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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Where Burpee Seeds Grow

As my time as an intern at the Archives of American Gardens comes to an end, I reflect on how I became intimately familiar with the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.  My project, digitizing letters from a 1924 Burpee contest asking gardeners to write in and describe “What Burpee’s Seeds Have Done for Me,” grew to include reviewing transcriptions of Burpee letters that appear in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  I digitized roughly 300 letters and read another 600 from the collection.  It’s a good thing I’m a bibliophile! I learned not only why gardeners preferred Burpee seeds, but also the timeless joys that gardening brings.

Each letter was tagged with an index-card sized piece of paper that captured the name of the contestant and their mailing address. As I read and reviewed the letters, I became curious about where they came from. Where did these gardeners plant their Burpee seeds? Early into the digitization project, I came across a letter from Canada (little did I know at the time that they traveled much farther than that) and I began to record in a spreadsheet where these letters originated. I then plotted this data into Google Map Maker.  Below is a map of the locations of the letters which provides a sampling of presumably where Burpee Seeds were sown, nearly 100 years ago.



This curiosity continued as I began to review and approve Burpee letters and photographs already transcribed through the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  This time, instead of just recording where the letters were sent from, I wanted to know what types of plants the gardeners grew.  The resulting map shows the variety of vegetables grown and is organized according to plant family. Before researching and learning the taxonomical classification of several of the plants, I never would have imagined that tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants all share the same family, Solanaceae (let alone the same genus Solanum!).   Below is a map of the majority of vegetation grown and recorded in the Burpee letters from the Transcription Center.



The last map I created is an amalgamation of information from the letters I digitized or reviewed that answers the question:  How far did Burpee seeds travel? It is a map of the international locations where these letters were sent from.



When I began working with the Burpee Collection I never imagined how much I would learn from the letters of gardeners past.  I read about how the Burpee seeds impacted the lives of gardeners, of the gardens they tended, and the plants they loved to grow. More than anything I learned how the ephemeral beauty of a garden is anything but fleeting; gardens will remain eternal as long as there are seeds to grow.

Melinda Allen, Winter Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Tradescant Museum: A Proto-Smithsonian in London?

In one rare book in the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History is a door to the lost world of two remarkable gardeners and the first museum in Great Britain open to the public.


The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Smithsonian Libraries copy of the Musaeum Tradescantianum (link here)
Musaeum Tradescantianum, or, A collection of rarities preserved at South-Lambeth neer London, published in 1656, is a catalog of curiosities and trees, shrubs and plants assembled by father and son, both named John Tradescant, from far-flung trips. This printing of the contents of the house and gardens, dubbed the Ark, was paid for by Elias Ashmole, who, in turn, under murky circumstances, acquired it all, forming the nucleus of Oxford University’s famous Ashmolean Museum.

John Tradescant’s house at south Lambeth. Line engraving, 1798 (photograph from Wellcome Images)
In the gardens and orchards of the Thames River estate, in the borough of Lambeth, the Tradescants grew over 700 botanical specimens. John the elder (approximately 1570-1638) and John the younger (1608-1662) were gardeners to a succession of nobility and royalty and, owing to these wealthy patronages, plant explorers. Tradescant senior journeyed to the Low Countries and France beginning in 1609 for Robert Cecil’s gardens at Hatfield House (limes, mulberries, cherries, tulips were acquired). He accompanied Sir Dudley Digges to Russia (1618), introducing the larch tree to England, and also explored North Africa (from 1620), returning with Syringa persica (Lilac). Tradescant oversaw the grounds of Oatlands in Surrey for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria; his son succeeded him there as Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms.
A posthumous oil portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve. The trompe-l’oeil cartouche contains grapes, pear, peaches, plums, parsnips, turnips, onions, tulips, and shells in a fitting tribute. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)
Many North American plants were introduced into England by the Virginia Company of London, a stock (for-profit) company formed to establish a colony in the New World. Tradescant senior became a subscriber to the enterprise in 1617 and was growing about forty specimens from this venture by 1634. His son made the voyage himself, collecting in Virginia during separate trips in 1637, 1642 and 1654. Some of the fruits of these expeditions — “to gather all rarities of flowers, plants, and shells” — including the American cowslip (Dodecatheon meadia), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), were planted in the Lambeth gardens and recorded in the catalog Musaeum Tradescantianum, with many becoming standards of the English cottage garden of today.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz. A wonderful romantic and melancholy presentation of the gardener, with his spade. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)

