The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
What do you do when you need information about a business? Check the website? Send an email? Compose a Tweet? There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the answer was to pull out a pen or sit in front of a typewriter and write a letter.
The Smithsonian Institution once had a very large snail mail operation (previously referred to simply as "mail"). All mail that was not specifically addressed to a specific individual was delivered to the Public Inquiry Mail Service (PIMS), a division of the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center. In approximately 1982, PIMS produced a brochure for staff advertising the services they provided. It notes that they received over 28,000 pieces of mail during the previous year. That's over 75 letters a day (not taking into account Sundays or holidays) that either needed to be rerouted or contained routine questions that needed to be answered.
As a fun side note, one of the services advertised in this brochure was the writing and editing of preprinted materials using a word processor, "a marvelous tool for keeping information up to date." Staff from across the Smithsonian could send draft texts for bibliographies, fact sheets, and other preprinted reference materials to PIMS. The PIMS staff would "put the text into the machine's memory," edit it according The Chicago Manual of Style, and return it for final approval. If there were additions or corrections to be made, "the changes can be printed out within moments."
Almost two decades later, email had become a common form of communication. An article in the Winter 1999 issue of "The Info Special: A Newsletter of the Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center," an article noted that email traffic from the public had increased 89% from the previous year. In August 1999 alone, PIMS received 1,375 inbound emails.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to receive emails and even letters from the public, but also conveys information to the public via its websites and social media accounts.
- Contact Us, Smithsonian Institution
- Where is the Smithsonian?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-034 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Typewriters at the Smithsonian
This year, the United States team is sending 230 athletes to Sochi, Russia, the most any nation has ever sent to a winter Olympics. Some of the most promising American athletes are the ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Though traditionally the other divisions of skating are more talked about in the United States, it seems that the Smithsonian has a strong history in the sport.
In the early eighties the Smithsonian had several skate “clubs.” One of the clubs was a competitive group who practiced two to three times a week throughout the year. The group included Lydia Paley, a museum technician in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Discovery Room; Bette Walker, a secretary at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Martha Goodway, a metallurgist for the Conservation Analytical Lab (now Museum Conservation Institute); Christine Smith, a paper conservator at the National Portrait Gallery; and Gary Sturm, a specialist in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Musical Instruments. For the club, winter practices got much easier when they met at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden outdoor rink where the skaters would learn the twenty defined ice dancing routines required by the United States Figure Skating Association. For this group, practice made perfect, and Smith and Strum were awarded the Walter C. Sheen and Sidney Asher trophies Ice Club of Washington for Male and Female Skaters of 1980 for their ice dancing achievements throughout the year.
While some Smithsonian skaters competed, others simply used the activity to clear their mind during the work day. Almost every day during the winter of 1980 a crowd of Smithsonian staff glided over to the rink on the National Mall to take a break and skate up a sweat. One pair, Phyllis Spangler, a Museum Technician for the Medical Entomology Project of the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, and her husband Paul Spangler, an Associate Curator in the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, put their work on ice, and strapped on their skates to perfect a pair’s routine.
The frigid temperatures this year ensure that you’ll have good ice conditions, if you want to take up a new activity, and the National Gallery ice skating rink could not be more convenient. So whether you are a competitor, amateur, or just someone who wants to get into the Olympic spirit, check out the history of the featured sports and you might be surprised how popular they are!
- Record Unit 371 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988, Smithsonian Insttution 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:
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
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