The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Digitization
James Smithson’s original purpose in bequeathing his estate to the United States was to establish the Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” And the saying goes - learn by doing. To this end, the Smithsonian has been increasing its interactive opportunities across its entire network of museums and research centers, and the Archives are no exception.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern with the Digital Services Division (DSD), mainly working on the digitization of special collections. During my time here, I noticed that both the DSD and the Archives as a whole place a heavy emphasis on public engagement with the Archives collections. Peoples' use of collections definitely plays an important role in guiding the Archives decisions on what to prioritize for digitization. This aspect combined with other factors such as the physical condition and size of the collection, the available information about the materials, and the use of digitized collections for special projects inform the Archives as to what collections to digitize.
My work this summer, along with a few other interns and volunteers, was to digitize some of the Archives collections for special projects. All of us came from different backgrounds and had varying degrees of experience with digitization. With the ever increasing demand for digitized materials from the Archives, it is constantly in need of as many helping hands as possible. As a result a great deal of the digitization work is done by interns or volunteers.
The digitization of materials allows the Archives to share its collections with those who are not able to physically come to the Archives. By making its content as widely available as possible on the Archives' website, in the Collections Search Center, and in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) its collections can be discovered by as many people as possible. A new avenue that people can interact with the Archives collections can be found in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, where “volunpeers” can help transcribe text from digitized materials. Meghan Ferriter, Project Coordinator, Smithsonian Transcription Center, talks about the role of volunpeers in her blog post Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery.
Making archival collections available online and engaging people to help make them more accessible are just some of the many steps towards connecting people to collections. As more museums, libraries, and archives put their collections online there will be more opportunities for people to see materials from across the country and from across the world. The Smithsonian has made great strides in the past few years in getting its collections online and is now poised better than ever to work with other institutions and organizations to make it collections more readily discoverable.
Indeed, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough mentions in his e-book, Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, that one of the Smithsonian’s next endeavors is collaboration with other institutions. With the expanding role of Wikipedia in research archives around the world are recognizing that collaboration with sites that get heavy traffic is highly beneficial in making people aware of their collections. Indeed, the Archives continues to experience an increase in traffic on its website and in its use of collections as a result of hosting regular Wikipedia edit-a-thons.
The Archives is currently engaged in work with Gale Cengage Learning, and also often cooperates with other folks at the Smithsonian such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History. By collaborating with other museums and institutions in making its collections available, the Archives is following the tenet laid out by James Smithson for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."
- Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Location! Location! Location!, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, by G. Wayne Clough, Smithsonian Institution
I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don’t feel any need to strive. - John N. Robinson
One of my favorite parts of working in an archive is the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds, to learn more about their stories and experiences. One such person I encountered recently was John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and dedicated artist. Featured in Volume II, Edition 2 of the Here at the Smithsonian production series, Robinson’s artwork documents not only the regional history of Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood’s growth and development, but also the personal history of his family, often featuring his wife, children, and grandparents. The episode features Robinson interacting with a group of fifth graders at the Anacostia Community Museum.
As I watched the video footage, I was struck by his dignity and gentle character, which is also conveyed to the viewer through his art. His style is one of celebration, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the beauty found in little things.
Born on February 18, 1912 in the Holy Hill community of Georgetown, Robinson was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death when he was only eight years old, his father having abandoned him and his four siblings not long after. Their grandmother, Anna Barton, took in laundry to help support the family. Robinson and his siblings would assist her by delivering the clothes around Georgetown. Robinson remembered his grandmother as a “warm, lovely person.” Her husband, Ignatius Barton, was a U.S. Army veteran and had been a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Robinson described him as a kind man with a gruff exterior.
Robinson enjoyed doodling and sketching in his spare time - and sometimes while on the job. He had to leave junior high school to begin working, due to the family’s financial situation. His grandfather arranged a job for him, dusting automobiles at the garage where Barton was employed. It was while at this job that a chauffeur noticed Robinson’s sketches on a discarded time card and showed them to his sister, Elizabeth Thompson. She brought them to the attention of James Herring, art professor and founder of the Howard University art department. Recognizing Robinson’s talent, Herring arranged for Robinson to receive art instruction at Howard for a time, free of charge. Robinson studied under the tutelage of James Porter, though he wasn’t able to stay long-term, due to financial hardship.
When he was seventeen, Robinson’s grandparents moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Garfield Park. His new next door neighbor was Gladys Washington, with whom he fell in love; they married in 1934. Together, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. It was also after moving to Garfield Park that Robinson began to devote more time to painting, including religious murals in community churches. Robinson went on to be employed in food service at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, eventually rising to management. He retired in 1970.
Outside of his family and community, Robinson didn’t gain much notoriety as an artist until later in life. In the 1940s, he displayed his work at Lafayette and Franklin Parks, through the Outdoor Art Fairs sponsored by the Times Herald. Later his work was featured at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, a haven for multicultural diversity and one of the first black-owned art galleries in America. He exhibited a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976, at a time when few blacks were welcomed there, through a partnership with the Anacostia Community Museum. Another one-man show followed at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1983. Other exhibitions included ones at Howard University, the National Museum of Natural History, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Atlanta University, Xavier University, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Oxon Hill Public Library, and the Washington Project for the Arts.
On October 17, 1994, John Robinson passed away. A family man, he mused that perhaps he could have been more ambitious in promoting his art earlier in life, but he also recognized success is not just in material things, but sometimes is seen best in “the happiness of those we love.”
- Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- “Here, Look at Mine!” exhibition records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
- John N. Robinson artist file, Smithsonian Libraries
- Stunning, simply stunning - Infographic from the Library and Archives of Canada that describes their collections and services one comic book panel at a time. [via Effie Kapsalis, SIA]
- Brilliant - Millions of histoic copyright-free images are being added to Flickr that are seachable via automatically added tags. Thanks to Kalev Leetaru and the Internet Archive! [via BBC News]
- Rosa Parks Archive purchased by Howard G. Buffet to be donated to, for the time being, undetermined institution. [via USA Today]
- Smithsonian Transcription Center continues to be in the news at Smithsonian Magazine and at Federal News Radio.
- Now available - Digitized speeches from the likes of Ray Bradbury and Charles Schultz from the 1960s and 1970s at UCLA. [via InfoDocket]
- Introducing Photogrammar - A project coming out of Yale that is a web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI). [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- While not hidden away in a basement, corporate archives and archivists face challenges that others in the profession do not. [via Advertising Age]
- At the touch of your fingertips - the FBI has digitized 30 million records - and as many as 83 million fingerprint cards - as part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, a state-of-the-art digital platform of biometric and other types of identity information. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
The Smithsonian Transcription Center has been around for over a year and the community of #volunpeers who expertly transcribe and review texts has grown and grown. This summer, my project was to get to know the community of #volunpeers who contributed to Smithsonian Institution Archive’s projects by looking through pages and pages of data reflecting the quantity and frequency of completing transcription and review activities. Here is a graph of the activity of Archives #volunpeers during the first 6 months of the year.
To understand why activity was high during certain moments and low during others, and to explore how the Transcription Center operates as a system with multiple moving parts, I took a systems approach and a landscape ecology perspective.
The three parts of the system that I explored are:
- #Volunpeer behavior - The frequency and quantity of transcription and review activities completed by users
- Project landscape - The amount and type of Archivesprojects available for activity
- Social media communication - Transcription Center special events and social media posts by Smithsonian units and the #volunpeer community
Each of these components is related to one another. For instance, #Volunpeer behavior is affected by the types of projects available for activity and the type and quantity of social media communication at a given moment. #Volunpeers generally gravitate towards projects with a narrative component, like diaries or field notes written poetically. Furthermore, events like #7DayReviewChallenge and #CandC (Contribute&Connect) foster the re-engagement of formerly dormant #volunpeers and boost the activity of existing active contributors.
The most prominent characteristic of the Archives community of #volunpeers is that the majority of all activity is completed by a handful of top contributors. Does this matter? Is this trait good, bad, or both? The answer is both.
The Archives is incredibly lucky and thankful to have such amazing power #volunpeers, which corresponds to a high-volume of transcription and review activity and opportunities for knowledge discovery, but this trait has the potential to threaten the overall health of the Transcription Center system. Why? Let’s turn to landscape ecology and Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence to understand.
A healthy and sustainable system, meaning that it is productive and exists long term, requires resiliency, meaning that if threatened or damaged, the system can recover quickly and fully. If a system is not resilient, it is vulnerable and fragile, meaning that its vitality is at risk if the system suffers a loss.
In his Index, Baird corresponded with hundreds and hundreds of natural history collectors and citizen scientists, some of whom collected the same things from similar geographical locations. For example, there was a redundancy of shell collectors from Grand Rapids, Michigan listed in Baird’s Index.
One of the many benefits of having a large, diverse, and redundant network of collectors was that if one collector stopped collecting, or his/her items were damaged during transport to the Smithsonian, Baird could draw upon the collections of another correspondent who had a similar collection. Seemingly redundant collectors become the saviors of the system! This allows it to continue uninterrupted, which increases its sustainability and stability.
The same is true for the Transcription Center.
Having a large and diverse group of #volunpeers who complete activity instead of a tiny group of power #volunpeers contributes to a healthy, resilient, stable, and sustainable system. Since the Archives still has numerous projects that need transcribing and reviewing, striving for the sustainability of the Transcription Center is a top priority for us and we hope that you feel the same way!
Check out the Transcription Center for yourself!
And if you want to know more about Baird’s Index, check out this interview with Smithsonian historian, Pam Henson.
- Accession 91-069 - Spencer Fullerton Baird Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Increasing Access: The Smithsonian Transcription Center, by Kristin Conlin, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Paper Painting: Using Acrylics to Repair Leather Bindings, by Breann Young, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Transcription Beyond Description: Engaging Opportunities and Weaving Webs of Knowledge, by Meghan Ferriter, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- It's official - the Smithsonian Transcription Center is ready for all you volunteers to help transcribe test from diaries to specimen labels to coins. [via Smithsonian Science]
- If you couldn't make it to this year's Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, you can follow along at the conference twitter stream, #saa14.
- Think your air conditioner is not cold enough, early Smithsonian staff working in the non-air conditioned space of the United States National Museum building, now the National Museum of Natural History, came up with their own way to keep their spaces cool. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- With Shark Week coming to a close, take a look at the state of sharks today, 40 years after the publication of Jaws. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- From the Smithsonian Institution Libraries - Awesome GIFs made from their collections. [via Wired Design]
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