North American botanical specimens were not the only curiosities attracting the Tradescants. Objects came into the collection, not only from the father and son’s journeys, but also from fellow travelers, sea captains, military officers, and diplomats. There were wonders in the Ark: a piece of Christ’s cross, a hand of a mermaid, a unicorn’s horn that Tradescant knew was from a narwhal but believed to be “yet very precious against poison.” Listed in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were “Divers Humming Birds, three sorts whereof are from Virginia.” And, “Pohatan, King of Virginias habit [cloak] all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.” The 1901 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution proudly, if not entirely accurately, boasts “The collections of Sloane, who was one of the early scientific explorers of America, were like those of the Tradescants, contained many New World specimens, and the British Museum as well as the Ashmolean was built around a nucleus of American material.”

The Ark’s various collections of weapons, garments, coins, “fourfooted beasts,” birds, insects, fishes, fossils, minerals, instruments, works of art, all numerated in the Musaeum Tradescantianum, are of course the type that are housed, cataloged, studied and displayed in the Smithsonian. Along with the curious public (there are many contemporary accounts), visitors of more serious interests soon started referencing and studying the holdings. Schoolmaster Charles Hoole believed that every child should pay an annual visit. Thomas Johnson, in his edition of Gerard’s Herbal, noted that “Indian Morrice Bells” could be seen at South Lambeth. The dodo, penguin, “Brazilian Merula or blackbird,” and “Indian Mockbird” were studied by the ornithologist Francis Willughby and naturalist John Ray.

The 1656 catalog was a unique publication in England for the time. Materials were divided into two categories, “Naturall” and “Artificialls”. The Musaeum Tradescantianum is particularly important as a detailed record of the gardens, long since destroyed. The main residence of the Tradescants, Turret House, survived until 1881. Oxford’s Bodleian Library contains some of the gardeners’s manuscripts and books, including the wonderful manuscript “Tradescant’s Orchard”, watercolors of fruit, and the only known copy of the 1634 Plantarum in horto Johannem Tradescanti nascentium catalogus

“Dodar, from the Island of Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big:” the description from Musaeum Tradescantianum (page 4). The Tradescant or Oxford Dodo. Skeleton cast and model of dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Tradescants’ collection of the Ark in the Ashmolean is now mostly dispersed. Even the Tradescant Dodo was thrown into a trash bonfire in 1755 although the head and a leg were rescued and displayed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Today the Garden Museum (near the original estate), with funding from the Ashmolean Museum, is working toward a partial recreation of the Ark. The Musaeum Tradescantianum provides the guidebook to the Tradescants’s Cabinet of Wonders, a 17th-century precursor to the collections of the Smithsonian.  


Notes: 


The portrait engravings in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were by the famous Wenceslaus Hollar, a family friend.


The Garden Club of Virginia honored both the Tradescants and their state with a stain glass window of the family's coat of arms within a wreath of Tradescantia virginiania, presented to Oxford University in 1926. The generic name Tradescantia dates from 1718 and was recognized by Linnaeus. The stain glass resides in the Museum of the History of Science (Old Ashmolean Building). Photograph by Andrew Gray (Wikimedia Commons).  
Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart'. Collected by Robert Bruce Faden for the Botany Department of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Leslie Brothers
 
Allan, Mea. The Tradescants: their plants, gardens and museum, 1570-1662. London: Michael Joseph, 1964.

Leith-Ross, Prudence. The John Tradescants: gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen. London: Peter Owen, 1984.


Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Dilemmas of Sharing Digital Assets in Large Scale

We live in a digital world where digital curation and digitization projects are taking place everywhere. For Archives collections, which often consist of multiple boxes and folders of materials, we are often confronted with the question of whether to digitize only selected portions of a collection (and if so, how to select which materials to digitize), or whether to digitize a collection in its entirety. In either case, we are faced with a huge accumulation of digital objects, management issues and public access challenges. 

Since 1995, the Smithsonian has taken an item-level-cataloging approach for some of the archival materials using MARC format. The Smithsonian Collection Search Center became the online platform for sharing the 216,700 individual digital assets. Though we are proud of having made such a large amount of digital assets accessible to the public, it’s clear that our item-level-cataloging approach cannot keep up with the demanding pace of mass digitization. But if we don’t catalog individual items, how can we provide access to the digital objects with good context?  After searching and experimenting, we came up a scalable solution.

We have started a new process of handling the ever-increasing rate of archival material digitization and have made the archival digitalcollections available in the SmithsonianOnline Virtual Archives (SOVA).

A page displaying archival collection contents with digital objects
Instead of cataloging digitized items individually we are shifting our attention to organizing our millions of digital assets according to the physical arrangement of the collections.
Following the EAD Finding Aid format, our digital assets are “virtually filed” according to the collection Finding Aid structure.  We created simple “DynamicSlideshow” software that would read and display digital objects according to the structured directory.  The syntax to call for a particular slideshow is in the form of the URL link which I will explain below.  The slideshow link can be entered into any DAO (Digital Archival Object) field for easy image browsing with better contextual information.  We believe this approach will scale to the mass digitization efforts that the Smithsonian is undertaking.

Browse images using a Dynamic Slideshow

Here are a few examples to show how our method works for complex collections that have been fully digitized.  The method also works for small collections or collections with selected partial digitization.

Example 1:
ACA Galleries Records, 1917-1963, in the Archives of American Art [ View Example here ]

Notice the DAO tags syntax (below) looks like a URL link, and it is set to display images at the folder level.  The path of the directory dictates the sets of images for display.

Example 2:
Guide to the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, in National Museum of American History Archives Center [ View Example here ]

Notice the DAO tag is set to pull images at the Series level:

Because the display dynamically pulls and displays the image sets, new images can be added to the directories in the DAMS (Digital Asset Management System) any time and the display will always pull the latest sets.  The DAO tags do not need to be modified because they point at the underlying structure, rather than the individual image files.

The image set can be dynamically selected with some simple syntax changes, as shown below:

Link points to Folder level:

Link points to Box level

Link points to Collection level

The “Dynamic Slideshow” and DAMS structured directory path are designed to be used for more than just EAD Finding Aid; they can be used for many different purposes.  For example, we use this method to manage the SmithsonianTranscription website with 1400+ individual transcription projects which are guided by the same structure.

To see more examples, please follow these links to collections with digital objects:
From National Museum of American Indian Museum Archives Center: [ View here ]
From Archives of American Art [ View here  ]


Ching-hsien Wang, Project Manager
Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division
Office of the Chief Information Officer


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff

For two decades, Francis Wolff photographed every jazz session that Blue Note Records made. He not only preserved a major part of jazz history, but with his remarkable eye, he captured amazing candid portraits of great artists that reveal the joy and intensity of jazz at the point of creation.
--Michael Cuscuna, founder of Mosaic Images

Curtis Fuller at his June 16, 1957 session for "The Opener" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey.  All the photographs shown in this blog were created by Francis Wolff and are from the Archives Center's Francis Wolff Jazz Photoprints collections, National Museum of American History, the gift of Michael Cuscuna and Mosaic Images.
Michael Cuscuna donated twenty-five silver gelatin photographic prints to the Archives Center in 2011, and this April we were pleased to display twelve of these photographs as part of the festivities for Jazz Appreciation Month.  The exhibition, "The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff," will continue until June 30, 2016. It is located in the space outside the Archives Center entrance in the West Wing, on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. Examples of Blue Note LP record albums which utilized Wolff's photographs are included in the exhibition.

John Coltrane and Lee Morgan at Coltrane's September 15, 1957 session for
"Blue Train" (Blue Note) at the Van Gelder studio, New Jersey
Natives of Berlin, Germany, Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion became friends in 1924 when they discovered their mutual interest in jazz.  Like many Europeans, they had an outsider’s enthusiasm for this American art form.  Lion pursued his passion by moving to New York City in 1928, while Wolff remained in Berlin as a commercial photographer. Lion founded Blue Note Records in 1939 and asked Wolff to join him in New York.  Wolff hesitated, although as a Jew his life in Germany was in imminent danger.  He escaped Nazi Germany in the nick of time, and he and Lion released their first jazz recording in 1939.  The company emphasized traditional jazz at first, but by the late 1940s, Blue Note became a major leader in introducing the innovations of modern jazz and avant-garde styles, as well as the talented musicians who created it.  The co-founders of Blue Note treated their artists with consideration and respect, fostering an atmosphere of creativity and excitement.

Alfred Lion and Thelonious Monk at Monk's May 30, 1952 session for
"Genius of Modern Music" (Blue Note) at WOR Studios, New York City
While Alfred Lion supervised the music at Blue Note Records, Francis Wolff handled the business side.  He started photographing the recording sessions as a personal hobby.  His photographs became the label’s trademark when they were incorporated into album cover designs in 1956.  From then on, with his twin-lens, square-format Rolleiflex camera always at hand, Wolff was the label’s official photographer.  His images immortalized recording sessions by the top artists of modern jazz and revealed the camaraderie that made Blue Note a special creative place.  Using an off-camera flashgun held at arm’s length for unposed images, he embraced the interplay of light and shadow with expression and mood, making the musicians with their instruments look powerful and dramatic against deep black backgrounds. The often square or nearly square proportions of Wolff's pictures reflect his talent in utilizing the full 2-1/4 x 2-1/4" format of his camera, composing to the edge. When Lion retired in 1967, Wolff stopped photographing the recording sessions and became the company’s producer until his death in 1971.

Horace Silver at the November 23, 1955 session for "The Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia 
Each year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors selected musicians as “Jazz Masters.”  Many NEA Jazz Masters recorded for Blue Note records and were photographed by Francis Wolff.  Art Blakey—shown below at his January 24, 1962 session for “The African Best”— was one.  Others included Ron Carter, Ornette Coleman, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, all represented in the Francis Wolff collection.

Art Blakey at his January 24, 1962 session for "The American Beat" at the Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey 
Francis Wolff's photographs have been reproduced in book form, notably in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, by Michael Cuscuna, Charlie Lourie, and Oscar Schneider, with a foreword by Herbie Hancock (New York: Rizzoli, 1995); but this is the first time these photographs from the Archives Center's collections, beautifully printed from Wolff's negatives in the Mosaic Images collection, have been placed on public view in the National Museum of American History.  A few days after this small exhibition opened I chanced to mention it in an email to a Spanish friend who also has been a photographer of jazz musicians, and is now a doctoral candidate in the history of photography, Lourdes Delgado. She said that years ago she met the man who printed Wolff's photographs in New York and saw the images. I first met Lourdes when our Museum's Curator of American Music, Dr. John Edward Hasse, introduced her to me while she was living in New York. Wolff photographed musicians at work, during rehearsals and performances, but Lourdes photographed them in their home environments. Dr. Hasse, the creator of Jazz Appreciation Month, is a great Archives Center collaborator, frequently bringing the work of talented photographers of musicians to our attention and facilitating acquisitions, especially in the field of jazz, and his efforts have enriched Archives Center collections enormously.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History      




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Anthropologists in the Parks

National Park Week is this week! From April 16th to the 24th, you can visit all national parks for free. National parks and anthropology have always had an important relationship, and here at the National Anthropological Archives we have many materials related to the work that anthropologists have done in national parks. In the 19th century, many of the first professional anthropologists were also advocates for national parks. John Wesley Powell, first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was also the leader of the first recorded expedition of white men through the Grand Canyon.

This view of the Grand Canyon was sketched in 1872 during Powell's second expedition down the Colorado River. NAA MS 2030: 363 Drawings for Illustrating Major Powell's Memoirs. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
Powell also participated in surveys of the Rocky Mountains and was later the director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Shortly before a monument was erected in Powell’s honor in the Grand Canyon in 1916, a Department of the Interior press release declared that “if, as is expected, Congress meantime makes the Grand Canyon a national park (it is a national monument now), the two dedications will take place together, making a celebration altogether notable in the history of national parks.” The Grand Canyon was made a national park slightly later in 1919, and you can still see Powell Point there today.

Page from a 1915 letter planning Powell's Grand Canyon memorial. NAA MS 4910: Material Related to the Construction of the John Wesley Powell Memorial at the Grand Canyon," 1915-1916. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
William Henry Jackson, a BAE photographer, was also a member of the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey that explored the area that is now Yellowstone National Park. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, and other natural landmarks helped convince Congress to make Yellowstone the first national park in 1872. In 1874, Jackson also took the first photographs of the cliff dwellings in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. William Henry Holmes, Jackson’s colleague and the second director of the BAE, surveyed more cliff dwellings nearby in Mancos Canyon the following year. The attention these two helped create in the area eventually led to the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in 1908.
Hayden Survey camp near Lake Yellowstone. NAA MS 4605: "Camp Scene of Hayden Survey," 1871. National Anthropological Archives, NMNH.


Map of Mesa Verde Area Showing Locations of Ruins, 1908.
But anthropologists haven’t just been involved in the creation of National Parks, they’ve also been instrumental in the preservation of natural and historical resources that you can still see in the parks today. Jesse Walter Fewkes, Smithsonian archaeologist and chief of the BAE in the 1920s, was closely involved in early excavations and repairs of major sites at Mesa Verde National Park. Centuries of deterioration, vandals, and destructive tourists were major problems in the park. Fewkes and his colleagues worked hard to restore cliff dwellings, pueblos, towers, and many other structures built by the Western Anasazi people between 600 and 1200 A.D. Without their work, there would be way fewer historical sites remaining in national parks for us to visit and enjoy. More recently archaeologists have worked to protect prehistoric sites, natural wonders, and archaeological artifacts in Zion, Canyonlands, and many other national parks.

