The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Web/Tech
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
- Discovered 20 years ago, the Kennewick Man gets a closer look in a new book. [via Smithsonian Science]
- A look at rethinking searching museum collections from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. [via Cooper Hewitt Labs, CHSDM]
- NPR reports on the lifespan of CDs. [via InfoDocket]
- A mysterious trove of the unknown - Unclaimed films at DuArt, a film lab in New York City that started in 1922. [via The New York Times]
- Now available - The newly declassified multi-volume history of the Manhattan Project, The Manhattan District History, at the Department of Energy. [via Transforming Classification blog, NARA]
- A close look at the issues involved in preserving CAD drawings. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Welcome back! American Bison now at the National Zoological Park. Also check out our very own champion of the American Bison, William Temple Hornaday. [via NZP and SIA]
- Some stunning images taken by a young Stanley Kubrick from the Museum of the City of New York. [via Effie Kapsalis, SIA]
- The Archives talks about weeding collections, here is what weeding is like in a library setting. [via Unbound, Smithsonian Libraries]
- Simply awesome . . . The National Portrait Gallery has commissioned a portrait made out of sand and soil that will stretch over six acres on the National Mall by Cuban American urban artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada. [via ABC 7, WJLA]
- This past week the National Museum of American History added hundreds of photographs, papers and historical objects documenting the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. [via Huffington Post, Gay Voices]
- The Folger Shakespeare Library released almost 80,000 images into the public domain last week. [via The Public Domain Review]
- Emulation is one possible method of making old software available to researchers and is currently being explored at Yale University Library. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- NASA needs your help to identify some 1.8 million images in its archives. [via PetaPixel]
- For his latest series of 3D animations, Australian artist Andy Thomas, used archival bird recordings from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision to create digital sound sculptures that animate in different ways in reaction to the songs of each bird. [via Colossal]
- 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]
Websites are important records of institutional history, but they are also always being updated, redesigned, or taken down. How do we access important information from outdated versions of websites? The Archives is currently using Archive-It, a tool created by the Internet Archive, to capture Smithsonian websites and social media accounts for future use. Archive-It uses a crawler - a program that browses the Internet like Google - to replicate a website at that specific moment. These “crawls” are later accessible using the Wayback tool. While the research potential for these crawls is enormous, two areas stand out in particular; to document the evolution of website features and to capture public participation during a specific event or program through social media.
Crawls show the progress of how technology is used and how websites have evolved over time. Above and below, we have two examples from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). This is the Virtual Echinoderm Newsletter, which was last updated in 2002. Though it may seem simplistic to us today, this is very representative of a typical website from the early 2000s.
Fast-forward to 2014: With the new Human Origins Initiative website. We have a slideshow of features, live updates from Facebook and Twitter, and a text box that allows visitors to participate in the project - all located on the first page. While both of these sites are pretty typical for the respective years they were created in, they also are demonstrative of how much websites have changed in just over a decade.
The Archive-It tool is also being used to capture certain programs and events using social media. A great example of this is the crawl of the National Museum of American History’s #HistoryTalkBack Tumblr page. This site documented an ongoing project at the museum where curators invited visitors to respond to a question every day and to post their answers on a wall at the museum. The Tumblr page broadcasts some of the favorite posts and then invites commenters to respond to the question as well. We were pleased with the amount of public participation captured in our crawl - not only do we have the visitors’ comments, but because the site is Tumblr-based, we also captured the number of likes and re-blogs. Now that this site is defunct, this crawl becomes important for documenting the scope and impact of this project.
I especially like these social media crawls. Social media - instantaneous, constantly updated, and therefore often thought of as transient - is transformed into something more lasting. By looking at crawls from blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr, we can examine the public’s response to a project and the strategies museums use to engage with their audiences. The #HistoryTalkBack crawl shows this. Tumblr users spread these images, sharing the posts to express their own love of history to friends and followers, while the National Museum of American History used this platform to engage both their real-life and virtual visitors. Capturing these moments using social media gives us a greater understanding of how the public participates in museum programs, and also how museums reach out to people.
The Archive-It tool promises incredible potential in the coming years, especially as the Archives continue to grow. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out the Archives’ Archive-It crawls.
- Smithsonian Now Using Archive-It to Crawl Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Connecting the Dots: Issues with Preserving Complex Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Saving the Smithsonian’s Web, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Instituion Archives
- Accession 14-039 - National Museum of American History, Website Records, 2011-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-079 - National Museum of Natural History, Website Records, 2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives