The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archives
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
Time to dust off your velocipedes and bone-shakers! The League of American Bicyclists have declared May to be “National Bike Month” and have several events lined up to celebrate biking everywhere; Bike to Work Day (May 16), Bike to School Day (May 7), and Cyclofemme (May 11) .
I love picking a theme or keyword and browsing through the Smithsonian’s collections. It turns out ‘bicycle’ yields some exciting results:
- A letter carrier delivering mail by bicycle
- A spiffy bicycle logo
- A colorful drawing of a boy with his bicycle
- A bicycle toy from South Africa
- A cyclist greeting card
- A portrait of Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle
- A bicyclist matchsafe
- Sarah Hammer’s cycling shoes
- A Roper steam velocipede
- The Wright brothers bicycle shop stationary
- and a bicycling stamp
Here is a selection of our very own cycles from the history of the Smithsonian:
- The Development of the Bicycle, America on the Move, National Museum of American History
- The Wright Cycle Co. History
On this day in 1879 ground was broken for the construction of the United States National Museum building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building. Its concrete foundations were begun on April 29th and the brick-work of the walls on May 21st. The main walls would be completed by November 1st.
Closed to the public since 2004, the Arts and Industries Building began undergoing a repair and restoration project to fix and upgrade the exterior of the building in 2009. Unfortunately due to financial reasons, the building will not reopen at the end of 2014 as originally planned. It was to have held an interim program called Smithsonian Innovation Space, but after a year of program planning and financial review, the Smithsonian concluded that the cost of rehabilitating the building for public use and operating it exceeded its available funding sources at this time.
The exterior of the building has been structurally stabilized and the Smithsonian will continue to explore options to reopen the building, but it will remain closed to the public until further notice. For more information about the history and renovation of the Arts and Industries Building please see the video below.
- Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
When I started working with museums in 2005, the concept of crowdsourcing was in its infancy. That year, James Surowiecki ‘s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” was published and there were tiny experiments in crowdsourcing occurring in the cultural heritage sector. There were hesitations and objections about the whole concept within the GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) community, ranging from trepidation over quality of contributions to concern over the cost of managing everyone who was let in. We were cautiously peering into the future.
In 2009, the crowd broke through to the highest levels of government. In his remarks to his senior staff and cabinet secretaries, President Obama stated:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I'm directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans -- scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs -- because the way to solve the problem of our time is -- the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Our equivalent of ‘president’ in the archives world, David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, took the President's statement to heart. Things were quickly changing and it was time to embrace the crowd or be left behind.
Fast forward to 2014 where crowd-sourcing projects are as ubiquitous as the crowds themselves. In the GLAM world, the crowd is tagging, transcribing, scanning, and writing Wikipedia articles. It has grown to the point that some in the GLAM community rely on the crowd to get their work done. Take the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division. They became the founding member of the Flickr Commons in 2008. Since then, their staff was cut in half. They realized they had a marketing problem in that many people didn’t know about their photograph collections. After six years of participating in the Commons with a contribution of 20,000 “no known copyright restriction” images, they’ve received 60+million views, 45,000 comments, 40,000 fans, 190,000 tags, and most impressively, have updated 6000 catalog records with information from the crowd!
The results at the National Archives are no less impressive. As a result of their “scan-a-thons,” they have uploaded over 100,000 documents to the Wikimedia Commons. When they launched the transcription tool in their Citizen Archivist website, the public transcribed a staggering 20,000 pages in two weeks. They’ve noticed, as we at the Smithsonian have, that the public goes above and beyond what is asked, adding notes on page format and images they encounter in transcribing. This is a lot of volunteer hours, and it’s quality work.
We at the Smithsonian like to say that we have been crowdsourcing since 1849. Our most recent foray, the Transcription Center, quietly kicked off this year in June. With 15,242 pages available for transcription, 9,559 pages have been transcribed and reviewed (note we have included the extra step of crowd-review in our Transcription Center). An enormously dedicated group of 24 volunteers have completed between 1,035 and 6,188 transcriptions and reviews each! Our volunteers come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, Philippines, France and Belgium; people who likely wouldn’t be able to volunteer in person. They are people with training in botany, anthropology, history, and linguistics, and their work is considerate and meticulous.
The tangible results of crowdsourcing are stunning. The intangible results are as rewarding. We get to know our audiences and they, in turn, become advocates for our organizations. It is exciting to think of how these relationships will grow.
Join us online on Tuesday, March 18th, from 3-6pm EST for our second Wikipedia edit-a-thon focused on women in science. Our goal is to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia. There are several important women scientists who to date have no Wikipedia page. Take for example, Dr. Christine Jones Forman, Senior Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian's Center for Astrophysics whose research focuses on the structure and growth of clusters of galaxies and feedback from supermassive black holes in galaxies and clusters. She is the group leader for Chandra calibration, vice president of the American Astronomical Society and the president of Division XI Investigator for the Center for Astrophysics Research Experiences for Undergraduates. Incredible, right? But, no English Wikipedia page.
If you join us as an online participant, you will have access to a live stream of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archives with Head Reference Archivist, Ellen Alers, as well as a discussion on the portrayal of women in the media by Archives' research fellow, Marcel LaFollette. LaFollette is the author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Television and Science on American Television: A History.Here is a WIKIPRES.pdf by LaFollette.
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