My colleagues are not very comfortable bragging about themselves. Fortunately, they have me to do it for them. For the past three years, in 2018, 2019, and 2020, I’ve recapped the accomplishments of the Archives staff and featured some of our yearly highlights. Let’s do it again.
It’s impossible to look back on 2021, and especially the last month, and ignore the hardships we have faced in the wake of the pandemic. Still, amid so much fear and unpredictability, I find myself endlessly grateful for my colleagues as I look ahead to the new year. They continue to do stellar work for our researchers and show up for each other, and me, in so many quiet ways.
Here’s what we have to share from 2021.
First and foremost, we welcomed Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty, the new director of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. As the head of our newly-integrated organization, she brings with her extensive experience in strengthening collections and digital initiatives. Previously, Tamar served as associate university librarian at Cornell University, director of collections and services at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and as executive director of the University of Chicago’s Black Metropolis Research Consortium. Read more about her achievements and her role at the Libraries and Archives.
And now for some numbers. In 2021, the Archives collected 105 accessions, comprising a whopping 2.44 cubic feet and 874.03 gigabytes of born-digital materials. To ensure that more of our records are discoverable, the archives and information management team also added 806 new or revised finding aids to our website. And speaking of discoverability, staff also added metadata and descriptions to 11,640 new digital image assets. Curious about what’s new? Each quarter, chief archivist Tammy Peters shares new photographs, digitized records, and finding aids available for our researchers online in a blog series called “Collection Highlights.” Read the latest edition.
Even though our colleagues, students, and scholars were not able to physically access our records, the Archives reference team used their own research skills and familiarity with our collections to answer 3,320 remote reference inquiries. Archivist Deborah Shapiro writes about the types of questions and topics that land in our reference team’s inbox in a blog series titled “Hot Topix.”
This year, we not only had limited access to our records, but we also had limited physical access to one another. But that didn’t stop our institutional history division from remotely recording 12 hours of oral history interviews. Historians Pam Henson and Hannah Byrne, along with a team of volunteers, added to three collections, including the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Fishes interviews (Record Unit 9616), the History of Smithsonian Institution Computing interviews (Record Unit 9637), and Women in Ocean Science interviews (Record Unit 9650).
Let’s talk more about our amazing volunteers, or, in the case of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, volunpeers. Between October 1 through the end of May, volunteers completed 108 transcription projects, which totaled 9,387 pages that are now more discoverable to researchers.
And speaking of increasing access, staff has decided to open up the vaults and press play on a few of our favorite films in the Archives collection with a monthly Smithsonian 175th Film Fest series. Head to our YouTube channel to catch up on the programs, which feature experts from across the Institution as they screen films and discuss a wide array of topics—from astrology to zoology.
If you’re interested in learning more about audiovisual collections at the Archives and around the Smithsonian, learn more about the Audiovisual Media Preservation Initiative. The new, Institution-wide project, will support the overall need for individual Smithsonian units to catalog, preserve, and provide access to our audiovisual collections.
You might ask, what does a paper conservator do without access to our collections while working from home. Well, William Bennett curated an entire web exhibition about the Hungerford Deed, a document he treated in the lab back in 2019 and just couldn’t put down. Dive into A Tale of Two Sisters: The Hungerford Deed and James Smithson’s Legacy to examine the dramatic story of a fiery conflict between Elizabeth Macie, James Smithson’s mother, and her sister, Henrietta Maria Walker.
In keeping with tradition, we’ll revisit the top five blog posts of 2021, which range from a profile about one of the first Native American employees at the Smithsonian to a post about how the Smithsonian Institution Women’s Council advocated for more equity in hiring and career advancement.
#1 Coming Soon: Smithsonian 175th Film Fest by Emily Niekrasz and Kira Sobers
Fun fact: before this program series, media digitization manager Kira Sobers actually screened films for staff during their lunch hour. We’re so excited to bring these films out of our crowded lunchroom and on to Zoom and YouTube. This blog post is an introduction to the monthly Smithsonian 175th Film Fest series, which kicked off to celebrate the Smithsonian Institution’s 175th anniversary in 2021.
#2 Tichkematse—A Great Favorite at the Smithsonian by Dr. Nathan Sowry
A forerunner of today’s efforts to decolonize and Indigenize American museums, Tichkematse was one of the first Native American employees at the Smithsonian Institution. In this post, National Museum of the American Indian archivist Dr. Nathan Sowry highlights Tichkematse’s work with natural history and anthropological collections that continue to inspire Native and non-Native museum professionals nearly 150 years later.
#3 Happy National Inventors Day by Mitch Toda
Archivist Mitch Toda invited audiences to learn more about the history of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, founded in 1995, at the National Museum of American History. Today, the Center engages with the public through research, educational initiatives, exhibitions, and public programs to "solve problems, navigate challenges, and effect real change in their lives and communities."
#4 Remembering the Work of Claudine K. Brown by Emily Niekrasz
Before the National Museum of African American History and Culture was established, the late Claudine K. Brown advocated for spaces for Black audiences on the National Mall. In this profile, learn more about Brown’s long career at the Smithsonian, from her time as director of the National African American Museum Project to her role as the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary for Education and Access.
#5 Women Carrying Out the Work of Change at the Smithsonian by Dr. Elizabeth Harmon
In this blog post, American Women’s History Initiative digital curator Dr. Elizabeth Harmon asks: with the gains of the civil rights movement in preceding decades, as well as the ongoing women’s rights movement, how were women fighting for gender equity and opportunity at the Smithsonian in the 1970s? Dive into the records of the Smithsonian Institution Women’s Council.
For the fourth year in a row, we’ll wrap up our end-of-year post with an episode of Sidedoor that features a story from the Archives. Yours truly spoke about how one of our social media followers gave a name to our previously “unidentified male,” known around Instagram as the hunk in the warm parka. How do we remember Emil Bessels now? We know him as potentially, maybe, sort of a…murderer? The Smithsonian meets true crime below.
Whatever your New Year’s Eve celebrations look like this year, we hope this finds you healthy and safe. We look forward to bringing you more Smithsonian history in 2022.
- “Goodbye 2020: Working Through a Different Kind of Year” by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Goodbye, 2019. Hello, 2020!” by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Happy 2019! The Archives Takes a Look Back at a Busy 2019” by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives