The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
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
Between September-December 2015 I had the opportunity to undertake a research project on the conservation of eighty letterpress copying books of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) RU000053, under the supervision of Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin.
The Baird volumes are currently restricted for use (although greatly desired by researchers) because the collection is affected by a severe iron-gall ink corrosion and ink fading. Microfilm is available, but is not entirely legible.
In 2011, Smithsonian Postgraduate Fellow Beth Antoine analyzed the Baird’s letterpress copying books, and investigated conservation treatment using antioxidant tetrabutyl ammonium bromide (TBABr) and raised new research questions in her conclusion. My project proposed to design experiments for the new research questions : to compare two non-aqueous conservation treatments; and to develop risk assessment and practical workflow guidelines, in order to stabilize and digitize the collection in the future. I took into consideration the further developments in the conservation of iron gall inks since Antoine’s publication, so I designed a study to investigate three major new research questions related to the conservation of letterpress copying books.
First of all, I further analyzed the effects of TBABr on the paper and compared also treatments with another similar antioxidant: 1-ethyl-3-methyl imidazolium bromide (EMiMBr). Secondly, in the meanwhile, I experimented with different sizing agents and repair tissues both commonly used in conservation or recently developed, such as an Avanse/Plextol heat-set tissue studied by the National Archives and Records Administration. Finally, I investigated the application of the best materials on the volumes with the use of a book suction machine, to minimize risks for the collections and the conservator during conservation treatments.
Different combination of materials were tested on paper strips sacrificed from one of the Baird volumes from unused sheets at the back of volume 4. Moreover, I created mockups with a gampi paper, which is similar to the original types of tissues that were used to create copying books, and three different inks (with different solubility characteristics ) that simulate inks that were used in writing letters copied into letterpress copybooks.
To check the results of the treatment and predict their behavior over time, I put the mockups through artifical aging studies, measuring the following factors: the acidity or alkalinity levels (pH), color change using a colorimeter (in CIEL*a*b* colorspace), migration of iron (II) ions, tensile strength of the samples, and visual examination under ultraviolet light.
The tests were conducted in two different locations: the conservation laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Mecklenburg Materials Archive facility at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.
At the end of the tests, we discovered that, if combined with deacidification, Bookkeeper (a proprietary deacidification solution), and either of two possible sizing agents, the antioxidants TBABr and EMiMBr are effective in stabilizing degraded inks of letterpress copybooks, and the behavior of the two is very similar. However, it is necessary to test the solubility of the inks extensively before planning any treatment. Concerning repair tissues, we selected three possible heat set/solvent set tissues that may be used to stabilize tears and losses. By using a suction table and turning the pages gently with Mylar/Melinex sheets, it is possible to effectively stabilize pages of letterpress copybooks that are affected by severe tears and losses. The results of this research project will help the conservators of the Smithsonian Institution Archives in planning a stabilization and digitization project for the Baird letterpress copybooks over the following years. Moreover, the findings will help archivists and conservators of other institutions in the United States and abroad in preserving this kind of archival collection. A poster of the project will be presented at the American Institute for Conservation 2016 joint annual meeting in Canada.
I wish to thank the Anne Van Camp, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Nora Lockshin, Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Eric Woodard, Director of the Office of Fellowships and Internships, and Dawn V. Rogala, Paintings Conservator of the Museum Conservation Institute for their support of this project. As an emerging Italian paper conservator, completing this research was an extraordinary opportunity to grow professionally and personally, in a rich and stimulating environment!
Record Unit 000053 - Spencer Fullerton Baird, Smithsonian Institution Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum, Correspondence and Memoranda, 1850-1877
"The Conservation of Letterpress Copying Books: a Study of the Baird Collection." Antoine, Beth, Mecklenburg, Marion F., Speakman, Robert J. and Wachowiak, Melvin J. 2011.The Book & Paper Group Annual, 30: 9-27
In November, Smithsonian Institution Archives successfully moved over 3 million photographic negatives from a cold storage unit that had reached end of life to a new state of the art facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center (SISC) in Hyattsville, Maryland. The new space consists of two climate and humidity controlled rooms, a large staging area, and a large processing and digitization lab. Of the new cold rooms, one is kept at 52 degrees Farenheit and accommodates glass negatives, color photographic prints, CDs, and videotape materials, while the other is kept at 26 degrees Farenheit and is for storage of film materials.
We inherited both the old space and the glass negatives in 2008, when the Archives took over all of the historic images pertaining to the Smithsonian Institution’s history from Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS). Located in the basement of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the old cold vault, which had prevented the deterioration of film material for over thirty years, was on the verge of expiration.
For years we have been preparing the contents kept in cold storage for the move, which not only included the design and build out of a new space, but also some huge rehousing efforts. Over one thousand broken glass negatives were stabilized, housing was provided for oversized glass and acetate negatives, and 30,000 glass negatives were separated from the acetate negatives they were originally stored in boxes with. Once the build out was nearing completion, new locations for the materials were mapped and labeled.
The actual move took place over five days. Four Archives staff members were at each location with a move crew of about six to ten, and three refrigerated trucks shuttled material from NMAH to SISC. The move “choreography” consisted of 38 main steps, each divided into numerous sub-steps. In addition to the Archives’ collections, we also moved collections for other units with whom we share the space and whose collections we will continue to store.
Our new space affords us some room to grow. Though we cannot accommodate all of the Smithsonian Institution’s film preservation needs, we are able to bring on new partners and collaborators from units across the institution to provide preventive care for collections at risk. We look forward to working more closely with our historic collections and have plans to systematically digitize materials so that we can share and provide access to the Smithsonian Institution’s fascinating and abundant photographic history.
Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Highlight from the Photo Cold Vault: Gelatin Dry Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress
It’s been an exciting year at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Reference and Photo Fulfillment merged to form an expanded Reference Team, streamlining the process of ordering photos and obtaining permission to publish them.
In addition, the photo collections housed at the former Smithsonian Photographic Services spaces in the National Museum of American History have been moved to a newly completed Cold Vault storage facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Landover, Maryland. This is the culmination of six years of planning, building and moving.
Researchers will have access to these images through our website. This quarter’s Hot Topics illustrations are examples of seasonal photographs currently available online.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The SIA Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- The Smithsonian’s SITES program
- Smithsonian Castle façade
- Handbook of the North American Indian
- Scopes Trial
- The Curies
- History of computers at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Fines Arts Commission and the National Gallery
- Data collection practices at the Smithsonian
- Egg collecting in the nineteenth century
- Weather observations
- Museum dioramas
- George Gibbs
- Smithsonian expeditions
- The Roosevelt expedition
- Marine research
- The Smithsonian’s railroad locomotive collection
- Atomic testing sites
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Anthony Burton, The Locomotive Pioneers 1801-1851
- Xiaofei Kang & Donald Sutton, Contesting the Yellow Dragon: Ethnicity, religion and the State in the Sino-Tibetan Borderland
- Andrew Kirk and Kristian Purcell, Doom Towns: The Contested Landscapes of Atomic Testing
- Michael Glazer, Crystallography: A Very Short Introduction
- Richard H. Robbins, Mark Nathan Cohen, Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation
- The Liberty Science Center, "Beyond Rubik's Cube" exhibit
Reference services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives