The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Flickr Commons
To celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on May 9th, we will be releasing recently digitized specimen drawings by ornithologist Robert Ridgway (1850-1929.) Ridgway's career with the Smithsonian began in 1864 when he wrote asking for help identifying a bird. As they say, the rest is history. Starting in 1869, Ridgway became curator at the Smithsonian's United States National Museum and remained in that job until his death in 1929 (more about Ridgway's life here.)
Ridgway's work is still significant today. He is considered one of the iconic figures in color dictionaries that gave people studying the natural world a common vocabulary for describing the color of flora and fauna. This was very important work prior to photographic technology, and looks remarkably similar to the Pantone books graphic designers use today! Ridgway wrote a short color dictionary in 1886 at the same time as he completed work on a set of rules and guidelines for naming birds. In 1912, he self-published "Color Standards and Color Nomenclature," a compilation of 1,115 colors.
Throughout May, we will release 509 newly digitized scans of his incredibly rich specimen drawings of North American birds to the Flickr Commons. There are even more on this website. We will also be asking for your help in transcribing some of the notes found on his drawings so we can make all the information contained in these works useful and findable to admirers and researchers today.
- Record Unit 7167: Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
These photographs document the field work of explorer, naturalist, and science administrator, Edward William Nelson, and field naturalist and mammalogist, Edward Alphonso Goldman. They worked for the US Biological Survey and collected in the field together for 14 years. These photographs are a stunning look at Mexico during the turn of the twentieth century.
When I started working with museums in 2005, the concept of crowdsourcing was in its infancy. That year, James Surowiecki ‘s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” was published and there were tiny experiments in crowdsourcing occurring in the cultural heritage sector. There were hesitations and objections about the whole concept within the GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) community, ranging from trepidation over quality of contributions to concern over the cost of managing everyone who was let in. We were cautiously peering into the future.
In 2009, the crowd broke through to the highest levels of government. In his remarks to his senior staff and cabinet secretaries, President Obama stated:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I'm directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans -- scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs -- because the way to solve the problem of our time is -- the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Our equivalent of ‘president’ in the archives world, David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, took the President's statement to heart. Things were quickly changing and it was time to embrace the crowd or be left behind.
Fast forward to 2014 where crowd-sourcing projects are as ubiquitous as the crowds themselves. In the GLAM world, the crowd is tagging, transcribing, scanning, and writing Wikipedia articles. It has grown to the point that some in the GLAM community rely on the crowd to get their work done. Take the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division. They became the founding member of the Flickr Commons in 2008. Since then, their staff was cut in half. They realized they had a marketing problem in that many people didn’t know about their photograph collections. After six years of participating in the Commons with a contribution of 20,000 “no known copyright restriction” images, they’ve received 60+million views, 45,000 comments, 40,000 fans, 190,000 tags, and most impressively, have updated 6000 catalog records with information from the crowd!
The results at the National Archives are no less impressive. As a result of their “scan-a-thons,” they have uploaded over 100,000 documents to the Wikimedia Commons. When they launched the transcription tool in their Citizen Archivist website, the public transcribed a staggering 20,000 pages in two weeks. They’ve noticed, as we at the Smithsonian have, that the public goes above and beyond what is asked, adding notes on page format and images they encounter in transcribing. This is a lot of volunteer hours, and it’s quality work.
We at the Smithsonian like to say that we have been crowdsourcing since 1849. Our most recent foray, the Transcription Center, quietly kicked off this year in June. With 15,242 pages available for transcription, 9,559 pages have been transcribed and reviewed (note we have included the extra step of crowd-review in our Transcription Center). An enormously dedicated group of 24 volunteers have completed between 1,035 and 6,188 transcriptions and reviews each! Our volunteers come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, Philippines, France and Belgium; people who likely wouldn’t be able to volunteer in person. They are people with training in botany, anthropology, history, and linguistics, and their work is considerate and meticulous.
The tangible results of crowdsourcing are stunning. The intangible results are as rewarding. We get to know our audiences and they, in turn, become advocates for our organizations. It is exciting to think of how these relationships will grow.
Our new Flickr set honors one of our own, ecologist Helmut Buechner (1918-1975). Buechner joined the Smithsonian in 1965 as its first Director of the Office of Ecology. From 1969 to 1972, Buechner was Senior Ecologist for the Office of Environmental Sciences and from 1972 to 1975, for the National Zoological Park.
These images document his field work while he was a professor of zoology and botany at Washington State College (now University) from 1948 to 1965. Images were taken during his field work in the Pacific Northwest and Wyoming during 1949-1954. To learn more about Helmut Buechner, please reference the finding aid for the archival collection: Record Unit 7279 - Helmut Buechner Papers, 1939-1975.
- Record Unit 7279 - Helmut Buechner Papers, 1939-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Helmut Buechner Set on Flickr Commons
We just launched a set of images from the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey program which took place in the 1960s/early 1970s and sought to learn about plants and animals occurring on the islands, the seasonal variations in their numbers and reproductive activities, and the distribution and population of the pelagic birds of that area. The images were taken on Sand and Johnston Islands from various vantage points, including from LORAN (Long Range Navigation) towers. Since it was the first time I had heard of a LORAN tower, I did a little digging and found out they are radio towers which helped ships to navigate. They are a thing of the past since they have been replaced by GPS and satellite systems. They did offer up some pretty stunning views from this expedition, however. Enjoy the slideshow!
- Record Unit 245 - National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Records, circa 1961-1973, with data from 1923, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- LORAN images on Flickr Commons.
- It’s a (Sea) Bird, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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