The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
One of the best things about working in any archive is finding all sorts of things you weren’t looking for. Finding that letter or memo that you didn’t know about but gives you a new understanding of what was happening is one of the many reasons why people continue to go back to original documents time and time again.
I was lucky enough to have this happen to me just the other day. I’m working on a project around the Smithsonian’s activities during the world wars and as I was reading correspondence between the curators and the administration of the United States National Museum, I found a sheaf of documents that led me to new people and a new way World War I had an impact on the Smithsonian Institution and its staff. I found a stack of pledge sheets where Smithsonian employees were signing up to support the initiatives of the U. S. Food Administration. The U. S. Food Administration was a government agency set up during World War I to promote the conservation of foods that were in short supply and needed for soldiers abroad. Their efforts included the invention of meatless Mondays, which many of us may now recognize from current healthy eating initiatives. Meatless Mondays were accompanied by wheatless Wednesdays and efforts to reduce the consumption of dairy and fats.
Employees from across all branches of the Smithsonian pledged to follow the U. S. Food Administration recommendations. The most exciting part of finding these pledge sheets are the less visible Smithsonian employees they capture. Hidden among the curators, aids, and administrators who pledged are the charwomen and laborers of the Smithsonian. Often unrecorded in documents that have survived the test of time, these few pages show that everyone at the Smithsonian was doing their part for the war effort. They also are one of the few places we can learn more about the employees of the Smithsonian who are often forgotten. Looking at their signatures, you can not only get a sense of their personality, but see a place where they wrote themselves into the historical record with their own hand.
With a little sleuthing, these signatures can even tell us a little bit more about them. By looking for these men and women in the U. S. Census records and old Washington City Directories, I was able to find who some of these people were. Joseph N. Samuels, a laborer in the Natural History Building, would have been 30 at the time he signed this pledge. The 1915 Boyd’s City Directory for Washington, D.C., identifies him as a Laborer at the National Museum and tells us he lives in a house at 4432 Kane Place, NE, in Anacostia. Alberta Jackson, a charwoman in the Natural History Building, is recorded in the 1920 census as a ‘roomer,’ just three years after she signed her pledge. Forty four years old, black, and widowed at the time of the census, she was born in D.C. Her coworker Marie Donaldson signed the pledge just after Alberta and probably lived a similar life. In a 1924 City Directory she is recorded as a renter at 630 Morton Place, NE. This directory lists her as a forewoman at the National Museum, likely a promotion from her position as a charwoman in 1917.
While these may only be bits and pieces of a few peoples’ lives, they are clues to who these often forgotten employees were and how they contributed to the nation’s war effort and to the Smithsonian, making it what it is today.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Census Records, National Archives and Records Administration
- U. S. Food Administration, Wikipedia
July is birthday celebration month for my family. There is at least one birthday every week, mine so happens to be today, my son’s next week, my daughters the following week, and of course we can’t forget Americas birthday on the 4th of July. So to say the least I have been making check lists non-stop making sure everything is in place. While doing this I thought I would draw on some inspiration through some of our photos we have at the Archives. Below is my part of my “To Do” party checklist, accompanied with photos I found in our collections.
1. Theme of the Party: I personally don’t do a theme type party because with my kids being so close in birthdays we have joint parties, and getting a boy and girl to agree on something at their age is about pointless. However here at the Smithsonian the birthday parties’ range from Smithsonian wide birthday parties to parties for exhibits and right on down to personal birthday parties for employees. To say the least the Smithsonian loves to celebrate birthdays.
2. Guest List: Having a soon to be 6 and 7 year old I find this one of the hardest parts for planning a party because I never know how small or big to have it. If you are like my daughter a small simple tea party birthday party would be perfectly fine. However if you are like my son, inviting everyone under the sun like the Smithsonian did during its 150th Birthday Celebration is more the way to go.
3. Cards: This is always one of my kid’s favorite things to do when it comes to birthdays. Standing in the card aisle playing every singing birthday card they can put their hands on is almost like Christmas for my kids. But I don’t think there is anything more personal and fun then creating your own card like the one that was presented to Helena Weiss for her birthday.
4. Cake: In my opinion, my kids would argue otherwise, the birthday cake is what makes or breaks a birthday party. I would have to say the cake from the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday and the cake from Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration are definitely crowd pleasers.
5. Activities: My kid’s favorite part of a party. Simple games such as pin the tail on the donkey or water balloon toss is sufficient enough for my kids now, but at the Smithsonian, we really like to throw a celebration. Native American ritual dancing and fireworks were just a few of the many activities that happened during the Smithsonian 150th birthday celebration.
Last insight on birthday parties, no matter how big or small the best thing to remember when celebrating a birthday is to have fun!
- Images from the Smithsonian's 150th birthday celebration, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What do you do when you need information about a business? Check the website? Send an email? Compose a Tweet? There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the answer was to pull out a pen or sit in front of a typewriter and write a letter.
The Smithsonian Institution once had a very large snail mail operation (previously referred to simply as "mail"). All mail that was not specifically addressed to a specific individual was delivered to the Public Inquiry Mail Service (PIMS), a division of the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center. In approximately 1982, PIMS produced a brochure for staff advertising the services they provided. It notes that they received over 28,000 pieces of mail during the previous year. That's over 75 letters a day (not taking into account Sundays or holidays) that either needed to be rerouted or contained routine questions that needed to be answered.
