The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Did you know that the Smithsonian Institution has about eighty Facebook accounts spread across its museums, research centers, and offices? These Facebook pages document everything from listing upcoming speakers and films, to sharing photos of exhibitions and expeditions, to posting job announcements. Facebook is one of many tools the Smithsonian Institution uses to reach its multiple audiences around the globe. As of May 23, 2011, the main Smithsonian Institution Facebook site had more than 95,000 “Likes” from Facebook users. Since it’s the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ responsibility to retain the Institution’s history, it’s important for us to capture a representative sampling of Facebook pages to document how the Smithsonian used new technology in early 21st century, as well as to preserve content not available elsewhere. While traditional websites might only be updated once a day, weekly, or even less, Facebook pages give Smithsonian museums and offices the opportunity to distribute information more quickly and also allows the public a chance to interact by posting to Facebook Walls. In this sense, Facebook is more personal than a website and delivers more than the 140 characters of a Tweet.
Here’s a sampling of what Smithsonian Facebook Pages had to offer, for example, in March:
- Smithsonian Folkways Recordings offered an audio clip of “Chopin: Etude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12” by Robert Pritchard.
- Owney the Railway Mail Dog from the National Postal Museum posted a link about the use of pneumatic tubes being used for mail delivery in the 19th century.
- The Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit shared coral photos from a Belize research trip.
- Smithsonian Theaters posted showing times for the film Arabia 3D.
- The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden posted an image of Dana Hoey's Waimea from its collections.
At that same time, a group of five students from the University of Michigan was spending their Alternative Spring Break at the Archives, participating in various projects including digitizing field books and transferring digital audio files. One student spent the week saving a multitude of recent Smithsonian Facebook pages and their additional components such as Info, Photo, and Notes tabs.
While we have been using a web crawler known as Heritrix to archive the Smithsonian’s traditional websites, we decided we would archive Facebook differently since there are some complications with web crawlers and social media sites. So, we created PDF/A captures of the Facebook pages. PDF/A is a subset of PDF for long-term digital archiving. This international standard requires 100 percent self-containment, meaning fonts are embedded and no audio or video are allowed. The PDF/A file cannot rely on outside content such as hyperlinks. The files are to reproduce the same every time regardless of system. Overall, the archiving process went smoothly but was time consuming. Each Facebook page was opened in a web browser and “Print to PDF” with PDF/A settings was used. When some of the Notes tabs crashed, we experimented with other methods to try to create the PDF files. These captures immediately became records of moments in time. Some pages only have information from 2011. Others include content that goes back farther in history. The plan is to archive these pages on an annual basis, so that in the future viewing these pages can give a researcher a greater appreciation of the scope of what the Smithsonian is and does. Update: If you are interested in “archiving” your own personal account, Facebook offers a feature that allows you to download your information. Go to Account, Account Settings, and Download Your Information. This will copy all your photos, videos, Wall posts, messages, etc. into a compressed file that only you can download. To find out more information on PDF captures of web pages, do a search on screenshots of web pdf.
On May 16th, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral to watch the Endeavor, the NASA space shuttle, lift off on its final journey into space. As mission commander Mark Kelly—husband of Arizona’s Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords—put it, "It's in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore.” Interestingly, just as NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle program, Arizona State University (ASU), in conjunction with NASA, has just announced the launch, on the Internet, of a cache of archival images from the earliest years of the United States’ space program. The Project Mercury Digital Archive makes available high-res scans of some two thousand images made in the early 1960s by astronauts using hand-held cameras and by automated cameras mounted on brackets and pointing out space capsule windows. Fifty years ago, the manned and unmanned Project Mercury space flights riveted Americans who had become fixated on Cold War rivalries, fearful that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union on military, surveillance, science and education fronts. While those space missions played a critical role in setting the stage for NASA’s later and better known Apollo mission (1966–1975), which landed astronauts on the Moon, the Mercury flights are have been mostly forgotten by the public. It’s hoped that posting this archive of historic images available online and for the first time (where it joins another ASU/NASA project that’s releasing digital images of Apollo missions, too) will help to rectify that.
According to Arizona State University Professor Mark Robinson, a team of scientists and technicians are using new digital tools to bringing these historic images (which were originally made with Swedish-designed Hasselblad cameras, known for producing images of great quality) back to life. Their work includes color enhancement and contrast adjustments to boost the general visual quality of the material which will perhaps encourage us, as we enter the sixth decade of space exploration, to think about past and future efforts to view our lives on Earth and as part of a larger universe in vivid images and a larger context. As you might imagine, the Smithsonian is also a great place to see outstanding artifacts from and images of the Project Mercury missions. To see a sampling of those, just click here.
- We’ve written a post before about Stubby the dog, a distinguished hero of World War I held in the collections of the National Museum of American History. Read this great detailed profile on Stubby at the American History Museum’s blog.
- Need to know how to build a monkey trap, or how to avoid eating poisonous plants? Our resident Smithsonian Historian at the Archives contributes to a blog post on Survival on Land and Sea, a pocket-sized, waterproof manual written by Smithsonian scientists during World War II for soldiers and airmen to carry in case they crashed on a deserted island. As an aside, this soldier kept a diary in his Survival handbook after his crash and subsequent seventeen-day walk out of China.
- Proving animal romance wrong. It’s kind of deflating, but amusing nonetheless—Scientific American proves that a story from its archive about a male gazelle committing suicide after his beloved mate dies, just isn’t plausible [via The Atlantic Technology blog].
- Definitions change as the world goes digital. Is Wikipedia a world cultural repository? Wikipedia thinks so, and co-founder Jimmy Wells is petitioning the United Nations for recognition as a world heritage site.
- The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum Archives has a small holding of historical African American newspapers that harbor a wealth of interesting information. The New Negro Alliance, for example, was a Washington, DC weekly newspaper established in 1933 to protest discrimination in employment practices in stores doing business in black neighborhoods.
- The National Archives is eager to get more of its 10 billion (!) records online, and so they’ve turned to crowdsourcing. View their recent program, “Are You In? Citizen Archivists, Crowdsourcing, and Open Government,” which addresses their current crowdsourcing projects, below [via Susannah Wells, SIA]:
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