Thomas Dale Stewart papers,
Series 5, National Geographic Society,
 Wetherill Mesa Project, 1962-1964. National
Anthropological Archives, NMNH.


Anthropologists have always been an important part of the creation and protection of our national parks, but their involvement didn’t stop there. The knowledge and information gained from anthropological field work and research in national parks has also helped improve our understanding of peoples and places in the United States.

While John Wesley Powell was helping survey what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, he also collected ethnographic and linguistic data on many of the Native American tribes he encountered along the way. In the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic Society conducted the Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project. The project helped excavate many historic sites and made many notable archaeological, botanical, and geological discoveries. More recent surveys in Grand Teton and other national parks have contributed to our knowledge of where and how prehistoric peoples lived in the present day U.S. Anthropologists also conducted research of mounds at places like Shiloh Military National Park, Isle Royale National Park, Everglades National Park, and Mammoth Cave and you can find their reports and photographs at the NAA. Without each other, anthropology and our national park system would be a whole lot different today.

Thomas Dale Stewart papers, Series 5, National Geographic Society, Wetherill Mesa Project, 1962-1964. National 
Anthropological Archives, NMNH.
Interested in learning more about national parks? You can visit the National Park Service website here to find a park near you. The NAA and Human Studies Film Archives have films, records, and photographs from many national parks across the United States, and many are available online. Happy exploring!

Tyler Stump
Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Saga of a Battle Ready Volunteer: AKA A Diamond in the Rough

Places of business go through a lot of changes.  Archives are no different.  Seasons and interns come and go.  You have some volunteers for a year or two and others are around forever, becoming part of your work family.  They are indispensable.  The Freer|Sackler Archives has such a volunteer in Betsy.  She has been working here for fifteen years and rarely misses a week, unless she is off traveling the world.  Betsy is an extremely intelligent, quiet, and dedicated volunteer.  She volunteers several places in the region and the Smithsonian is very lucky to have her.  

Bonfil's photograph of Palmyra found in Smith Collection.
Betsy has worked on many collections for us, but none was bigger or more important than the Myron Bement Smith Collection.  Smith was a classical archaeologist, architect, and art historian from New York who had a lifelong devotion to West Asia, accumulating some 87,000 items documenting Islamic art and culture from Spain to India, with an emphasis on architecture.  Smith, like so many scholars of this era, was a methodical man who kept records of everything. This has ended up making his collection even more invaluable to researchers.  For example, some items, such as Félix Bonfils’ 1860s photographs of Palmyra have recently become invaluable because they are the only representations of these important sites.

A few years ago we hit a snag with the Smith Collection, which we thought was done.  We were immensely lucky to have Betsy as our wing woman. We had a researcher, who had worked with the Smith collection before, request something from the finding aid and we went to retrieve it.  Then something odd happened - we could not find the materials. It was not Betsy’s day in the archives, so we requested the researcher come back the next day.  We were hoping it was us just not looking in the right place, rather than something missing.

Myron Bement Smith and his wife Katharine.

Some of the recovered Smith materials.
The next day rolled around and Betsy looked for the materials as well, but, sadly, she could not find them either.  It was decision making time.  My boss, Betsy, and I talked it out and we came to the decision that all the physical locations in the finding aid needed to be checked.  Was Betsy willing to do this?  Thankfully, she was willing.  During this time, my boss and I were relocating some collections to better utilize the space in the archives.  We were moving glass plates and adjusting shelves when low and behold there, under a shelf, were the missing items from the Smith collection. 

There was another powwow about the Smith Collection and we all decided that Betsy’s check of the Smith collection should expand to the entire finding aid.  The ever hard working Betsy agreed because she wanted the collection to be accurate and as useful to researchers as possible.  She and I worked together even going so far as to re-label a good chunk of the boxes.  Wonderful things have come from overhauling this collection and finding aid, researchers from different areas of study have used this collection and we continue to get requests for this collection on a weekly basis.  All of Betsy’s hard work was worth it.  As she has said, she just wants the collection to be of use and it very much is.

