The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Web/Tech
- It's been an exciting and sad time at the National Zoo these last few weeks as giant panda, Mei Xiang, gave birth to twin cubs, but then unfortunately loss the smaller cub within a few days. [The Torch, SI]
- Last week marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast area and Curator of Photography at the Archives Center at the National Museum of America History, David Haberstich, shares about collecting materials that documented the destruction that occured and its affects on the lives of those there. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Love maps? Well now you can download The History of Cartography for free! [via OpenCulture]
- Something to keep an eye on - Some of the biggest names in tech are teaming up to create a new open source video format. [via Wired]
- Looking for something to do this weekend? Check out the Library of Congress' National Book Festival being held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. [via Library of Congress Blog]
- Smithsonian scientists and colleagues have discovered a new genus and species of river dolphin that has long been extinct. [via SI Newsdesk]
- Simply put . . . duct tape is awesome! Especially so when you have to fix your rover on the moon with it. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- If you are looking for an exciting livestream, check out the University of Arizona, who's playing host to two baby hummingbirds. [via Wired]
- The world's oldest multicolored printed book has been opened and digitized for the first time. [via Colossal]
- The power of the user - Library users at the Los Altos main library in California rejected the new online catalog in favor of the old one. [via InfoDocket]
- For your viewing pleasure NASA is now on Tumblr. [via The Verge]
- The National Archives UK has redesigned the "Records" section of their website to help users find what they are looking for. [via The National Archives Blog]
- History in the making - The invention of digital photography at Kodak. [via Lens blog, NYT]
- Exactly how do you put on an Apollo spacesuit? The folks at the National Air and Space Museum explain. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- One step closer to Mars - Astronauts taste lettuce grown on the International Space Station. [via The Verge]
When I last wrote about email in 2011, there were rumblings that the electronic communication tool was dying. Claims about email being on its last leg still continue. Texting and social media tools are presenting additional options depending on the message content and who it is intended for. A business contract is not being sent via Facebook Messenger. Also consider that many online forms still require an email address from the person seeking a service, newsletter, etc.
Email helps (contacting multiple parties at once) and hinders (messages that get buried) us. It was 10 years ago that the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Rockefeller Archive Center launched its Collaborative Electronic Records Project (CERP) that evolved into an email preservation project. At that the time, the largest email account we worked with was 1.5 GB or 28,000 messages. Today, our collections include individual email accounts that are nearly 30 GB or more than 250,000 messages and attachments. These email collections come from accounts that are no longer active at the Smithsonian, dating from the late 1990s through 2015.
Even if email is obsolete in five years, memory institutions will continue to receive email accounts from previous years that need to be accessible to researchers.
Other archives, libraries, museums, universities, and various organizations also are exploring email preservation challenges within their collections. These messages and attachments come from artists, authors, professors, and government officials, to name a few. Researchers, scholars, and journalists have always had an interest in the correspondence from the past. Previously this information was in the printed form of letters, memos, cards, etc.
In June the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration hosted the Archiving Email Symposium. There were about 150 attendees, which included archivists, librarians, technology specialists, curators, and others. The event included presentations by the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Library of Virginia, Stanford University, and various federal agencies. Topics included toolsets, appraisal, legal and records management issues, and processing workflows. A workshop on the second day focused on challenges and next steps for the interested parties to address through additional collaboration.
More tools and approaches are being developed across the preservation community to provide access and to help preserve email collections. This is just a sampling of some projects:
- Library of Virginia's Kaine Email Project makes the emails from Governor Tim Kaine’s administration searchable online in full-text PDFs.
- Stanford University’s ePADD or email: Process, Accession, Discovery processes an email account and allows for searching, browsing, and restricting messages, as well as applying user-created lexicons to help in finding confidential information. Some visualization features also are available (Note: The Smithsonian Institution Archives assisted in testing the software and providing feedback).
- The University of Maryland is working with email collections from companies that have failed. The project is dealing with issues of PII (personal identifiable information) and researcher access.
- Harvard University developed a system that Harvard curatorial partners are using that takes in email content, deals with processing of the materials, and offers long-term preservation of the messages and attachments.
The Archives also has been busy improving its in-house tools for email preservation work. Since the Smithsonian email accounts have grown in size, our original preservation processing software was showing its limitations. We have been testing an in-house program called DArcMail (Digital Archive Mail System) written in Python that still gives us the XML preservation output we adopted during CERP, as well as a database for searching email messages and attachments within accounts. So far the results have been promising with faster output, multiple options for searching, and viewing related emails within a chain.
The various options that are being tested and implemented demonstrate that many institutions and organizations understand the importance of preserving email communications from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
- The History of Email at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Emerging Collaborations for Accessing and Preserving Email, The Signal: Digital Preservation blog, Library of Congress
- Skeletons found at Jamestown have been identified as those of the colony leaders. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- The National Archives and Records Administrative published guidance this week to government agencies on managing electronic messages. [via InfoDocket]
- Just last week we announced that the National Air and Space Museum launched its first Kickstarter campaign to help conserve, digitize, and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, and lo and behold, it has already surpassed its fundraising goal and is currently at over $570,000! Now that its funded, this is what's next for the spacesuit. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- In conjunction with the exhibition: Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art, fiber artist Aram Han Sifunetes hosted a workshop that that delved into explorations of American-ness. [via Archives of American Art Blog]
- Blast from the past - How press photos were transmitted in the 1970s. [via PetaPixel]
- What is that wonderful smell? Food Fridays is a new cooking demonstration series at the National Museum of American History's Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- From VHS tape to your computer - Yale Library is digitizing and making available online thousands of mystery VHS tapes. [via WSHU Public Radio Group]
- For your viewing and educational pleasure: Video recording of the panel discussion at Wikimedia Foundation: “Copyright in the Era of Mass Digitization." [via InfoDocket]
- The video below gives you a glimpse of Iron Mountain where archival collections, photographs, motion picture films, data, and much more are stored. [via PetaPixel]
Many of us read, write and send emails every day, but when did it all start at the Smithsonian?
In 1980 Smithsonian staff had typewriters and telephones on their desk, with one or two FAX machines per office. The Smithsonian operated a single general purpose computer, the Honeywell mainframe, for all Smithsonian data processing applications and which did not include an email application. Desktop computers were nowhere to be found.
When the Museum Support Center (MSC) was under construction in 1982, the Smithsonian was also researching an interactive computer system for the new facility to document and manage the movement of tens of millions of specimens and objects to the new Suitland, Maryland, storage facility. One of the secondary requirements was a "mail message system." Six of the seven responding vendors offered an electronic mail system. A VAX-11/750 from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was selected, and was operational in April 1983.
Email was used by the MSC software development team before the end of 1983, and its use was greatly expanded the following year, 1984. The period of 1985-1988 saw rapid technological advances in networking, minicomputers, personal computers, and Local Area Network (LAN) systems. Many different Smithsonian offices and bureaus (including National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Office of Protection Services) acquired computer systems during this period which included email software. However at this time, most computer networks were proprietary networks. Initially a person could only exchange email with other people on the same email system. The development of standards, the adoption of standards, and inter-operability between different systems would arrive later.
The BITNET (Because It’s There Network) network supported both email and batch file transfer. This network linking more than 3,000 computers, principally in academic institutions, demonstrated to the Smithsonian community the speed and power of international email communications. The Smithsonian applied for membership in BITNET on August 15, 1986, and the IBM-4381 mainframe was connected later that year with a node name of SIVM.
Later, within the SI, the BITNET network was extended to two additional nodes: SIMSC and SIMNH. SIVM and SIMSC were still active BITNET nodes in March 1994, but probably disconnected soon after that. Listserv software was developed for BITNET, and mailing lists such as, MUSEUM-L (with 5,184 subscribers today) became very popular. However, with the rapid growth of the Internet, BITNET’s limitations became apparent, and its popularity and the use of BITNET diminished quickly.
In July 1992 the Smithsonian network was connected to the Internet and many internal email systems achieved greater interoperability as well as external connectivity, through the adoption of the SMTP Internet email standard. Smithsonian staff could communicate with colleagues globally, without waiting for a snail-mail reply.
I published the first Smithsonian Email Directory (March 1994) which listed ten different computer email systems (Internet hosts) and 4,846 email addresses. An unknown number of staff had email addresses on different computer systems, such as my own in both the SIMSC and SIMNH systems. This Directory made the following observation:
Electronic mail has evolved from many local e-mail applications to a state where most e-mail applications can now exchange messages freely with each other. Sometimes additional software, hardware, and/or network connections maybe required. However, there are still a few isolated islands in the archipelago, cut off from the rest of the Smithsonian and the rest of the world!
The largest email system at the Smithsonian, PROFS, was operated by OIRM (Office of Information Resource Management), and ran on an IBM-9121 mainframe, with 2,398 email addresses. PROFS supported both email as well as calendaring; the PROFS user manual was prepared in August 1990. This suggests that perhaps only 50-60% of the staff had email in 1994. GroupWise became the dominant email system in the late 1990’s, while competing with some offices using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange email systems.
Initially most people treated email as very informal communication, not worthy of being saved or archived. However, as email usage spread and it became the common method of conducting business, this attitude changed. The possibility that email correspondence could be historically valuable or an official record was recognized in an informative 1997 pamphlet distributed to Smithsonian staff. More recent guidance is available to the Smithsonian community and the general public on the Archives website.
Eventually a decision was made to have one centrally supported email system for the Smithsonian. A single unified Smithsonian-wide email system was achieved when the last office was converted to Microsoft Exchange in 2005, more than twenty years after the first email was sent.
- Electronic Records - Responsible Recordkeeping; Email Records, 2007, Smtihsonian Institution Archives
- You've Still Got Mail, The Bigger Picture blog, Smtihsonian Institution Archives