As a fun side note, one of the services advertised in this brochure was the writing and editing of preprinted materials using a word processor, "a marvelous tool for keeping information up to date." Staff from across the Smithsonian could send draft texts for bibliographies, fact sheets, and other preprinted reference materials to PIMS. The PIMS staff would "put the text into the machine's memory," edit it according The Chicago Manual of Style, and return it for final approval. If there were additions or corrections to be made, "the changes can be printed out within moments."
Almost two decades later, email had become a common form of communication. An article in the Winter 1999 issue of "The Info Special: A Newsletter of the Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center," an article noted that email traffic from the public had increased 89% from the previous year. In August 1999 alone, PIMS received 1,375 inbound emails.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to receive emails and even letters from the public, but also conveys information to the public via its websites and social media accounts.
- Contact Us, Smithsonian Institution
- Where is the Smithsonian?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-034 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Typewriters at the Smithsonian
In just over a year, the Smithsonian Transcription Center has grown in size, scope, and participation. Every day, members of the volunteer community visit the Transcription Center to split projects into tasks and share their discoveries with us.
We have 956 active contributors on the site and we’ve completed over 13,412 pages, from 18,494 available pages. Over 450 volunteers have worked on the 46 different Archives projects; there are over 75 other projects in the Transcription Center. Volunteers made connections between Smithsonian collections, to other cultural heritage institutions, and opened doors to discovery while transcribing. Through daily work and targeted campaigns, our volunteers have moved from individuals to a community of “volunpeers” – taking pride in the ways they’re learning with us in this pan-Smithsonian project.
As we opened to the public last summer, we knew volunpeers would have to “work together,” yet we didn’t know what that would look like. What we've discovered are the ways that they use the features of the site and other tools to interact - indirectly and directly.
So, how do volunteers get integrated into the community? Typically by transcribing! From the homepage, there are 3 ways to jump into projects: from the main carousel "Featured Projects," from the dropdown "Projects menu," and in the "Latest Updates" section. Some volunpeers tell us that they check the "Latest Updates" section to see what others are working on - then they'll join a project that looks like it needs help (or looks interesting). Volunpeers also explain how they return to projects using the browse by Museums & Archives feature to check on their progress.
Many volunteers use the Notes feature we implemented on all projects in the Transcription Center this spring. This box under the transcription field allows them to communicate with the Smithsonian staff sharing the project and also share or discuss information with other volunpeers. For example, in the recently posted Lepidoptera notes project:
Here’s some insight into collaboration on a project: There are 34 completed Archives projects in the Transcription Center, with an average size of 83 pages and 25 contributing volunpeers each. When you enter a project page, you can see the status of each page and, by hovering over the thumbnails, how many people have worked on each page.
Let’s look at a completed project: Botanist Ellsworth Paine Killip’s field notes from Colombia (1944). This Archives (and Field Book Project) project is 59 pages and was completely transcribed and reviewed by 12 volunpeers. We can see collaboration on a microscale by looking at the number of members and contributions it took to finish a page. For Killip’s field notes, that was an average of 4 volunpeers and 12 contributions per page. That suggests that peer review is a process that can inform reliable results in the Transcription Center.
The excitement of releasing a new project continues as volunpeers start reporting discoveries via tweets, Facebook wall posts, and feedback e-mails. Using Twitter and Facebook, volunpeers will ask other #volunpeers for help and share what they’ve discovered. They also invite other interested parties to join the transcribing adventure.
We find that allowing people to communicate using tools they already use facilitates better collaboration. We are able to respond to questions and discoveries via social media; or highlight complicated pages, or share praise for completed projects, allowing us to communicate more widely with our community. If you transcribe with us, we'd love to know whether you find this helpful and how we can do it better (get in touch!).
The adventure continues! As new projects are added almost every week, you can join other volunpeers while you choose-your-own-adventure. Tell us more about your experiences with transcribing – follow and tweet @SmithsonianArch and @TranscribeSI on Twitter or drop us a note.
- In partnership between Gale, part of Cengage Learning, and the Smithsonian, there are two new products available based on Smithsonian collections: Trade Literature & the Merchandizing of Industry and World’s Fairs and Expositions: Visions of Tomorrow. Watch the video above to hear SIL Director, Nancy E. Gwinn, and Head of Special Collections, Lilla Vekerdy, discuss the collections, their relevance in research and the significance of digitizing them. [via Unbound blog, SIL]
- “Behind the Badge,” an interactive exhibition, recently opened at the National Postal Museum. It showcases the work of one of the nation’s oldest federal law-enforcement agencies. [via Pushing the Envelope blog, NPM]
- A look at the Smithsonian Transcription Center from the perspective of one of its volunteers. [via The Past Burns Bright]
- New from AVPreserve is The Cost of Inaction Calculator, a free online tool that helps organizations analyze the implications of varying levels of preservation actions when dealing legacy audiovisual collections. [via AVPreserve blog]
- President Obama proclaimed June 2014 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month and the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History holds over 68 cubic feet of LGBT-related collections including the DC Cowboys Dance Company Records, an all-male, gay, non-profit dance company based in Washington, D.C. that was active from 1994-2012. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Recommended reading: The Allure of the Archives, by Arlette Farge; translated by Thomas Scott-Railton; talks about the joys and experience of doing research in an archives. [via AOTUS blog, NARA]
- In the 19th-century, color dictionaries provided a common language for scientists to describe different hues found in nature. One such dictionary was Color Standards and Color Nomenclature, but the Smithsonian's first curator of birds, Robert Ridgway. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- A boon to anyone standing in line at a grocery store or managing books or archival boxes, last week saw the 40th anniversary of the barcode. [via Core77]
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