Steve Smith installs an artifact, 1987, by Jeffrey Ploskonka. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Image no. 2003-19558.

Hot Topix in Archival Research During a Pandemic

Think your archival research is on hold while our reading room is closed? Think again!

Vicarious research is one of the great joys of the reference desk at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. During our pandemic closure, we’ve missed catching those tantalizing glimpses of our patrons’ research inside the fishbowl walls of the reading room.

But research in the Archives collections is by no means on hold. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of our digitization team over the years, there’s a lot to discover from home! Here are some of the digital resources that we think will give you the biggest (Smithsonian knowledge) bang for your (archival research) buck.

Steve Smith installs an artifact

First, there are our digitized collection materials—field books, diaries, photographs, reports, and even more records that come from our record units and accessions. Our website search makes it super easy to narrow your search to digital assets. Starting from our homepage, click the magnifying glass on the top right of the page and enter your search term. On the search results page, click “Media.” Now get reading! 

The Smithsonian annual reports of the Board of Regents (click for later years) are not only digitized, but fully text-searchable, too. These reports recount the year in review and offer lists of the accessions added to Smithsonian collections. With an accession number in hand, you can often cross-reference with the… 

Collections Search Center! Your search term can be an accession number or text keywords. Almost every Smithsonian museum and research center has contributed digitized item records to this search portal, so you can narrow your results to a single unit (“catalog record source”), by date, collector, donor, or genre.

Transcription Center search. Only a fraction of our collections have been transcribed by Smithsonian “volunpeers,” but it’s still worth checking if your search term crops up here. Our curators’ annual reports through the year 1897 are among the indexed transcriptions, and they’re far more detailed than the published annual reports of the Board of Regents. 

For all questions natural history-themed, the Biodiversity Heritage Library holds an abundance of riches. You’ll find tons of digitized Smithsonian publications and field books, not to mention published and unpublished materials from dozens of other contributing institutions.

Julia Child Lecture and Demonstration

Still skeptical about how far you can go with our digital offerings? Here is just a sampling of the remote research topics we’ve facilitated using what’s available online.

  • Works of art that came to the Smithsonian at the turn of the 20th century
  • Secretary Baird’s activities in 1876
  • Interviews conducted with Cree code talkers
  • Installation images from early exhibitions at the National Museum of African Art 
  • Research apparati used in the 1930s by the Radiation and Organisms Division
  • The Freer Gallery’s collecting efforts in 1920s China
  • The north elevation of the Smithsonian Castle
  • Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History

While we can’t wait to welcome you back to the Archives, we hope you can make some progress by plumbing the depths of our digital resources. Don’t forget—the reference team is at home, too! Whether you’re completely stuck, or just need photo permissions, send us an email and we’ll join you in your at-home reading room. Virtually, of course.

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