The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
In recognition of all the incredible work done by our volunteers here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and across the Smithsonian, I’d like to highlight the work of one of their ranks. Petrina Foti is a volunteer with the Smithsonian Institution Archives’s Oral History Proect. She recently earned a doctorate in museum studies, and has donated her research interviews on collecting and exhibiting computers and software to the Smithsonian Oral History collection. As she works to process these oral history interviews, she tracks down place names, scientific terms, objects and projects mentioned so that future researchers have clear and accurate information.
What did you do before you began working with the Smithsonian Institution Archives?
I was completing my PhD in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in the UK. Before that, I worked at the National Museum of American History, primarily in the Computers Collection. I actually started as a volunteer as well, but later join as staff. My PhD was about how the Smithsonian collects and exhibits computer history, so my academic work is still fairly closely tied to my museum career.
What brought you to the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a volunteer?
As a PhD candidate and now practicing museologist, I spend a lot of time working on my own and living in my own head, so to speak. I missed working with collections and actively being part of the field. So, after I graduated from Leicester, I looked for something that would let me do that. Of course, one of my main responsibilities is processing the interviews that I conducted during the course of my PhD, so I still am constantly thinking about my research, but from a completely new angle. It’s been really interesting taking something that was meant only for me and my own way of processing information and making it accessible for anyone interested in curatorial history or computer history.
What has been your favorite part of working here?
Working with Pam Henson, Smithsonian Historian, and all the stories that she knows about the Smithsonian, the people who worked here, and their past projects. I’ve learned so much about the Smithsonian, not just in terms of facts and dates, but in terms of the culture and people, both now and generations past. I have a far better and deeper understanding of Smithsonian history than ever before.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found at the Smithsonian Institution Archives?
Like everything at the Smithsonian, I don’t think I can chose one thing. There’s too much to choose from! It might be easier to list the things that I find boring!
Has your impression of the Smithsonian changed since you began? What’s surprised you the most?
The Smithsonian is constantly surprising me, even after being in the field for over ten years. I feel like the Archives encapsulates everything that makes the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian. I think I understand the Smithsonian better than I ever have before thanks to having worked here.
Want to join in the fun at the Archives? Learn more about how to intern or volunteer! You can also help transcribe materials from collections across the Smithsonian (including the Archvies!) online, at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
- Thank you, Volunteers!, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Get Involved, Smithsonian
- Pac-Man bites back, O Say Can You See? blog, the National Museum of American History
- Video games, Ralph Baer, and my first accession, O Say Can You See? blog, the National Museum of American History
The Smithsonian’s museums, libraries, archives and research centers produce incredible work every day, from groundbreaking scientific research, to documenting the history of beer, to sharing the hidden histories of African American women. This work would not be possible, however, without the help of the Smithsonian’s incredible volunteers!
Each year, more than 6,000 volunteers lend their time and talent to projects in Smithsonian facilities worldwide, and thousands more pitch in on the web in crowdsourcing projects at the Smithsonian Transcription Center. That spirit of public engagement has been true at the Smithsonian since its earliest days—our first Secretary, Joseph Henry, enlisted the help of volunteers across the U.S. in 1849 for his weather tracking network, a precursor to the National Weather Service. Henry's successor, naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird, built off that network to crowdsource the Smithsonian's collections. The Smithsonian did not (and does not today) have a budget for acquiring collections. So, Baird relied on a network of collecting volunteers from across the country to send specimen to the United States National Museum—collection items that are still used today!
Since then, volunteers have taken part a little bit of everything going on at the Smithsonian, spanning exhibit installation, specimen tagging, and even satellite tracking. In celebration of over a century of volunteer contributions at the Smithsonian, explore the work of some stellar volunteers from our collection (and learn how how to volunteer yourself!).
Cultural institutions and private collectors alike can struggle with the financial costs of preserving collections. Archival boxes, folders, and custom enclosures can be pricey, but there are ways to reduce the cost of housing while also providing a stable environment for collections. When the Archives received a large collection of oversized exhibition drawings from the National Air and Space Museum (Accession 17-013), we had to get creative with housing.
