Many Hands Make Light Work in the Digitization Process

James Smithson’s original purpose in bequeathing his estate to the United States was to establish the Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” And the saying goes - learn by doing. To this end, the Smithsonian has been increasing its interactive opportunities across its entire network of museums and research centers, and the Archives are no exception.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern with the Digital Services Division (DSD), mainly working on the digitization of special collections.  During my time here, I noticed that both the DSD and the Archives as a whole place a heavy emphasis on public engagement with the Archives collections.  Peoples' use of collections definitely plays an important role in guiding the Archives decisions on what to prioritize for digitization.  This aspect combined with other factors such as the physical condition and size of the collection, the available information about the materials, and the use of digitized collections for special projects inform the Archives as to what collections to digitize.

Reference form for inquiries and use of collections, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

My work this summer, along with a few other interns and volunteers, was to digitize some of the Archives collections for special projects. All of us came from different backgrounds and had varying degrees of experience with digitization. With the ever increasing demand for digitized materials from the Archives, it is constantly in need of as many helping hands as possible. As a result a great deal of the digitization work is done by interns or volunteers.

Sign-up page for the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

The digitization of materials allows the Archives to share its collections with those who are not able to physically come to the Archives. By making its content as widely available as possible on the Archives' website, in the Collections Search Center, and in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) its collections can be discovered by as many people as possible. A new avenue that people can interact with the Archives collections can be found in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, where “volunpeers” can help transcribe text from digitized materials. Meghan Ferriter, Project Coordinator, Smithsonian Transcription Center, talks about the role of volunpeers in her blog post Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery.

Making archival collections available online and engaging people to help make them more accessible are just some of the many steps towards connecting people to collections. As more museums, libraries, and archives put their collections online there will be more opportunities for people to see materials from across the country and from across the world. The Smithsonian has made great strides in the past few years in getting its collections online and is now poised better than ever to work with other institutions and organizations to make it collections more readily discoverable.

Indeed, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough mentions in his e-book, Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, that one of the Smithsonian’s next endeavors is collaboration with other institutions. With the expanding role of Wikipedia in research archives around the world are recognizing that collaboration with sites that get heavy traffic is highly beneficial in making people aware of their collections. Indeed, the Archives continues to experience an increase in traffic on its website and in its use of collections as a result of hosting regular Wikipedia edit-a-thons.

The Archives is currently engaged in work with Gale Cengage Learning, and also often cooperates with other folks at the Smithsonian such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History. By collaborating with other museums and institutions in making its collections available, the Archives is following the tenet laid out by James Smithson for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

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