Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Tour of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Update #2: The good folks at the Smithsonian Institution Archives' blog, The Bigger Picture, has linked to this story (http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/link-love-11182011)

Update: Since posting this tour, the Smithsonian's Field Notebook Project blog has linked to this story (http://goo.gl/7mvJG).

One of the great things about going to conferences in the field is meeting the remarkable people who work at cultural heritage institutions. One example is Carolyn Sheffield (whom you’ll meet later, in the next blog post), Project Manager of the Field Book Project at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Carolyn and I met at a MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Archives Conference) meeting, and we exchanged cards. When I saw her title, I was instantly intrigued. She invited me to come see her work in person when I told her how I’ve been visiting cultural heritage institutions and writing about their collections here on this blog. She also said that there were parts of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives that she wanted to see, and that my visit was the perfect excuse to take some tours herself.

Carolyn kindly set up a day’s worth of excellent tours for my visit in late September. We began at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), so my series on the visit will begin there. Expect to see other posts on my visit with Carolyn, including short videos examining the field books, an illuminating visit to the Joseph F. Cullman Library of Natural History’s Special Collections; and the fascinating Herbarium.

Note: All the photos that include SIA materials are used courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

About the SIA

Although a chief clerk and the first official archivist were on staff beginning in 1852, the official establishment of the SIA happened a little over a century later in 1964. Since then, the SIA has amassed 36,000 cubic feet of material, but due to space constraints, three-quarters of those records are held at Iron Mountain. Because the James Smithson collections initially resided at the Library of Congress (because the country didn’t quite know how to handle the Englishman’s estate at the time), the SIA still retrieves an item or two from the LoC on occasion. Twenty-six lucky souls work with the archives of the Smithsonian doing everything from appraisal and acquisition to web and social media. To help the staff are 4-5 volunteers per week and up to 15 interns a year.

The SIA’s patrons are primarily private researchers, Smithsonian administrators, university professors, and doctoral students, but the Archives also serve many historians, image researchers, librarians, and research scientists, among others. The daily researcher visits are split between staff and non-Smithsonian staff (more than 850 visits in the period between September 1, 2010 and September 1, 2011), and the majority of inquiries arrive via email (more than 4200 in the same time period).

Collection maintenance at the SIA is funded through federal appropriations, private trust funds, and grants. A portion of those monies go to paying for an in-house paper conservator (who works in the space below), as well as external contractors who work on the film, video, and photographic conservation.

About the SIA Supervisory Archivist

Our terrific host for the SIA tour was its Supervisory Archivist, Tammy L. Peters. A 16-year veteran of SIA, Tammy began her career as an intern and was later hired by the Institution. She arrived with a bachelor’s degree in history from Bethel College and a master’s in American studies from Purdue University. Her suggestion for new grads or young professionals in the field? “Seek out as much experience as possible,” she says. (I just gave the same advice to an archives student at a recent map symposium in Philadelphia. Internships, volunteering, and independent studies are the keys to eventual placement in the field.)

Tammy’s favorite part of her job is “working with all the Smithsonian offices, museums, and research centers, and being allowed to go behind the scenes to meet people and see the work that they do every day,” she says. Currently, she is working to convert HTML finding aids into XML EAD (encoded archival description) format. So far, SIA has over 4,000 finding aids to 5,500 collections, a mammoth effort, to say the least. When it comes to her goals, the biggest is making the collections available to researchers. “That includes proper description, digitization, and reference service. Taking in new records and being stewards of our entire collection also is necessary to prepare us to achieve that goal,” Tammy says. If you would like to explore the SIA collections (and I recommend that you do), visit http://siarchives.si.edu/collections. The Smithsonian has many blogs, but the SIA blog, The Bigger Picture (http://siarchives.si.edu/blog) is definitely worth the visit to see some of their incredible digitized photographs.

About the Collections
The charge of the SIA is to document the history of the Smithsonian. The collections originate from a variety of sources: the Institution itself and personal collections that closely relate to the history or collections of the SI. One of the online elements I most like about SIA is the Frequently Used Collections area of the SIA web site (http://siarchives.si.edu/services/frequently-used-collections-smithsonian-institution-archives). When visitors explore that part of the site, they can see which records were popular and why. Specifically, the content on those pages speak to the types of historical records SIA holds as well as their meaning to the wider world. These pages provide a good example of what all of us who describe collections ought to strive for in terms of making our materials more accessible to the public.

At the start of the tour, Tammy showed Carolyn and me this gorgeous slide case in the entryway of the SIA.

In 2008, the SIA received that slide case above, along with the rest of the Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS) cold vault photo morgue (about 3 million images of the SI’s research photographs from around the world). Next, Tammy took us to the area where the incoming records were held.

The SIA receives records in all kinds of states of preparation and preservation. Here, and during the acquisitions process, the staff makes decisions about how to handle certain records. For instance, anything coming from the Zoo goes immediately into the freezer for two days to prevent pest invasion. Additionally, if records show evidence of water damage, they go directly into the freezer to prevent mold issues.

The records above will be rehoused and processed, mostly by volunteers, in the processing room shown below.

I had to laugh when I saw the poster of “Clip Art or Artifacts of Paper Torture” (below).

Whenever I visit collections, the archivists, curators, and other cultural heritage professionals like to show me their treasures as well as the “hidden gems” that I request. Tammy was no exception. Having access to the records of the Smithsonian, she has some of the most interesting historical documents in the United States at her disposal. A prime example is the handwritten will of James Smithson, which states in no uncertain terms that should he pass, his collections will go to his nephew, and if the nephew were childless (which he was), the collections ought to go to the United States to establish a center of learning (see below).

The reflection in the photo shows that the will has been preserved in mylar to prevent injury while showing it to visitors.

One of the many attractive qualities of the SIA’s collections is that they are so diverse. An example is the correspondence below from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was the Smithsonian’s third Secretary, from 1887 to 1906. Langley had been very interested in aerodynamics and had designed a few failed flying machines. He wanted to see their experiments in North Carolina, but the Wrights told Langley that the weather was bad and his request to visit did not come at a good time. The brothers did not want to admit that they had already made their first flight, however they later gave the Smithsonian their flyer.

The archives world is full of fantastic finds. Tammy told us one SIA amazing story that yielded 900,000 visitors to its images on Flickr. She said that in 2005, the SIA had a visiting researcher who was examining radio records from the Science Service. It’s a frequently used collection comprising about 459 boxes. A volunteer had been processing the collection, and later, the researcher took over where the volunteer had left off. In the very last box was a set of little brown acidic envelopes containing nitrate negatives of photographs of William Jennings Bryant and Brian Darrow during the Scopes Monkey trial (known in legal circles as State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes).

The print above shows Bryant making his case on one of the days when it was too hot to hold the trial inside the courthouse, and it was held outside instead. If you want to see the entire set of photos printed from the negatives, as well as others later added to the collection, visit the Smithsonian Collections Search page at http://collections.si.edu/search/.

“Documenting Smithsonian history and how that intersects with American history, scientific discovery, and the history of museums,” is how Tammy describes the contribution SIA makes to preserving our collective historical memory. I’ve only shared the tiniest bit of that monumental contribution here. I hope that it has encouraged you to explore their online collections as well as pay a visit the next time you are in Washington, D.C.

Contact Information
Smithsonian Institution Archives
MRC 507
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012
(202) 633-5870
http://siarchives.si.edu/services/reference-inquiries or osiaref@si.edu

Next in this tour series will be the Field Books Project at the Smithsonian. Stay tuned!


Robin Jennings said...

What a monumental job. I take my hat off all the staff and volunteers.

Great article by the way.

Deb Schiff said...

Thanks, Robin!