NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on National Mall. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image No. 96-11079

Hot Topics in Archival Research, Fall 2022

We're highlighting a few topics explored by Smithsonian Institution Archives researchers this fall.

Vicarious research is one of the great joys of the reference desk at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. From our front-row (well, only-row) seat outside the reading room, we catch tantalizing glimpses of our patrons’ manifold research topics.

The reference team fields thousands of questions per year. Ask us what people have been researching recently, and you’ll get into some of the enlightening, weird, and fascinating details of our collections.

Here are some of the subjects that have recently passed through the reference team’s inbox:

New and upcoming projects featuring SI Archives images include:

National Museum of Natural History's Dr. Horton Hobbs, Jr. feeding fish-flavored Friskies cat food t

Aerial photograph of the National Mall with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt covering the four

Eua Palmer-Sikelianou and Penelope Duncan performing in Natalie Barney's backyard in Neuilly.

How to get published in the nineteenth century

If you're an early Smithsonian history whiz, you'll know that Secretary Joseph Henry took diffusion of knowledge very seriously. The International Exchange Service made the Smithsonian a centralized hub of scholarship, importing and shipping out thousands of publications each year. The Institution also produced original scholarship through its series Contributions to Knowledge.

During the Civil War, a second series joined Contributions: this one had the juicy title Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. But why the need for two publications? How did they differ? A recent reference question about the peer review process got us wondering.

Although the peer review process has become more standardized over the last fifty years, it has had recognizable forerunners since the early eighteenth century. The Smithsonian, too, had its own permutation of peer review.

In 1847, with the publication of the Smithsonian’s Programme of Organization, Secretary Henry had the chance to frame that process: “3. Each memoir presented to the Institution to be submitted for examination to a commission of persons of reputation for learning in the branch to which the memoir pertains, and to be accepted for publication only in case the report of this commission is favorable.”

This exact passage appears again, half a century later, in librarian Cyrus Adler’s book chapter on Smithsonian publications. “The program of organization, submitted by Professor Henry, in 1847, may still be said to guide the issuing of these volumes,” he says of Contributions to Knowledge.

Did the Programme of Organization also guide Miscellaneous Collections? Were its standards just as rigorous as for Contributions? Maybe not: Adler’s discussion of the second series appears on a separate page, far from any mention of Joseph Henry’s “commission of persons of reputation.” It seems a telling omission that Contributions alone is the subject of Adler’s commendation.

Want to help us unravel this mystery further? Dig into Record Unit 83, the Editorial and Publications Division records, 1847-1966, in the Archives reading room!

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