Gaining an Appreciation for the Archives

A reflection on a digital preservation internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

For the past month, I have been immersed in the complexity that is the world of digital archiving as an intern for the Smithsonian Institution Archives. As a digital preservation intern, I have discovered aspects about archiving that I would have never considered previously, such as the processes required to document accessions, recording information for accessibility and preservation, digitally archiving the Smithsonian’s presence on the internet, obtaining information from obsolete born-digital media, and conserving aspects of collections that are threatened by age and deterioration. In an age of constantly changing and advancing technology, where does one start their journey to becoming an archivist?

Close up of 35mm color slides.

Since the founding of the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, the advancement of technology has been constantly changing and developing. I am positive that when the institution was first founded, no one could have imagined that the 3D laser digitization and virtual reality would have been found in museums today. However, it is important to consider the historical context of these technological advancements; while handwritten original documents are considered more precious, they are treated with the same respect as film or a floppy disk due to its integral information and inevitable obsolescence.

During my internship, one of the tasks I was given was to transfer data from obsolete, born-digital media; essentially preserving information that was once created on older computers that current computers cannot read. The irony of being someone in their mid-twenties being assigned to tackle close to 200 different 5¼ inch floppy disks in search of any sort of readable material is not lost on me, however, successfully retrieving files off of some of the disks and preserving the information for further use was thrilling. Through this, I have learned that archiving is not necessarily always about interacting with exciting documents, but rather becoming excited with the contributions that you’re making in your endeavors and the documents that you encounter along the way.

Person surrounded by photographic equipment.

Located in the heart of Washington D.C., during my internship, I have had numerous opportunities to connect and learn about advancements being made in digitization through the Smithsonian and various other cultural heritage organizations. Some of these have ranged from digitization fairs, panel discussions regarding curation and international writers, the Veteran’s History Project, the Radio Preservation Task Force, and the Digitization Program Office’s 3D Pilot Project at the National Museum of African Art.

Through the Crafting a Story panel discussion I attended, a quote from Eleanor Harvey – a curator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum – stated that “the first question I ask an art object is: ‘why are you here?’” This simple question led me to explore one of my favorite aspects of being an intern: being able to search through boxes of accessions, glancing and touching the various research documents, photographs, and information along the way. In turn, attending these events have allowed me to approach digitization with more relevant information, as the technology surrounding the digitization of collections is constantly in flux.

Group of persons seated in classrom style discussion.

Simply, the sheer dedication to archiving information concerning the exhibits and collections of the Smithsonian is astonishing and underestimated by the average visitor to the Smithsonian’s numerous museums. However, many of the objects displayed in these exhibits and collections have been gathered due to the generosity of individuals who possessed and donated these artifacts. If I have learned anything through this internship, it is to take care of your own personal collections; digitizing and archiving your own historical documents to ensure preservation is as important as preserving the documents at the Smithsonian. The efforts of archivists are providing everyone the opportunity to access the Smithsonian’s vast collections through digitization, ultimately contributing to the Smithsonian’s dedication to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”.

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