This was a large, important project and Betsy had been working on it for years. So she knuckled down and went through it to make it better, to make it shine. Working with Betsy on this project was educational, meaningful, and wonderful.  I had the honor of getting to know this brilliant woman who volunteers for the Smithsonian and I got to hone my skills as an archivist.

Read more about overhauling this finding aid in Excavating a Finding Aid in Archival Outlook.

Lara Amrod, Archivist

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

DPLA and the Smithsonian Participation

DPLA Fest 2016 is happening this week. We are so excited to see the tremendous success of this great national project! Attending this event in Washington DC hosted by the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian triggered my memory of an interesting beginning.

In May 2011, John Palfrey, the Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Digital Public Library of America at the time, put out a call for a Beta Sprint of ideas for a new common platform called DPLA. By June of 2011, the committee had received 60 enthusiastic responses. The Smithsonian was among the 60 submissions and participated in a Beta Sprint Contest to show our idea of what a DPLA could be.

At the time, Smithsonian was running a new Collections Search Center system that allows cross searching of millions of Smithsonian’s collections from its libraries, archives and museums. Having gone through a project like this before, we thought we might submit a similar system architecture to the DPLA Contest. The Smithsonian partnered with the Library of Congress and the National Archives to pitch the idea. The Smithsonian’s role was to provide a demo system that would host and search records from the three parties, and the roles of Library of Congress and National Archives were to provide selected records for use in this demo system. In the end, an external review committee selected our joined proposal as one of the top six best ideas. On October 21, 2011, the “Big Tent Meeting” was hosted at the National Archives in Washington DC. The six finalists were invited to do a live presentation and the event was also available via webcast for the public to view live.

My fellow team members from the Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division worked together to create a dedicated system which contained the existing Smithsonian data, and we planned on ingesting data from the Library of Congress and the National Archives into it. This is one of the presentation slides where we proposed the system architecture.


As part of this demonstration, we wanted to highlight the fact that records from different organizations could work well together. Both the Library of Congress and the National Archives sent records that they could produce in a short amount of time. Among them were catalog records of photographs, personal letters, and music manuscripts. These items told stories of Civil War veterans, the Union Pacific Railroad, musical history, and gave insight into the lives of many famous people from American history. Because the National Archives had a proprietary system, it was not easy for them to produce records in MARC format (Machine Readable Cataloging format). It took some hand coding to produce these archival records in MARC. Though the Smithsonian system did not require records to be stored in this format, using MARC enabled us to standardize our starting point. This also made the point that even though our data could come from different places, we needed a standard format to create the necessary data consistency for a common system to work well.

We mapped the two record sets from MARC to the Smithsonian EDAN (Enterprise Digital Asset Network) data format in no time. After the initial data ingest process into the Smithsonian system, we matched these records from the Library of Congress and the National Archives with the Smithsonian data. Even though the two record sets comprised fewer than 200 records, exciting results started to happen immediately. For example, the Library of Congress’s photographs of “Civil War veterans” responded to searches along with Smithsonian records of sculptures, paintings, and photographs on the same topic. The National Archives’s photographs of “railroad trains” matched with Smithsonian photographs, trade catalogs, postcards and posters. The National Archives’s letter written by “Rose Greenhow” matched with multiple Smithsonian’s photographs of Rose Greenhow and a book about the life of Rose Greenhow. The Library of Congress’s Letter by Johannes Brahms matched with Smithsonian’s photographs of Johannes Brahms. The following are some of the examples we used in our presentation.



This experiment provided the evidence that the concept of DPLA would work very well. Even though these records had never been on the same system before, this preliminary experiment worked immediately; the standard metadata and proper vocabulary control used in these records were the key to success. These records all used Library of Congress subject headings and Form and Genre terms, and all records contained properly formulated name headings. The system architecture proposed to the Beta Sprint proved to be robust and can handle dynamic situations with very different records.

The other presentations at the Beta Sprint also showed strong ideas and proved great technical points as well. We were honored to present alongside some truly great peers. The Smithsonian Libraries played a key role and was a great partner in the DPLA project. With their support, the Smithsonian became an early DPLA Content Hub contributing 1.25 million records monthly. Collections consist of staff publications and digitized books from the libraries, photographs, manuscripts, interview and diaries records from the archives, and scientific specimens, historical objects and art collections from the museums. In return, DPLA generates about 230,000 annual visitors traffic back to the Smithsonian Collections Search Center broadening our audience to our collections.

This is a win-win project for all, and we encourage more libraries, archives and museums to join this great national project!


Ching-hsien Wang, Project Manager
Collections Systems & Digital Assets Division
Office of the Chief Information Officer