Transparency in the Archives: From Our Earliest Days

When talking about institutional transparency, two things are essential — well-preserved original records and meaningful access to them.

 Photo of book spine

From the point in 1838 when the United States Congress accepted James Smithson’s bequest, it was recognized as a cultural resource, a public trust held by the federal government. Smithson had stipulated that the funds be used for an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Being a cultural resource set aside for public use, the government bore the responsibility to protect and maintain whatever establishment they created from Smithson’s bequest. Subsequently, when the decision was made to create the Smithsonian, a Board of Regents was specified.

Color Image of the Smithsonian Castle on Fire
Maintaining the public trust requires transparency. Careful records were kept of the board’s meetings and decisions as it provided oversight to a public institution, which has evolved from a single building into the largest complex of museums and research centers unique in the world. When the earliest minutes were lost to a fire in 1865, resources were set aside to painstakingly recover those minutes from other sources.

The meeting minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents have been accessible to researchers and the public alike for decades in the reading room of the Archives.  To further promote transparency, two steps are being taken. First, the Board of Regents minutes have been digitized and are being linked to that collection’s finding aid. Secondly, we have enlisted the help of the “crowd” to help transcribe these materials so that the full text can be searchable from our website and popular search engines. Doing this removes two barriers to access and promotes transparency.

  • You can look through the Minutes from your closest Internet connection. No waiting, no lines, no trips to Washington, D.C. required.
  • By searching for your specific interests, you can identify the different meetings where they were discussed and dig in from there.

 Photos of Board of Regents installation ceremony. 

We are getting there with the help of our digitization volunteers and transcription #volunpeers. Through our joint efforts, there are results close-at-hand. If you want to know what the Regents discussed concerning the creation of the National Air and Space Museum, take a look at what you’ll get on the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s Search page!

Screen shot of Smithsonian Transcription Center search results for the search

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