There were several factors we took into consideration when determining how to house this collection. First, the collection was digitized before being transferred to the Archives, so digital surrogates would be available for researchers. This reduces the need to handle the original drawings. Secondly, limited space was available in our flat file storage. We simply didn’t have enough room for the drawings to be stored flat. Thirdly, the drawings were in stable condition and posed very few preservation concerns. For these reasons, rolling and storing in our off-site facility was the best choice for these materials.
Once we decided that rolling was the most appropriate choice for storage, we quickly realized how expensive support tubes and tube boxes can be! While the decision was made to use archival tube boxes for the exterior housing, we achieved the real cost-savings with the inner support tubes. Rather than using expensive acid-free blueboard tubes, we used more affordable white mailing tubes, measuring forty-eight inches in length and two inches in diameter.
If this is setting off your preservation sirens, have no fear! To create a barrier between the non-archival tube and the drawings, 3-mil uncoated polyester terephthalate film, aka Mylar®, was wrapped around the tube and secured using polyester double-sided tape (See Image 1, above). Each section of Mylar® was cut to an appropriate width, allowing one inch of overlap once rolled around the tube. Double-sided tape was applied to the longer sides of the Mylar® and then rolled tightly to avoid gapping between the tube and the barrier film.
Once this preparation was complete, multiple drawings could be rolled around the tube (See Image 2, right). A large enough stack of drawings was formed so that, once rolled and inserted into the box, they fit snugly against the interior walls (See Image 3, below). This helps prevent the drawings from shifting in the box when handling. If needed, acid-free, buffered 20-pt. bond paper was used as interleaving to protect adjacent drawings from staples, friable inks, or incompatible materials.
This modification to housing produced a significant cost savings. We only spent 10 percent of what we would have using traditional archival materials, while still achieving an appropriate housing system. For other examples of innovative housing strategies for oversized collections, please visit:
- Stabilizing Special Collections for High-Density Storage, Library of Congress
- Storage Solutions for Oversized Paper Artifacts, Northeast Document Conservation Center
- Storage of Architectural Materials, Syracuse University Library
Thanks(giving) for the memories—a preservation family project, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
You Asked, We Answered: 2015 Ask an Archivist, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Collections Care Guidelines & Resources, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Sometimes you find something really intriguing when reviewing the electronic media in a collection of boxes at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. We frequently see CDs and DVDs. Sometimes we get 3.5” diskettes and occasionally a 5.25” floppy diskette. Recently, however, when reviewing a new accession (the David H. DeVorkin Papers, 1889-2011) the Archives’ Digital Services team came across an 8” floppy disk in a folder entitled, “Computer Use Committee: NASM Word Processing Project, 1980-1981”. For me, remembering that IBM introduced their first personal computer in 1981 triggered an interest in looking into this folder’s contents a little more.
At the Archives, unfortunately, we do not have the equipment to read an 8” floppy disk, so we do not know what it contains. But, the paper documents within the folder tell an interesting story. In 1981, an Ad Hoc Computer Use Committee within the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) wanted to evaluate future computing processing needs at the museum. As part of this evaluation, a questionnaire was created and distributed throughout the various departments within the museum to survey their present and projected computer needs.
The questionnaire asked the museum departments to prioritize their needs in the following areas:
- Mailing lists
- Interactive systems for scheduling tours
- Stats on audience surveys and questionnaires
- General word processing
- Formatting and production of camera-ready copy
- Exhibit scripts and labels
- Personalized letters
- Loan program reports
- Inventory and accession files
- Graphics, charts and statistical reports
- Budget reports
- Associates charts
- Quarterly publications
The survey results highlighted the importance of word processing capabilities. Areas requiring computer functions, i.e. programmability, were seen as lower priority. A few of the museum’s departments did identify the need for computers to provide “electronic mail”, collections cataloging, information retrieval by researchers and visitors, and inventories, but the bulk of the response was for word processing functions. Obviously, only a few back in 1981 thought that email and computers in general would become such an integral part of everyday life.
