A&I Information Desk Volunteer Elaine Rubin & Friends

Dependent on the Kindness of Strangers: Smithsonian Volunteers

For Volunteer Appreciation Week we take a look how this vital role at the Smithsonian has dramatically evolved over time.

Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian
Volunteers have been an integral part of the Smithsonian since its earliest years. The Institution has always been “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Volunteers make tremendous contributions to Smithsonian operations every day in virtually every corner of the globe.  The Smithsonian's paid staff of some 6,000 employees is supplemented by another 6,900 on-site volunteers and almost 9,300 online volunteers.  Volunteers fall roughly into three categories: docents and information volunteers, who work with the public visiting the Smithsonian's museums, "Behind-the-scenes" volunteers who do work in non-public areas of every museum and research institute, and digital volunteers who work online from all over the world. They have conducted tours, worked at information desks, pruned plants in SI gardens, arranged butterfly specimens, repaired historic fabrics, transcribed 19th century field notebooks online, documented postage stamps online, kept 24-hour watches on expectant mothers at the National Zoo, and even processed archival collections and conducted oral history interviews.  Without them, the Smithsonian would have to significantly cut its programs or eliminate them altogether.  The volunteer program is a fundamental part of all Smithsonian activities, from accounting to field work to public education.

Citizen Science began at the Smithsonian shortly after it was founded, engaging the public in the conduct of science. The first Secretary, physicist Joseph Henry, was very interested in weather patterns in North America.  He wanted to compile a large database of observations of American weather that could be statistically analyzed to search for weather patterns. Starting in 1849, he recruited volunteer weather observers across North America to compile weather data and send it to the Smithsonian monthly, possibly starting the Smithsonian's first crowdsourcing endevours. 

Louise Hoover's Painting of Joseph Henry

In the 1850s, Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird expanded Henry’s network to have amateurs collect artifacts, specimens, and observations for the Smithsonian’s new U.S. National Museum. Baird issued “circulars” that clearly described how data and objects were to be collected to ensure data standards. Baird soon had thousands of collectors across North America and described himself as like the Sorcerer’s apprentice who had set the mops in motion but had no idea how to stop or even slow a program that was outstripping his ability to manage.

Fast-forward to the 21st century with its digital revolution which has led to an explosion in crowdsourcing or “obtaining information or services by soliciting input from a large number of people.” The Encyclopedia of Life project (EOL), initiated in 2007, has as its goal to provide “a webpage for every species."  EOL brings together trusted information from resources across the world such as museums, expert scientists, and amateurs into a single, online portal.   “Nestwatchers” compile observations on the survival and offspring of birds found in Washington, D.C., area backyards for the National Zoo’s neighborhood Nestwatch program, entering their observations into online databases. 

And more close to home, online “volunpeers” transcribe 19th century scientific field notebooks at the Transcription Center.  Digitization takes the field notebooks out of their acid-free boxes and makes them readily available as image files. Digital transcription makes all of their intellectual content searchable.

Our volunteers bring tremendous support to everything that the Smithsonian does, and we can never thank them enough. Jump over to the Smithsonian’s Torch newsletter in April to learn about the complete history of Smithsonian volunteers.

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