China, Miscellaneous Scenes - Village, by Arthur de Carle Sowerby, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7263, Image no. SIA2008-3109.

Hot Topix in Archival Research, Summer 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:

Black and white photograph of a village with various structures on a hilltop.

Subjects of Smithsonian Institition Archives images to be featured in upcoming publications include:

  • The Walcotts in the Burgess Shale Fossil Quarry for Riley Black’s book Deep Time
  • Peccary bones being prepared for exhibition for the documentary film "William Waldren, The Alchemist's Footprint"
  • Villagescapes from Arthur deC. Sowerby’s collecting trips in China for the Yinchuang Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibition Xibei: Photography in Northwest China
  • The mounted skeleton of Old Henry Clay, a horse, for Hoof Beats magazine
  • Scene from the Scopes trial for an upcoming book featuring artifacts from the National Museum of American History
  • Tractorcade on the National Mall for a documentary on the ongoing Indian farmers’ protest


Henry Tasker and a Shrew

In April, the reference team heard from the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, with a question about someone named Henry Tasker. In his research, archivist Franklin Robinson happened upon Tasker’s name and gathered some basic facts from his 1947 obituary: Tasker was African American, he was a resident of Washington, D.C., and he had worked as a laborer at the Smithsonian for decades.

A search of Smithsonian Institution Archives’ finding aids found Henry Tasker’s name in Accession 05-123, our motherlode of 19th to 20th-century personnel files. Unfortunately, as we explained to Franklin, our continued telework status meant that those details of Tasker’s employment would stay out of reach for some time.

Next, we turned to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). With a grand total of one search result, the BHL came through! We found Tasker named as the donor of a shrew specimen on page 100 of the 1909 Annual Report of the Board of Regents.

That meant we could reap the rewards of our Digital Services team’s diligent digitization deeds: we got our virtual hands on the accession record for the shrew. Apparently, in January of 1909, Henry Tasker—address, “Smithsonian Building”—had personally dropped off a northern short-tailed shrew with the Division of Mammals.

So was Henry Tasker a laborer or a mammologist?

Institutional historian Pam Henson reminded us that recorded job classifications can’t always be trusted. Through the middle of the 20th century, every Black employee, irrespective of department and job responsibilities, had the title of laborer.

Still working from home, we don’t yet know what we’ll find in Henry Tasker’s personnel file. But when the opportunity arrives to open up box 19 of Acc. 05-123, we’ll definitely be reading between the lines.

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