According to the documents in the folder, at the time of the survey, NASM had a centralized word processing system with a small number of trained operators. (In 1981, I remember word processing was done in secretarial pools with IBM Selectric typewriters and magnetic card readers.) The Status Report of the Ad Hoc Compute Use Committee concluded that the basic word processing needs of the museum were currently being met by the existing system and that there was no need to expand the word processing capacity within the museum. A memo by Mr. DeVorkin concluded that more training was needed regarding the capabilities of word processing and that more staff should be trained to use the existing system. As more departments created more need for word processing, additional equipment might be needed.
Advance 35 years to 2016: Everyone has a computer on his/her desk. Individuals now generate huge amounts of data, spreadsheets, photos, drawings, videos, audio files, presentations, and email. And this does not begin to include the effect of the internet, social networks and smart phones on the amount, type and volume of work being conducted. My, how times have changed!
As a little background information, I did a quick search online on the history of personal computers. The personal computer was introduced as early as 1975.
- 1975 – Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080
- 1976 – Apple I and the 5.25” floppy drive
- 1977 – Apple II and TRS 801980 – VIC-20 and Apple III
- 1981 – Osborne 1, Epson HX-20 and IBM PC
- From 1981 on, the history has been fast and furious.
Along with the developments of the computer, external storage media technologies also developed quickly. 8” paper sided floppy disks were available in the late 1960s and the 5.25” paper sided floppy disks became available in the mid 1970’s.Throughout the 80s the 5.25” floppy slowly replaced the 8” disk, although the smaller disk was still seen as physically too large. During the 80s other disk formats were developed and by the mid to late 80s the 3.5” plastic-sided disk replaced the 5.25” floppy.
When the Compact Disc (CD) was introduced in the early 1980s, it was first intended for music as a substitute for vinyl long playing (LP) albums. In the 90s, the CD was adapted for use as data storage and slowly replaced the 3.5” floppy disk. Though some computer designs still included a 3.5” drive, by the early 2000’s computer manufacturers started eliminating the 3.5” drive. Today’s computers have CD/DVD drives and USB connections for external disk drives. There are external disk drives for 5.25” and 3.5” floppies.
At the Archives we use these external drives to copy data from floppy disks we receive in our collections. It boggles the mind to think of the rapid technology advancements over the last 35 years and what might be coming in the next 35.
The History of Email at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
5.25” floppies: All Is Not Lost, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Timeline of Computer History, Computer History Museum
At the end of the summer, my responsibilities expanded to include treatment of items designated for digitization as part of the Field Book Project. This brings a whole new slate of interesting and challenging treatments, including opportunities to treat damaged bindings of the journals scientists frequently brought with them into the field. As the Field Book Project has moved forward, the subject areas of the field notes have expanded accordingly. Recently we have begun drawing from the collections of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, previously unexplored by our digitization team.
This field book from the collections of Paul Bartsch documents a voyage into the Philippines, investigating a specific group of marine invertebrates called nudibranchs. These beautiful creatures are brightly colored and come in a large variety of shapes, and these characteristics are thought to be camouflage mechanisms.
As you can see, the images are gorgeously rendered, and have aged well. The artist has been identified as Kumataro Ito, a Japanese illustrator whose skill is clearly evident. Miniscule inscriptions in Japanese appear on many of the images, and these feature unique information not always captured in the descriptions made by Bartsch.
The book is in poor shape at the moment, and to build excitement for the volume’s eventual entrance in the Transcription Center, I wanted to briefly share my plans for its treatment and share these images of the nudibranchs to whet the public’s appetite.
The treatment plan is simple: Many of the pages are damaged along the spinefolds, so these will all be mended; the book will be sewn back together in keeping with its original structure, and the missing spine of the book will be replaced so that it returns to being a functional volume. While the plan is straightforward, it will be time-consuming, given the level of damage.
We look forward to sharing more of this with you in the near future!
Smithsonian Institution Archives projects, Smithsonian Transcription Center
Where in the World Is That Field Book?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1 of 35
- next ›