The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
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
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
For years office workers, college students, and others relied on saving their electronic documents to 5.25” floppy disks and then to 3.5” diskettes. These documents were typically small word-processing or datasheets, as a floppy would only hold about 160 kb to 1.2 mb of data, and the PC home user was not creating and storing the gigabytes of audio, video and image files that are commonplace today. The 5.25” became obsolete in the early 1990s, but as you might guess, they still show up to this day at the Archives. There are about 400 of them in our collections, which also include the 3.5” diskettes, ZIP disks, CDs, DVDs, external drives, and USB flash drives.
For a while we were able to access the 5.25” floppies on an older PC running Windows 2000 not connected to the network. That machine was affectionately known as “Granny” due to its lack of speed and was later replaced by another machine running Windows XP. Accessing floppies was hit or miss with that operating system because XP does not support all 5.25” formats. There would be “disk not formatted” errors even though we were sure there was data on the disk.
We recently acquired some hardware and software called the FC5025 that now allows us to access most of those files in our current Windows 7 environment. Nevertheless, there are some disks that are just inaccessible and can no longer be recovered due to previous storage conditions, handling, or other issues.
In addition to being able to access these older files, we are able to do this on the secure Smithsonian network. This saves us time with our processing workflow by not having to save files to an external drive and then copying to our network server for preservation work.
The 5.25” drive with a floppy controller is attached to the PC using a USB plug. The user interface software runs to access the contents on the disk. If it is successful, there is the option to save the files directly or to create a disk image of the floppy. We have opted to do the disk image and then extract the files since this method retains the original file date. The software also indicates if it cannot recover the files.
The work does not end there though, as we need to scan for viruses and determine what the file formats are and how the files can be accessed and preserved. We have encountered WordStar and older WordPerfect files. As time allows we can revisit collections that contain 5.25” floppies that we could not access in the recent past.
The Death of the Floppy, Engines of Our Ingenuity, University of Houston
Floppy Disks are Dead, Long Live Floppy Disks, The Library of Congress
Think the Floppy Disk is Dead? Think Again!, Digital Trends
Fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott, is arguably most famous outside the Smithsonian for his panoramic photographs of the Canadian Rockies, taken during his geological expeditions in the early twentieth century. Therefore, it was somewhat mysterious when an indenture from 1740 turned up in Walcott family papers donated to the Smithsonian Archives in 2015 by Walcott’s great-granddaughter. Folded into a small packet and somewhat worse for wear with broken folds and missing areas, the wax seals were nonetheless intact. The indenture also features a beautiful fleur-de-lis watermark.
What is an indenture? An indenture is an archaic legal term for a contract. Like many, my only exposure to the word was as part of the concept of indentured servitude, and as a result I related “indenture” more to the service than the binding nature of the agreement. In fact, the word indenture comes from the wavy line or indent cut at the top of the document, which was an early security measure—the copies of the indenture matched exactly, providing a quick way to detect a forgery. So, from the material object—the paper contract—the word expanded its meaning to include the concept as well as the document.
What is this document about? This indenture is a property transfer between a young couple in New York City, presumably of Dutch origins based on their names—Pieter and Susannah Bosh—and a widow, Elizabeth Carpender. Elizabeth paid them 252 pounds, 10 shillings for the property. From the signatures and official seals we learn that while Pieter was literate and signed his own name, Susannah was not; she made her mark and a scribe penned her name alongside it. Susannah was also carefully consulted in the sale—a “memorandum” on the outside of the folded document states that she participated in the transaction of her own free will. The notary who ascertained this and served as one of the witnesses, Philip van Cortlandt, was son of Stephanus van Cortlandt, the first American-born mayor of New York City.
The indenture had been folded multiple times, and exterior folds were heavily abraded with breakages and losses evident. To facilitate mending of the document and to enable flat storage, the folds were locally humidified using Gore-Tex compresses. After initial relaxation was complete, the document was lightly humidified overall using an ultrasonic humidifier and left to dry sandwiched between blotters and weighted beneath a Plexiglas sheet, leaving the portion with the seals uncovered. All humidification was performed from the verso or back of the document to avoid catalyzing degradation of the paper by the corrosive iron-gall ink, which is sensitive to moisture. The thickness of the paper made it less likely that contact would occur, and it was deemed an acceptable risk.
A three percent weight/volume solution of gelatin was prepared to use as an adhesive owing to its free-iron-ion isolating characteristics, as the indenture is written extensively in iron-gall ink. The cooled and set gelatin was then sieved through a horsehair strainer to create a gelatin mousse. Scarfed tears were realigned and gelatin applied to the scarfed areas, then left to dry under weight. Broken folds and non-scarfed tears were realigned and mended with the gelatin mousse brushed through Berlin tissue pieces. Scarfed tears needing additional support were treated in the same way.
A sympathetic paper was chosen to fill the loss areas, with a similar color, weight, and chain-and-laid-line pattern—a Mitsumata Japanese paper. A light sheet was placed beneath the indenture loss areas to clearly illuminate the shape of the losses. The repair paper was placed to cover a fill, with chain-and-laid lines aligned, and the fill was traced with a mechanical pencil. These were then cut with an electric perforating pen and placed in the losses. Pieces of Berlin tissue were shaped to mimic the loss areas with a small overlap, then placed atop the fills. Gelatin mousse was then brushed through the tissue to attach the fills from the rear. The mends were then allowed to dry under weight.
Though the connection to the Walcotts is still unclear, this document from New York Colony only a few decades before the American Revolutionary War is a fascinating look at this particular period of history that is not often represented in the Archives, and was an excellent opportunity to hone conservation treatment skills.
Accession 06-062 - Charles Doolittle Walcott Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Re-mounting the American Bison, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives