The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
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:
With over a decade of experience appraising and acquiring the Smithsonian's institutional records, it's rare that I come across a type of document I've never seen before.
Cordelia Rose, former registrar at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, now the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, presented me with one of those rare instances last summer. During a "fit of tidying," she came across two "scrolls" which she had created in 1986 and 1987 to map the information flow surrounding the registration and loans processes. They were then used by a programmer, Jay Vanatta, to create the first automated systems for the museum's collections.
At the time of their creation, Ms. Rose considered these to be working documents and hadn't thought about possible historic value. She had created them quickly, using materials that were convenient for the task at hand, such as post-it notes and sheets of paper glued end to end. The scrolls were simply part of the path to the final product. In her blog post last week, “To Post-it or Not to Post-it,” Kirsten Tyree provides a detailed description of one of the scrolls and the steps undertaken to preserve it.
The Archives has taken a similar stance on what we now refer to as "Life Cycle Management Documents" (key specification and design documents created during the development of an information system). These records must be kept during the lifespan of a system, but one year after the system is replaced, the records may be destroyed.
What makes these scrolls significant is that they have survived. Ms. Rose kept them as teaching tools, but they now represent the many manual processes that were being automated across the Smithsonian and throughout the museum world during the 1980s, few of which are documented in the Archives.
What is also valuable about these scrolls is their subject matter. Most records created by a registrar's office pertain to an individual object, collection, or exhibition. With the exception of collections statistics, there tends to be little documentation within the Archives of the larger scope of a registrar's work or how it is accomplished.
Finally, the personal touches included in these scrolls make them particularly interesting. Ms. Rose illustrated the documents with photographs and thought bubbles as the work progressed. These weren't just maps and workflows, but a celebration of a major and rewarding accomplishment.
- To Post-it or Not to Post-it, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Records and Information Management Month: The Registrar, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams once stated, "A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into." Though this may be true for most people, for sixteen years the Smithsonian Institution Archives has been fortunate to have one volunteer to look into, research, discover, and catalogue thousands of images.
Zoe Martindale first came to the Archives in 1997. Prior to retirement, Martindale read a Washington Post article about volunteer opportunities at the Smithsonian. She saved the article and when retirement came she promptly called the Smithsonian's volunteer office and applied for a position. The Smithsonian volunteer opportunities appealed to her because she thought it would give her a chance to "exercise her brain." Never one to stay idle, once accepted into the program Martindale scrolled through the hundreds of positions, looking for one that might be a good fit. She knew she did not want to be a docent, but was otherwise open to anything. When asked why the Archives position appealed to her, Martindale replied "I am not sure why the job stuck out to me, it just did."
Martindale came to the the Archives offices, then located in the Arts and Industries Building (a building which she loved to work in and explore), and interviewed for the position with Historian Pam Henson. Today she recalls with amusement that Henson told her she needed a volunteer who could stay at least a year or two, since the training was pretty involved. Over a decade later she is still at the Archives chipping away at her work.
As a historic image cataloguer, Martindale catalogs the images into a Smithsonian database, which allows them to be viewed on the Archives' website and the Smithsonian's Collection Search Center. For each image, Martindale enters the physical and digital descriptions and locations, along with a summary and index terms. She loves to "find out information about the image, and elaborate on the brief descriptions that she is given." She also works diligently to come up with index terms so that people can easily find the images in search engines.
When an image first comes across her desk, Martindale "always questions what the image is showing and always feels that there is more information to find and more context to add." Information is "not just about the image itself, but the people, places and topics, that the image touches on." She looks at the image from the point of view of the public, and asks, "why is it important and where does it fit into the Smithsonian story?"
For Martindale it is "important to notice the small things," to differentiate one image from another. In fact she has helped determine dates by finding small details that others have missed. Martindale can look at an image that looks similar to a different image, but find there are differences to tell them apart. When asked how she acquired this skill, she replied, "I am not sure why I can pick it out, it just comes to me." The other invaluable skill Martindale possesses is her ability to remember every image she has come across. She commented, "I don't necessarily remember the content information and details, but I can look at a picture and remember if I cataloged it or an image that is similar to it." This allows her to connect images to others found in different collections that might otherwise have remained separate.
