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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Phantoms of the Museum

Happy Halloween! Make sure you check out Pam Henson's post "Phantoms of the Museum" originally published at the National Museum of Natural History blog.

"As Halloween approaches, I am reminded of a May 13, 1900, article (see the scan at the bottom of this post) on the National Museum in the Washington Post that reported on “Shades of Scientists Who Walk There Nightly,” (shades was an old term for ghosts). The U.S. National Museum was then housed in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building. The guards and staff who worked late reported that the deceased but devoted scientists of earlier eras continued to walk the halls of the Museum at night, guarding over their collections. Foremost among these was Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), the first Smithsonian curator and second Secretary of the Smithsonian."

Closing October is American Archives Month

This is the last blog post for our Blogathon as we conclude the events and online activities that took place in honor of October is American Archives Month here at the Smithsonian Institution.

October is a time once a year where we can focus on the importance of the Smithsonian’s vast collections of archival and historical records and to highlight the many individual Smithsonian archival units responsible for maintaining these rich and complex documentary resources.  To do so the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Special Collections council set forth with this goal in mind: To unveil our hidden collections and share them with the public, while at the same time teaching the public how to take care of their own archival treasures.

First and foremost (and no news to our blogger readers) the Archives throughout the Smithsonian Institution participated in a 31 day Blogathon, hosted by the Smithsonian Collections Blog in partnership with: 

Sister Smithsonian blogs:
Archives of American Art Blog
The Bigger Picture, blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Eye Level, blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Affiliate, blog of Smithsonian Affiliations

Smithsonian Institution affiliate blogs including:
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, an Affiliate in Clewiston, Florida
Telluride Historical Museum, in association with the Pinhead Institute, an Affiliate in Telluride, Colorado
Montana History Revealed Blog, the Montana Historical Society Research Center

In addition to the Blogathon we decided to have a multi-pronged campaign, expanding from our individual Open Houses held the two years previous, we decided it was time to bring all 14 of us together in a big way.  The Archives Fair was conceived with the idea to attract both our professional peers and the general public.  Demonstration and Information Tables were set up for each unit, a Lecture Series was held for lectures discussing care, processing and research focusing on collections; and an inaugural Ask the Smithsonian program was born where people were allowed to bring in their own treasures and learn how to take care of them.  

For those who were not able to attend the Smithsonian Archives Fair, the Lecture Series was stream cast live and archived at the October is American Archives Month at the Smithsonian.  Additionally, Smithsonian paper conservator and an electronic records conservator were available virtually on the Smithsonian’s Facebook account, Thursday, Oct. 21 to answer questions the public had concerning their own paper and electronic archival items.  Questions ranged from "How can I stop the pinking of photographs?" to "How can I capture and preserve my Myspace profile?" were asked and answered in the forum.

Result in Numbers: 800 participants, 1,963 visitors to the Archives Month landing page for a total of 2,267 page views thus far, with 308 viewers of our Lecture Series the day of.  That puts us over 1,108 visitors both online and in-person for the Archives Fair!

Result in Commentary and Observation: It is my observation that we attracted a seemingly even amount of fellow professionals in addition to the general public.  Archivists from fellow institutions like the House of Representatives, Congressional Cemetery, and U of MD attended our fair and sought me out individually to express their profound gratitude for having an event like this. A staff member from the US Department of Commerce spoke to me at the conclusion of the Fair to say that we simply MUST hold this event every year, and in fact she would like to see opportunities to work with us MORE than once a year.  Potential workshops, archivist exchange programs, and other collaborative ventures were suggested. Members of the general public seemed unanimously pleased with learning more about archives, libraries, and special collections and could not convey enough their gratitude at having an opportunity to have access to our experts at Ask the Smithsonian.

In general, everyone keeps saying how amazed they are at how well things went for our first try, and I honestly think it is because we (archivists/librarians/museum specialist) are not only exceptionally organized, but we are genuinely invested in working together to get our collections and expertise out there. 

Thank you to those who attended (virtually and in-person) our first-ever Archives Fair! 

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives


Archives preserve memories, tell stories, and solve mysteries every day.  Without them, questions would go unanswered, histories would remain untold, and new discoveries would be difficult to uncover.

The Smithsonian’s archival collections preserve and make available meaningful documentation in the form of original letters, data, research files, diaries, scrapbooks, rare printed materials, business records, photographs, maps, motion picture films, video and audio recordings, and other documents. They form the foundation for research, scholarship, publications, exhibitions, public and educational programs, and outreach.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Enter the Ice Age: New Cold Storage for the Human Studies Film Archives

The basic rule for the preservation of audio-visual materials is keep them cool and dry.  If left at room temperature both photographic and magnetic media can begin to show signs of deterioration in as brief a time as 10 years.  Early deterioration can include dye fading in color images, shrinkage of the photographic base or the breakdown of the binders used in magnetic tapes. This winter the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) will move its original, preservation and master film, video and audio collections into new environmentally controlled storage installed in the renovated Pod 3 of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center (SI - MSC).  The new 3-chambered storage facility will provide temperature and humidity controlled storage for our original magnetic media (video and audio recordings) at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 30%  relative humidity and a deep freeze chamber for storage of our original, preservation and master film materials at -4 degrees Fahrenheit with a staging room between the two chambers at 55 deg. F and 30% RH.

Since 1995, the HSFA has maintained an off-site cold storage vault in leased space.  Bringing these invaluable collections back into the security of an SI facility represents a significant improvement in the safe stewardship of our collections.  The HSFA holds an estimated 8 million feet of motion picture film equal to approximately 10,000 individual rolls.  Along with the motion picture film collections, there are an estimated 250,000 still images. In addition, the HSFA has approximately 5,000 videotapes currently stored in an aging walk-in cooler located in the basement of the Natural History Building and an almost equal number of original audio recordings that are currently stored in room conditions at MSC.  Providing new state-of-the-art cold and cool storage will ensure optimal longevity for all of our collections.

The move of our film collections into sub-zero storage conditions requires a considerable amount of advance preparation.  Our new film storage strategy calls for “passive humidity control” which involves protecting the film from any potential moisture condensation that may occur upon removal from the vault or from unexpected temperature fluctuations.  To provide this protection, the HSFA will follow guidelines established by former Smithsonian researcher Mark McCormick-Goodhart. (To read more click here.) The guidelines require encapsulating each individual roll of film in a zip-lock plastic bag with an outer protective plastic bag enclosure for the labeled archival plastic film cans.  The secondary enclosures will include silica-gel dessicant packets along with humidity indicator cards for additional safety and monitoring. 

In the spirit of the quest for permanence and immortality and to mark the autumn season, here is a brief video clip from John Hansen’s footage of the Egyptian “Tombs of the Nobles.”  By using the “Time Weighted Preservation Index” (TWPI) developed by the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, NY our current film storage conditions of 40 degrees F. and 35% RH can achieve an estimated life-span of 518 years for healthy film.  (To find out more about the IPI and TWPI click here.)  The new sub-zero freezing conditions are expected to provide virtually unlimited safe storage for our film collections.   Currently, we can marvel at the images of 3000 year old inscriptions captured on film in our collection 99.10.14 [John V. Hansen Travel Footage of Egypt, ca. 1926-1930].  Now we can hope to preserve them as motion picture images for yet another 3000 years! 

Thanks to Karma Foley for the video.

Mark White

Friday, October 29, 2010

Instant Archives

When some people think of archives, they think of dusty boxes of old, dull files that never get opened--files that were squirreled away by a person who either retired or passed away and were only unearthed when someone cleaned out an attic or closet.  These people may be surprised to learn that there is no shelf life that determines when certain papers or files become ‘archival.’  Very simply put, archives are materials that are preserved because of their enduring value.  That value might be recognized today or dozens of years from now. 

May 2010.  Deborah Bocken, photographer.
All images from AAG, Garden Club of America Collection.
While it does collect historic documentation like any other archives, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens (AAG) is atypical in that it also relies upon a cadre of field volunteers to contribute up-to-the-minute archival records on a wide range of historic and contemporary gardens throughout the United States.  Since 1987, AAG has worked closely with the Garden Club of America (GCA) to educate its members about the importance of documenting gardens and, by default, America’s garden history.  GCA volunteers across the country regularly seek out private gardens in their communities in order to document them and their history.  This documentation in turn helps to capture significant aspects of our social, cultural, and design heritage.  To date, over 4,000 gardens have been added to the Garden Club of America Collection at AAG.

Though a bit unusual, this ‘instant archives’ approach is exceptionally valuable when it comes to collecting archival records for gardens which, by their very nature, are inherently ephemeral.  Thanks to the flourishing (or fading) plants, flowers, shrubs and trees that make them up, gardens change each and every day.  Complete transformations occur with just the change of a

1998.  Richard Mirau, photographer.

August 1933.  Asahel Curtis, photographer.        

season.  As a result, it is vital that gardens be documented, especially  before they are lost to events ranging from natural disasters and development to changing tastes and available resources.

AAG sets high standards for the archival records it acquires from GCA volunteers.  High quality, informative images are a must as well as thorough and accurate descriptions and image captions.  Born digital images have to meet certain technical standards in order to aid in their long-term preservation.  Garden owners, photographers, and volunteers all sign releases that open up the documentation for research use. 

Thanks to the ‘instant archives’ at the Archives of American Gardens, the history of gardens in America doesn’t have to wait years to be written.  The history that occurs in gardens every day is captured as it happens and then made readily available to researchers and garden enthusiasts via the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center.  While the term ‘instant’ is a gross misnomer in that it obviously takes time for staff to appraise, accession, process, catalog, digitize, and house the garden documentation that AAG acquires, at least one doesn’t have to wait years until someone else cleans out their closet before they get to learn from, appreciate and enjoy the information captured in these archival records.

Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Results: Smithsonian Experts on Facebook

Did you miss the Smithsonian Q&A session last Thursday? Here are the questions and answers as provided by THE BIGGER PICTURE:

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery: Rich in Research Resources

The Center for Electronic Research and Outreach Services (CEROS) comprises reference and online programs for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG).   Services available for the public include the NPG Collections Information System; the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP) research center; and the NPG website collection search program for NPG/CAP collections.   In 1966, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically important subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present.   The public can access the online portrait search program from the museum’s website of about 100,000 records.  However, the researcher might not be aware that the CAP center holds nearly 200,000 files of documents and photographs related to portraiture and biography.  The CAP maintains an ongoing survey program initiated in 1971, for recording portraits in private and public collections in the United States and abroad.  CEROS staff and interns continue to add digital images for the computer portrait records, with over 40,000 digital images on the NPG Collections Information System.  Scholars have chosen to house at the CAP archives their primary research papers on portraiture from past exhibitions and publications for such artists as Chester Harding, George Peter Alexander Healy, and Robert Edge Pine.   The research center also has a unique set of costume notebooks of historical portrait photographs which the museum staff can review for dating art works.

The National Portrait Gallery’s CEROS center has assisted professional and private researchers, from scholars, historians, and curators in research and exhibition development; writers, publishers and media representatives in search for image sources; to individuals seeking information about family portraits and genealogy.   Our reference staff has provided guidance for a myriad of projects, including the US Department of the Treasury review of presidential portraits for currency design; public television historical documentaries; and educational programs at museums and universities.   The CEROS center’s encyclopedia of portraiture allows the researcher to compare and relate portraits of sitters or artists from numerous private and public collections with the online portrait search program or computer reports generated by the museum staff.   For example, a comparison can be created with the portraits of artist Mary Cassatt and writer Langston Hughes, which depict the imaginative and creative force of these two subjects.*  One can also review a selection of the Thomas Jefferson portraits at the following website link of the Smithsonian Institution Collection Search Center program.

The CEROS center has united relatives through their ancestral research.  Descendants of notable figures in history, such as George Catlin, Stephen Collins Foster, Benjamin Rush, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, have visited the National Portrait Gallery’s research center to review ancestral portrait documentation.   In 1995, a researcher came to the CAP archives to view the portraits of his ancestor William Whipple, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  It was remarkable that the researcher’s own profile still closely resembled his ancestor’s portrait features of two centuries ago.

Patricia H. Svoboda, CEROS Research Coordinator
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Center for Electronic Research and Outreach Services

PS - Check out the over 150,000 documents and images when browsing the Collections Search Center for National Portrait Gallery.

*Image Captions:
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926), Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait, watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, c. 1880, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.76.33
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Langston Hughes, by Winold Reiss (1886-1953), pastel on illustration board, 1925, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.72.82

Montana is Celebrating October is American Archives Month!

Check out Sister Affiliate blog Montana History Revealed as they help instruct you on How To Take Care of Your Family History!
Freer|Sackler Archives

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

3d Imaging to Unlock Ancient Mysteries

There are some very exciting activities happening around the Freer|Sackler Gallery, and in the Archives specifically.  I am going to unveil to you my favorite object.  I know I say that about a lot of the collections I show you, but this object really is an amazing specimen.  Let me introduce to you squeeze 50A. For you to better understand, below are a couple definitions.

A squeeze: is a series of sheets of paper that are layered on top of each other and moistened to create a wet pulp affect.  This substance is pressed upon the inscriptions capturing the impressionistic writing like a 3-dimensional negative affect.  These inscriptions typically cover the ancient culture's mythology, and histories. The squeezes in the Ernst Herzfeld papers are roughly 80-100 years old.  The squeezes have been made out of varying qualities of paper from very high grade, to cigarette paper Herzfeld must of had to use in a pinch.  The squeezes have since been transported around the world, squished in non-archival approved ways, and suffer from various issues that affect all paper products.

Squeezing: Here, you see Herzfeld and his team on ladders applying the wet paper to the monuments of ancient Iran.

Ernst Herzfeld: Archaeologist, art historian, and architect who excavated pre-Islamic and early Islamic sites.

So meticulous was Herzfeld's work, that we have his journals, sketchbooks, notebooks, photographs, drawings, maps and squeezes documenting various archaeological sites.  We have approximately 400 squeezes of Arabic script, Middle Persian, and Cuneiform impressions.  The Herzfeld papers have been vital in the research of these sites; and the squeezes he created for his temporary reference have  gone on to help scholars access information from monuments that for many reasons may no longer be accessible.

We have already begun some exciting work on this collection to preserve and make it's contents accessible.  What I am sharing with you, is the next phase in this effort received Federal support from the Collections Care and Preservation Fund.  We teamed up with the Museum Conservation Institute to image the squeezes with a technology called Reflectance Transformation Imagining that provides a mutli-dimensional image by stitching together an average of 48 shots taken at different flash angles.  The image you see in this demo link is squeeze 50A.  The squeeze is almost unreadable in some parts, but when manipulated through this technology the information we once thought was lost is now regained.  With these new images we hope to not only preserve the newly uncovered impressions, but to provide unparalleled access of the squeezes to scholars and hobbyists alike.

This is a 1 minute demonstration video that shows what user-end manipulation can be done to help view seemingly unreadable portions of a squeeze.  Click here to read more information on the Museum Conservation Institute performing Reflectance Transformation Imaging - featuring Squeeze 50A!

This project fulfills one of the Smithsonian's Grand Challenges by providing access and understanding of world cultures.  But perhaps more excitingly I'd like to argue that by preserving these squeezes AND by providing online access, scholars may better be able to unlock ancient mysteries - one squeeze at a time.

Rachael Cristine Woody 

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

UNESCO has designated today, October 27, to promote and celebrate audiovisual documents as part of our world heritage.  Archival audiovisual materials are integral to global memory and international understanding, yet many are in urgent need of preservation. Events have been planned all over the world to celebrate this important day.

