Survey: Reintroduced in 2012, the goal of this survey is to document the state of preservation activities, both conservation and digitization, using quantitative data to facilitate peer comparison and understand the changes and trends in the field.
- The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and FAIC’s relaunch of the Collections Assessment for Preservation (CAP) Program: This program was transitioned to FAIC upon the dissolution of Heritage Preservation and is currently undergoing development to create the infrastructure to run the program. Key components of the new program will include linking museums with training and other resources as needed, improved training for assessors, and aiding in the creation of sustainable collections care and preservation programs. The first call for applications will be in the fall of 2016.
- One Lens for Multiple Archives: A Pan-Institutional Survey of Born Digital Holdings, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The End of the Beginning: A Born Digital Survey at the Smithsonian Institution, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Disk Diving: A Born Digital Collections Survey at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
In November, Smithsonian Institution Archives successfully moved over 3 million photographic negatives from a cold storage unit that had reached end of life to a new state of the art facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center (SISC) in Hyattsville, Maryland. The new space consists of two climate and humidity controlled rooms, a large staging area, and a large processing and digitization lab. Of the new cold rooms, one is kept at 52 degrees Farenheit and accommodates glass negatives, color photographic prints, CDs, and videotape materials, while the other is kept at 26 degrees Farenheit and is for storage of film materials.
We inherited both the old space and the glass negatives in 2008, when the Archives took over all of the historic images pertaining to the Smithsonian Institution’s history from Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS). Located in the basement of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the old cold vault, which had prevented the deterioration of film material for over thirty years, was on the verge of expiration.
For years we have been preparing the contents kept in cold storage for the move, which not only included the design and build out of a new space, but also some huge rehousing efforts. Over one thousand broken glass negatives were stabilized, housing was provided for oversized glass and acetate negatives, and 30,000 glass negatives were separated from the acetate negatives they were originally stored in boxes with. Once the build out was nearing completion, new locations for the materials were mapped and labeled.
The actual move took place over five days. Four Archives staff members were at each location with a move crew of about six to ten, and three refrigerated trucks shuttled material from NMAH to SISC. The move “choreography” consisted of 38 main steps, each divided into numerous sub-steps. In addition to the Archives’ collections, we also moved collections for other units with whom we share the space and whose collections we will continue to store.
Our new space affords us some room to grow. Though we cannot accommodate all of the Smithsonian Institution’s film preservation needs, we are able to bring on new partners and collaborators from units across the institution to provide preventive care for collections at risk. We look forward to working more closely with our historic collections and have plans to systematically digitize materials so that we can share and provide access to the Smithsonian Institution’s fascinating and abundant photographic history.
Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Highlight from the Photo Cold Vault: Gelatin Dry Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress
Tomorrow, on December 18, a little movie you may have heard about called, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, comes out. In the spirit of the occasion, we thought we'd take a look at what Star Wars related materials we have here at the Archives.
First we have a page from the exhibition concept for "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" which was on view at the National Air and Space Museum from 1997-1998.
Next a floor plan for "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth."
We also have some images of models used in the exhibition.
- Accession 11-072: National Air and Space Museum, Exhibits Design Division, Exhibition Records, 1991-1999, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 03-059: Smithsonian Productions, Productions, 1987-2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It’s been an exciting year at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Reference and Photo Fulfillment merged to form an expanded Reference Team, streamlining the process of ordering photos and obtaining permission to publish them.
In addition, the photo collections housed at the former Smithsonian Photographic Services spaces in the National Museum of American History have been moved to a newly completed Cold Vault storage facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Landover, Maryland. This is the culmination of six years of planning, building and moving.
Researchers will have access to these images through our website. This quarter’s Hot Topics illustrations are examples of seasonal photographs currently available online.
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 SIA Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask 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, researcher projects have included:
- The Smithsonian’s SITES program
- Smithsonian Castle façade
- Handbook of the North American Indian
- Scopes Trial
- The Curies
- History of computers at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Fines Arts Commission and the National Gallery
- Data collection practices at the Smithsonian
- Egg collecting in the nineteenth century
- Weather observations
- Museum dioramas
- George Gibbs
- Smithsonian expeditions
- The Roosevelt expedition
- Marine research
- The Smithsonian’s railroad locomotive collection
- Atomic testing sites
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Anthony Burton, The Locomotive Pioneers 1801-1851
- Xiaofei Kang & Donald Sutton, Contesting the Yellow Dragon: Ethnicity, religion and the State in the Sino-Tibetan Borderland
- Andrew Kirk and Kristian Purcell, Doom Towns: The Contested Landscapes of Atomic Testing
- Michael Glazer, Crystallography: A Very Short Introduction
- Richard H. Robbins, Mark Nathan Cohen, Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation
- The Liberty Science Center, "Beyond Rubik's Cube" exhibit
Reference services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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