Repair Work on Star-Spangled Banner, 1914. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. MAH-27897.

Hot Topix in Archival Research, Spring 2021

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

  • The diet of crab-eating seals at the National Zoological Park
  • Archaeologist and geologist Gerard Fowke
  • Paper on nesting fish crows read at an American Ornithological Union meeting
  • 1971 archaeological documentary co-produced by CBS News and the Smithsonian
  • Geneticist pioneer Gregor Mendel’s “Experiments on Plant Hybridization”
  • Sanitation engineer George Soper‘s 1907 presentation on Mary Mallon
  • Distribution of the World War II-era War Background Studies series

View of a snow-topped mountain. At the center of the photographs is a tree with trimmed branches and

Smithsonian Archives images that will be featured in upcoming publications include: 

Women at work repairing the Star-Spangled Banner on a set of makeshift tables in the room in the Cas

Appropriate Names, Part 1

One of my favorite projects at the Smithsonian Institution Archives lives in a document called goodnames.txt. This is a list of aptronyms: names of Smithsonian staff I’ve encountered, past and present, which are especially fitting to their vocations. (There’s William E. Bridges, for instance, an aid in the Hall of Water Transportation in the 1950s; and Dr. J.N. Rose, who worked in the Division of Plants in the early 20th century.)

The full list of aptronyms is not yet ready for the limelight, but a recent reference request introduced me to one compelling new addition. The Smithsonian staff member in question is Marie Poland Fish, whose scientific discipline was—yes, you can already see where this is going—marine biology. In the 1940s, Fish served as Scientific Aid in the Division of Fishes. The Archives holds some of her correspondence in Record Unit 234, correspondence of the Division of Fishes, and Record Unit 7231, the Waldo L. Schmitt Papers.

Still, Fish’s aptronymity is only a funny footnote in her remarkable life and career. Countering longstanding myths about the silence of the ocean, Marie Poland Fish founded the entirely new field of marine bioacoustics. You may learn more about her achievements and legacy in science writer Ben Goldfarb’s newly-published Smithsonian Magazine article!

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