“Dependent upon the Kindness of Strangers”: Volunteers and the Smithsonian

Carole Poling at work in Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2011.


This past week, one of our long-time volunteers, Carole J. Poling, retired from the Institutional History Division at Smithsonian Institution Archives because she is relocating to Florida. For fourteen years, she has read some 275 books and articles about the history of the Smithsonian and prepared annotated bibliography entries on them in the History of the Smithsonian catalog in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System or SIRIS. These entries help students and researchers locate publications that will help with their research. While she’s cheerfully read, summarized and indexed some very dry pieces, she reminisced that her favorites were the stories about the Hope Diamond.



The Hope Diamond, by Unknown, 1974, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 74-6034.

Carole is one of the many wonderful people who come to the Smithsonian as kind strangers and soon become treasured members of our family. Our volunteers have described thousands of photographs for the SIRIS database, compiled a cumulative index to the eleven volumes of The Papers of Joseph Henry (the first Smithsonian Secretary), prepared oral history transcripts from our interviews of Smithsonian staff, digitized our collections, completed a history of all the legal documents that govern the Smithsonian, and even helped us move to our new building in 2006. Without their time, and especially their expertise, we could never complete all the projects that we dream of doing.


Spencer Baird Circular Requesting Portraits, 1880s, Paper



The volunteer tradition goes back to the earliest days at the Smithsonian, when the Institution’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, recruited volunteers across the nation to compile daily weather records and send them to the Smithsonian—this project eventually evolved into the US Weather Service. Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird’s volunteers collected objects and specimens for the new National Museum in Washington, DC, helping to create the greatest museum complex in the world. Since our earlier days, the Smithsonian has depended upon the kindness of strangers to fulfill James Smithson’s mandate for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” 


So, in honor of April’s National Volunteer Month, a big thank you to all of the Smithsonian’s volunteers, and if you’re interested in learning more, find out about opportunities across the Institituion on the Smithsonian’s volunteer site.


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