The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- An interesting article on the complicated permutations of copyright law and images of publicity-savvy Albert Einstein.
- Our thoughts are with those dealing with the awful storms that hit the US Midwest and Southeast this week. If it might help you or someone you know, please check out the Archives' resources on disaster recovery of personal property and the Library of Congress' resources on emergency preparedness and recovery.
- The Archives of American Art talk about the ten year journey to digitize the records of Jacques Seligmann & Co.—the largest collection they’ve ever digitized.
- A Preservation Week post from the Smithsonian Collections blog: how to deal with broken glass plate negatives.
- Old documents are funny. How to play golf during an air raid.
- It’s official, the analog era is done: the last typewriter manufacturer closes its doors.
- Sad. We’ve written about the plastic garbage vortex before. Now it turns out a Smithsonian scientists has found a mini version near the Smithsonian Marine Research Station on Carrie Bow, off the coast of Belize.
- The Smithsonian’s own Nancy Proctor talks museums and mobile 2.0 (it’s a long, full-length lecture, but there’s lots of info. packed in there!):
“Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian Institution at the Powerhouse Museum 19/4/11,” Courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.
This post is written in honor of Preservation Week, April 24–30, 2011. In celebration of this week, preservation specialists around the world will bring attention to the preservation work going on in their institutions, and inspire action to preserve collections in libraries, archives, museums, and communities. As a recipient of a 2010–2011 Post-Graduate Fellowship in Conservation, I came to the Smithsonian Institution Archives in September to research the treatment history of Record Unit 92: Prints and Drawings 1840-, a collection of several thousand architectural prints and drawings, most of them depicting Smithsonian buildings. Many of the drawings were executed by famous architectural firms and practitioners, including Hornblower and Marshall, Cluss & Schulze, and James Renwick. The drawings and prints vary widely in the ways they were created. There are hand-drawn images on paper, tracing paper, and tracing cloth; some were executed in graphite, others in ink or colored crayons. The collection also includes a variety of photographic images reproduced as gelatin photographs, diazotypes, blueprints (cyanotypes) and photostats. While some of the materials that were used to create these architectural drawings have remained stable over time, others have proved to be more fragile and have inherent problems, including the fact that paper itself tends to become more acidic and more brittle over time. We have all seen old paperback books that have become brown and brittle with age and are falling apart into little chips of paper flakes instead of pages. Conservation treatments to combat the natural acidity of paper vary widely, and include procedures as non-invasive as rehousing documents or artifacts in alkaline folders to reduce their uptake of acids from the environment, to treating them with “dry” non-aqueous chemistry, to bathing them in alkaline water baths. In the late 1980s, some of the RU92 architectural drawings were sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for treatment, and nearly one hundred of them were deacidified using either a water bath containing magnesium bicarbonate or a non-aqueous deacidification spray in common use at that time. Now, more than two decades later, I’ve measured the pH (a relative measure of acidity and alkalinity) and the background color for each drawing using specialized tools, and then compared those deacidified architectural drawings to similar, but untreated drawings in the collection as a control group. I’ve identified some interesting trends. As expected, the untreated drawings are acidic, with a measured pH between pH 4 and pH 6 (ph 7 is neutral). My readings for the treated drawings show that they tend to be less acidic and some are now quite alkaline. The pH of the drawings that were treated with magnesium bicarbonate ranges from 5.5 to 10, with an average pH around 7.5, which is just slightly more alkaline than neutral. The drawings that were treated with the non-aqueous deacidification spray have readings as low as pH 4.5 and as high as pH 10. Some of the drawings were only sprayed on the back, which has interesting implications for future treatments of those drawings, because while the pH on the front side of one, for example, measures near pH 5, the reading of the back measures near pH 9. The scale for pH is a logarithmic, so the difference between those two readings is not really just four points apart, but reflects a 10,000-fold difference! When I measured the pH of the drawings, I didn’t take readings in just one spot, but in five different places across each of the drawings, in order to average differences due to handling, chemical application process, and environmental influences. Statistical analysis of those measurements shows that the vast majority of the untreated drawings were acidic, with readings between pH 4.4 and 6.4, while the drawings bathed in magnesium bicarbonate had a slightly larger range of variation, with the majority of measurements falling between pH 6.1 and 8.5. Most notably, the drawings treated with the non-aqueous spray showed the largest range of difference of the three groups, with the majority of measurements between pH 4.9 and 8.1. I am now in the process of writing up my data and conclusions for a presentation to the Archives and later plan to write more broadly about what the implications of these findings may suggest with regard to future deacidification projects.
Anna Friedman is the Post Graduate Fellow in Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
A remarkable archival find came to light in mid-April, when Kenneth Price—professor of American literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and co-director of The Whitman Archive—announced that while researching in a National Archives vault in Washington D.C., he came upon approximately three thousand previously unknown documents that were written by the poet Walt Whitman when he worked as a government clerk between 1864 and 1874.
Whitman took jobs as a copyist and scribe to earn money while to support his work as a poet. The material Price found came from the records of the attorney general’s office, where Whitman worked after he was fired from a similar job in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. His dismissal there came after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, found a copy of Leaves of Grass either on or in Whitman's desk while snooping through the building after hours. According to an entry in The Whitman Archive, “Since Whitman was in the process of editing poems for subsequent editions, Harlan found numerous underlined, amended, and marked off passages. Curious, he carried it back to his office. Upon further reading, he declared the book obscene and its author immoral,” which prompted Harlan to discharge Whitman the following day.
According to a report published in the The Guardian, Prof. Price thinks this new material in Whitman’s hand—dealing with issues such as the rise of Ku Klux Klan, the westward spread of the railroads, and the trial of Jefferson David, President of the Confederacy—will shed light on Whitman’s ideas about democracy and his writing. "This was an age of high hopes but also big problems, and Walt Whitman was there in the thick of it," Price commented. It’s hard to say, in hindsight, whether Whitman was responsible in any way for the content of the materials he handled or transcribed, but Price feels that future biographers will need to consider how the information Whitman was exposed to may have impacted his intellectual and literary evolution.
In this short video and the video above, Price describes what it felt like to strike archival gold and uncovers what’s long gone unseen. And if you’re interested in getting a very different perspective on Walt Whitman and visibility, read this fascinating piece that Leo Braudy, a scholar of celebrity, wrote about Whitman’s relationship to fame and photography for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s project, click! photography changes everything.
- 1 of 8