Prior to working at the Archives, Martindale never worked with images before. She always loved looking at photographs, but never pursued photography herself. Martindale said, "I am bad at taking pictures because I cut people out of them accidently." However, she is always amazed to see what people can see in images. "I am always interested in what people see and pick out, because I can pick the picture apart."
And the more to pick out the better. When asked what her favorite images are, Martindale replied, "I really like researching the scenes of Washington, DC, love the images of the history of the buildings. People images are not always very interesting, but I really like the buildings, and the changing face of the National Mall." She loves "images with multiple elements in the foreground, background, sides, and pointing those out to the public." But it is the mystery of each picture that brings her back for more each week. She sometimes goes home and mulls over the wording of the descriptions to make sure her summaries come across clear, so that people not only find it, but find it interesting.
Martindale sometimes becomes overwhelmed with the amount of images there are to describe. She can spend hours on one picture to try and identify things about the image, but likes that she will never run out of work. Martindale stated, "I have seen how the cataloging standards have changed and wish I could go back and improve some of the others, but I have so many new entries to do." She is still amazed though at how much she has learned about the Smithsonian and that it is much more than just the museums.
Martindale has become a great asset not just to the staff but to the research fellows, interns, and fellow volunteers. She constantly helps others with the images that she has cataloged, and likes to share her knowledge. Even after thousands of images, Martindale still gets excited when her images go live online. She loves sharing the things she has uncovered. When asked about the job Martindale simply stated, "some people might look at it as a boring job, but I love it."
- Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
With the dry cold weather upon us, I thought it would be therapeutic to share with you some treatments from the lab showing a day at the spa, at least for our paper documents!
Recently, the conservation lab acquired some tightly rolled documents in dire need of flattening. Since it was hard to view them in their current rolled state, and we prefer to reduce risk by storing items flat when we can, we decided it was best to try and unroll them. Unfortunately, they were also quite brittle, so simply unrolling them by hand would have possibly induced damaging wrinkles and cracks. With these factors in mind, I chose to prepare them for a moisture rich “retreat”, otherwise known as humidification, to help open them up. This process involves carefully reintroducing moisture into the paper to relax the fibers, allowing the rolled paper to slowly open and expand, followed by controlled drying between absorbent blotter, felts, and weights. The result is a much happier, flatter and generally more flexible paper. You might remember this process nicely detailed in a past post, Halloween Humidification Horrors.
To prepare, I gently scrolled through the papers to examine for dust and dirt, and to look for any trouble spots such as adhesives, seals, or inks that might bleed or change under high humidity. As I did, I gently cleaned the documents’ surfaces with a soft cotton swab to remove as much dirt as possible, an important step as dirt can sink further into the paper during humidification making it much harder to remove afterwards. Once ready, I placed the rolled documents inside the closed humidity chamber, where the paper fibers could begin their “spa treatment”. The only thing missing was some ambient music! The chamber, as seen in the enclosed bubble above, reached a comfortable 80% relative humidity as observed on our humidity indicator card. Perfect for the fibers to become stress free and let go.
Generally, paper is naturally hygroscopic, meaning it readily absorbs and holds water vapor. However, depending on how it was made and the histories the individual documents have of use and storage, the moisture uptake of dissimilar papers will vary. While some may take a short time to relax, others may take longer, so I frequently checked and tested during their time in the chamber to see which of the documents had already begun to uncurl and could be opened even further. Once the documents did not resist opening and had lost all their prior stiffness, I carefully placed them in a sandwich of blotter papers and felts, selecting the surfaces of blotter to match the paper surface characteristics, while protecting raised embedded elements such as seals by building up a protective barrier. Lastly, I placed restraints and weight to flatten and let the drying happen in a controlled manner. Several days later, the documents were somewhat rejuvenated, being sufficiently dry and flat, as you can see in the before and after photographs below! I hope all of you get some much needed spa treatment soon to get through this dry cold winter as well!”
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with Ursula B. Marvin, a retired geologist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who has studied meteorites around the world and lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions.
Dr. Marvin received a history degree from Tufts College in 1943. In numerous lectures she has spoken about the path that led to her becoming a geologist. Tufts required two years of science courses for liberal arts degrees. Originally not enthused by this idea, Dr. Marvin was surprised by what happened next. She states in a 1997 Adventurous Women Lecture Series, "Geology lit a fire. I fell in love with it the first week." Considered an unacceptable profession for women, when Dr. Marvin approached her geology professor indicating that she wanted to change her major, he said, "You should be learning to cook." Undeterred, she took the "sneaky stratagem" of continuing to pursue history while also taking all the geology classes she could; enough to gain a minor in geology that led to a full-tuition scholarship to study geology at the Harvard-Radcliffe graduate school. At Harvard she became the first woman research assistant in the geology department and received her Master's in 1946.
When her husband Tom, an economic geologist, was approached by Union Carbide to search for mineral deposits in Brazil, Ursula accompanied him and the company paid her expenses. As she describes it, their first years of marriage were a great adventure. They worked in Brazil from 1952 to 1953, Angola from 1953 to 1954, returned briefly to Cambridge, and then returned to Brazil from 1956 to 1958.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Space Age had begun, and meteoritics opened up as a cutting-edge discipline. Back in Cambridge, Dr. Marvin was presented with the opportunity to study meteorites with Edward L. Fireman of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), and was officially hired in 1961. In 1969, the same year Dr. Marvin completed her Ph.D., she became co-investigator with her SAO colleague, John A. Wood, to study lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions. She continued to study lunar samples until 1996.
In 1973, Japanese scientists published a discovery that nine meteorites collected in Antarctica were four completely different kinds of meteorites, not nine pieces of the same meteor shower. The implications were quite significant; this meant that meteorites landing on the ice cap may be frozen in and concentrated together during ice motion, making the Antarctic a rich location for study. Dr. Marvin became the first woman on the American Antarctic research team, traveling three times: during 1978-1979, 1981-1982 and again in 1985.
Dr. Marvin has, from the beginning of her career, been a champion for women in science. She has given numerous lectures at professional meetings and universities, not only about her research, but on her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession. She was first in line to submit her $2.00 membership fee in 1946 when women were finally allowed into the Harvard Geology Club, she was the first woman to hold various positions in the geology discipline, and she served as the first Federal Women's Program Coordinator at SAO from 1974-1977.
Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Marvin has published on the Continental Drift, received the Geological Society of America History Award (1986), and has both an asteroid (Asteroid Marvin) and Marvin Nunutak (a mountain peeking through the Antarctic ice) named after her. Dr. Marvin retired in 1998 but continues to publish.
During my collecting trip to Cambridge, I worked with Dr. Marvin at her office and at her home to identify personal papers for transfer to the Archives. The materials shipped from Massachusetts include highlights of Dr. Marvin's work in the form of correspondence, lectures, professional activity records, reports, and images of her research activities. This new accession also includes documentation of Dr. Marvin's personal life, adding context to her professional papers. Dr. Marvin kept detailed journals, scrapbooks, family photographs, her original art work, and school coursework--all showing another view of her journey. As we looked through her personal papers and discussed her various activities, I learned a great deal about her life and career, and continue to be impressed with her work as I process this new collection.
The finding aid to the Ursula Marvin Papers, Accession 13-060, will be available in the next few months, and will be of particular interest to those studying meteoritics, geology and the history of women in science.
Marvin, Ursula. Continental drift : The Evolution of a Concept, Washington [D.C.] : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - Geologist Emeritas: Dr. Ursula Marvin
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