I Found It In the Archives

As you may know, the Smithsonian is celebrating Archives Month this October. This year, the Society of American Archivists is observing the month with the theme "I Found It in the Archives," which is meant to promote the treasures and gems that researchers find in archival collections, such as genealogical information about their families or materials related to their special topic of interest. I myself had such a moment one day when I came across pictures of my in-laws in the Smithsonian’s collections that predate my knowing them.

Examples of non-archival items found in boxes transferred to SIA, 2010.

There have been many other such moments at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA); however, we have decided to give this theme a little twist. We wanted to show some of the items that come to us in collections that are not supposed to be there. SIA holds the materials that document the history and functioning of the Smithsonian Institution’s nineteen museums, various research centers, and the National Zoo as well as the people who work here. We collect paper documents, photographs, films, audio and video recordings, architectural drawings, electronic records, and other related items. We receive records from offices and museums around the Smithsonian, including museum curators, human resources and financial specialists, zookeepers and veterinarians, and scientists. Boxes are often packed in a hurry especially when staff is under pressure to clear out their space during renovations or the arrival of new staff. As a result, we find items that just don't belong. Below is a list of some of the things we have found over the past few years.

  • office supplies: pens, pencils, scissors, tape dispenser, whiteout
  • blank notepads, notebooks, and ledgers
  • blank cds, videotapes, and audiotapes
  • printer paper tray
  • mousepad
  • disposable lighter
  • ashtray
  • gum wrappers, tic tacs
  • t-shirt
  • flag
  • building materials: nails, screws, bolts, insulation, flooring samples
  • dirt
  • wood, mineral, and rock samples
  • foreign currency
  • frisbee
  • pins
  • medicine bottles
  • specimens: animal fur, tissue samples, other unknown biological substances (from the zoo and natural history collections)
  • syringe
  • container of #12 shot
  • bugs, bird droppings, shedded snake skin (as a result of where the materials were stored)

Some of these items are returned to the transfer office, some end up in the museum collections, some are deaccessioned (i.e. removed from the Smithsonian’s collections), and some we can simply toss (e.g. gum wrappers).

As archivists, we are constantly making the hard decisions about what is worth keeping and what is not based on SIA’s mission and collecting parameters. But some decisions, as with the items above, are relatively easy.

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