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 around 6,000 queries 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 is a sample of the diverse questions SIA’s researchers have been exploring for the past few months!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have delved into:
- Farm machinery transferred to the Smithsonian following the Centennial Exposition
- "Electric Kiss" display in the National Museum of American History
- A hippo bathtub featured in a 1970s Cooper Hewitt exhibit
- Reports of Ferdinand Westdahl
- The Abominable Snowman and Minnesota Iceman
- E.K. Janaki-Ammal’s correspondence with Mary Agnes Chase
- Books donated to the Smithsonian as part of the Adams-Clement Collection
Permissions for upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Image of Samuel F.B. Morse’s daguerreotype equipment for an episode of the Museum of Modern Art’s "Conservation Stories"
- Maria Goeppert Mayer portrait for the National Academy of Sciences’ exhibition "Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine"
- Image of Martha the passenger pigeon for a curriculum kit by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Group portrait of the Smithsonian Women’s Council for the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s upcoming book Art in Science
- Image of Hirshhorn model for an architecture brochure by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- A list of specimens collected by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque for an upcoming book by Barbara Thiers of the New York Botanical Garden
A Library of Congress collab:
A typical day might include a few questions about the provenance of Smithsonian museum objects. More rare and exciting is the chance to explore the nitty-gritty of other institutions’ collections! A recent question from Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asian reference librarian at the Library of Congress, took us behind the scenes of the Farquhar correspondence collection in the Library’s Asian Division. The correspondence had been part of a purchase made by missionary Alfred North on the Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842) and came to the Smithsonian in 1858. But what else had North bought?
Record Unit 7186, the United States Exploring Expedition Collection, held no answers, so Joshua continued to trace back the custodial history of the collection. Prior to its transfer from the Smithsonian to the Library of Congress, and even before it arrived at the Smithsonian, the Farquhar correspondence had been held at the old Patent Office. This was the headquarters of the National Institute, a precursor of the Smithsonian, whose records Joshua next delved into at SIA. "I was really thrilled to find what I was looking for there: the list of books procured by [Alfred] North," Joshua writes. "This list will help establish the provenance of the Malay and Bugis rare book collections in the Asian Division of the LOC and will be key in future digitization projects of material linked to the Wilkes Expedition."
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Summer 2019, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Spring 2019, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Winter 2019, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Fall 2018, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives