Treasuring the Past in the Present

When I was preparing to begin my internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing. I knew that I would be working in the Institutional History Division (IHD), and I knew that I would be helping to prepare oral history interviews to be sent off for transcription.

During my senior year as an undergraduate student, I had dealt with oral histories. My senior seminar course focused on them, as did a service learning English class, in which I not only conducted my own oral history interviews, but I taught high school seniors about oral histories as well.

My time working with oral histories was fun. I knew that I would continue to have fun with the IHD, but I also knew that I would be doing a different type work than I had before.

IHD Intern Erin Blankenship Processing Oral History Interviews, July 22, 2010, Courtesy Courtney Esp

Within my first couple of days at SIA, I quickly learned what the processing of oral histories entailed. I began with interviews of people who worked throughout the Smithsonian. My task for each was the pull out all of the key terms, locations, and names that the interviewer had mentioned. I also fact checked them for the correct spelling and context to create a “Name/Term List”. This way, the transcriber has the proper spellings of everything in front of them, allowing the transcription process to move along more smoothly.

One of the hardest tasks was a set of interviews about the history of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that were full of Native American tribal names, some of which sounded very different from how they were spelled.

Not only did I create “Name/Term Lists”, but I also wrote summaries of the interviews themselves. This is also done to help the transcriber with his/her process. It gives them an idea of what the interview is about, and allows them to have the context of the discussion in front of them for easy reference.

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I’ve gained a lot more in-depth knowledge about the oral history process during my time at SIA, but I’ve also gained a better understanding of how important such a service is in society.

Oral histories add another dimension to historical stories. Over the time that I have worked at SIA, I’ve not only learned about research expeditions, but the stories behind how certain collection items were obtained. I’ve heard about the building of particular museums and halls, and have had the opportunity to gain an insider’s view into the Smithsonian itself.

Ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

And then, there are the general fun-facts that I learned through a bit of research. For example: see these shoes?

We all know them—What movie they’re from, who wore them, etc. BUT, did you ever know how many sequins were on them?

According to a little bit of detective work (and help from staff members at the National Museum of American History) for the Smithsonian Jeopardy game at the 2010 staff picnic, I found that there are 3200 sequins per shoe, for a total of 6400 sequins. I was amazed by the total alone, not to mention the fact that each of those sequins was sewn on by hand. Whew! Talk about labor intensive work.

In essence, the work that is done at SIA and in the IHD plays a crucial role in the Smithsonian itself. Without the preservation of documents and photographs, and the saving of oral history interviews, the stories of the Smithsonian’s past would be lost. And for a place that has such a vast history and prides itself on obtaining and sharing knowledge, it is important that the past of the Institution be preserved. Without it, there would be no insider’s perspective. And, the insider’s perspective is pretty cool.

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