The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
Back in 2010, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives launched the Field Books Project, a joint initiative focused on enriching access to the institution’s collection of field books, notes, images, and journals related to field research. Since then, field books have become a common theme on this blog, as well as popular projects on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. There was just one slight problem:they weren’t searchable on our website. In fact, not only were they not searchable, they weren’t actually anywhere on our website at all.
That recently changed as work was completed that made over 9,000 field book related records available on our website. Those 9,000 records contain collection descriptions, organizations information, collector information, expedition information, and finally the field books themselves. Each of these records contains detailed metadata, which helps our search functionality (and you!) find these field books, much like the large collection of images found on our website. As cool as searching for them by metadata is, the field books contain a lot of information that just won’t show up on a metadata search. To be able to truly search the field books, they really need to be fully text searchable.
Thanks to the contributions by the digital volunteers at the Transcription Center, we are now working on doing just that. As the field books are largely hand written notes, they need to be transcribed into machine-readable text before we can index their content. Once the volunteers at the Transcription Center complete transcribing a field book, we pull the resulting full text and encode it with the field book item on our site. The text is then crawled by our search appliance and indexed with the full text.
The result is that a search for “bipedally” will return James Peters’ Field notes from his 1949 Mexico trip, as the phrase “I saw a very large lizard which stayed too far ahead of me. To get a shot at it, that got up on its hind legs and ran, bipedally” appears in his entry for March 8, 1949.
The really cool thing about all of this is that you can help us with this project and be a part of making our field books searchable and findable. As I mentioned before, none of this would be possible without the work done by the digital volunteers over at the Transcription Center, and they’re always looking for more volunteers.
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The problem of dealing with mold on papers and books in collections has been an ongoing concern of mine for a number of years. I have responded to biological damage on library and manuscript materials--beginning with a mold damaged photograph that had weathered both Hurricane Katrina and irradiation treatment used for decontamination.
My goal of late has been to develop procedures for mold contaminated collections that keep staff safe, and to develop an isolated collections cleaning space. Hagley Museum and Library, where I am Library Conservator, became a Smithsonian Affiliate a few years ago. When I learned of the Smithsonian Affiliations Visiting Professionals program, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to bolster my mold I.Q. I applied for the program and was thrilled to find a kindred spirit at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Conservator Nora Lockshin who is head of Collections Care agreed to be my mentor for two weeks in Washington D.C. this summer.
I was lucky to have Nora, as she was a welcoming well-connected host. She coordinated visits to several institutions in the D.C. region, including our colleagues at the Library of Congress, Maryland State Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration. During our tours we learned first-hand from conservators who had responded to mold and water emergencies. Hearing of their experiences shone a light on the importance of having plans, and supplies and facilities readied for dealing with water damaged collections because response time is limited. To prevent the germination of mold, drying or freezing procedures should commence within 48 hours of discovering damage.
The Maryland State Archives (MdSA) shared with us their experience dealing with historic paper records that had experienced more than one flood. Besides the obvious mold growth, due to the source of the floodwaters, it was likely that bacterial contaminants were present. Because of the volume of these papers (record cartons numbering in the hundreds), they determined that gamma irradiation was their best option. In my own experience, a gamma irradiated photograph that I had treated years ago was browned and “toasted” along the edges, likely due to overheating during the dose. Others who have seen irradiated mail (from the anthrax scare and subsequent irradiation of U.S. Postal mail in the early 2000s) have documented melted plastics, browned papers, and deteriorated photographs. Those items had dosages that were not directed by conservators, however, and the irradiation of the MdSA’s historic papers seemed to have fared much better. Gamma irradiation is definitely effective for sterilization. The mold swab tests and cultures done by the conservators at MdSA as a monitoring procedure confirmed this. So far, none of the documents that they have attempted to culture contained any viable mold after treatment.
I also learned that alcohol is effective for killing mold. It must be used at the 70 percent concentration with deionized or distilled water. This mixture is able to penetrate the mold cell wall and move into the cell to cause permanent damage to the mold. The 70 percent alcohol mixture may be used for cleaning surfaces after moldy documents are cleaned, or it may be sprayed on objects to dry out active mold.
We met with Sophia Kapranos, our dedicated industrial hygienist within the Smithsonian’s Office of Health, Safety and Environmental Management. She helped sample mold residues on paper items, one with heavy black spots of mold. The method of sampling was the use of a “tape lift”, in reality a thin prepared microscope slide with a section covered by an adhesive layer that was gently placed in contact with an area of mold to pick up spores. The slide was sent for microscopic examination, and we are awaiting results.
While at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I made some great connections that will be useful for future collaborations. On the whole, it was a great experience! Thank you to all at the Smithsonian who made this possible!
The Mold . . ., The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
I've got mold in my files, Collections Care Guidelines & Resources Forums, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In the fall of 2015, we officially moved over 3 million photographic negatives from the cold storage vault in the basement of the National Museum of American History to our new space at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Thanks to that move, there are new possibilities for projects that will bring great discoveries for the Archives. The first project we started was scanning glass plate negatives from the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts. The collection of glass plates range in date from 1860 to roughly 1920. Sadly, this collection came to SIA with little to no information, so each glass plate is a mystery to be solved.
The question becomes, how do we determine what each image is? The majority falls on institutional knowledge. It seems as though the longer someone has worked at the Smithsonian, the more images they’re able to recognize. One example I’ve discovered is when trying to determine if an image is from the Castle or the Arts and Industries Building. Images from within the building at first glance appear to be the same. However, I started to look at the light fixtures or the windows, and slowly I started to recognize the differences between the two. Knowing the history of the Smithsonian can do wonders when identifying unknown images!
Possessing a strong background in history can also help one identify unknown images. The Smithsonian has pictures of important landmarks, persons, objects, expeditions; the list goes on and on. Some of us are able to recognize people or places because we might be familiar with that subject matter. Each individual becomes invaluable for his or her own specialty.
When all else fails, we have the benefit of reaching out to our Smithsonian Institution colleagues. Curators who specialize in certain subject areas such as textiles, aircrafts or ship models can help. Sometimes, we even reach out to the public to help identify unknown images. Especially for images of buildings or geographic areas that are unknown to us, the general public may be able to help identify them.
With nearly 20,000 glass plates to scan from this collection, we have many more mysteries to solve. Ultimately, we hope to identify each image, but we have to have a realistic expectation and understand that we might not be able to accomplish that. In the end, we want to use all the resources we have available to make this wonderful collection more accessible. This project is a fantastic way to gain more knowledge of what was occurring at the Smithsonian over 150 years ago.
What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr Commons, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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!
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