For readers in New York City, the Moving Image Archiving & Preservation Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is hosting Odds and Ends from the Archive: Celebrating UNESCO’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage.  At the event, second-year graduate students will present rare archival gems culled from their recent travels and intern projects.  Former HSFA intern Samantha Oddi will be presenting Hal Linker’s television travelogue, Rome in Africa (1972).  

Join the celebration of audiovisual heritage and view this nugget that was only recently made available.

Pam Wintle, Human Studies Film Archives

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Costume Ideas and Mustaches - oh my!

Check out Archives of American Art's blogs on: Halloween's Costume Guide: Archives Style and Mustaches of Note - John White Alexander!

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives

Miss the Fair?

Archived footage of the Lecture Series and Ask the Smithsonian will be available soon on the Archives Fair web page, but until then catch up with the live-blogging that happened by sister blog:

Freer|Sackler Archives

Preparing Collections for Digitization

Since 2005 the Archives of American Art has been digitizing entire manuscript collections and making them available to researchers online. Currently there are 102 collections online representing over 800 linear feet of material. The benefit of our approach to collection digitization is that it relies upon traditional archival methods of arrangement and description. The transition to an in-house digitization program seemed like a natural progression for us because many of our processing activities already supported our in-house microfilming operations. We were able to re-purpose and enhance these existing workflows, rather than invent new ones. The key is that the archivist assigned to process the collection also oversees digitization.

Processing a collection that will be digitized is very similar to fully processing other collections, however the archivist has to take the extra step of considering whether documents require special handling, additional imaging instructions, and if there are items in the collection that should not to be digitized. Though we’d like to digitize every single item in a collection, this is not always possible. Types of materials that are typically not scanned include duplicates, items readily available in libraries, certain financial records, items with sensitive content, and fragile or large items which can’t physically be scanned. Having the archivist make these decisions as they work, rather than at a later date, takes advantage of the archival appraisal skill set that they already have.

As the archivist determines what is not to be scanned, they write scanning instructions for the digital imaging technician on slips of paper placed within the collection. The archivist also writes numbers on each box and folder to help the technician keep things in order and save their work in the corresponding computer file directory.

The next step is for the archivist to write an online EAD finding aid for the collection. It was clear from the start of the project that item level metadata was not sustainable, and we also questioned why we as archivists would even want to create descriptions for every item when we have always described our holdings in aggregate, trying to reflect context, relationships, and hierarchy. Instead, we use the descriptive folder headings that we were already putting in our EAD finding aids as links to digitized content online.

Upon completion, the finding aid .xml document gets uploaded to our in-house collections database through an internal web-based workflow site, developed by AAA’s programmer. On this workflow site, a Collections Progress Checklist for the collection is automatically generated. This checklist includes all of the tasks for digitization, and every time a task is clicked on it is crossed off and given a date of completion. The archivist manages this checklist for all of their assigned collections.

When it is time to digitize the collection, the archivist moves the boxes of material to the digital imaging office and briefly meets with the technician to review any special instructions. When scanning is completed, the archivist returns the collection to storage, and waits for the digital asset manager to link the images to the finding aid. The final duty of the archivist is to review the finding aid links to all of the images, before they are deployed to the public website. This review process can be time consuming, but is very necessary. The types of errors found during review include missing images or links, items that need to be rescanned or that were skipped, errors in the EAD finding aid, and website programming issues. Once the errors are fixed the archivist gives her final approval, and the digitized collection goes live on AAA’s website. Then on to the next collection!

Erin Corley

Monday, October 25, 2010

Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge photographic collection

Collection Spotlight:

The Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge Collection
National Museum of African Art

Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994) was one of Nigeria's première photographers and the first indigenous photographer of the Royal Court of Benin. His photographic collection consists of over 2,000 glass plate negatives and large format film negatives, over 100 hand-tinted and black-and-white prints and photographic albums. The photographer’s camera equipment and personal memorabilia round out the collection.
Alonge self-portrait, c. 1942 (photograph on right)

The Chief Alonge Collection spans six decades (1926 - 1989) and represents a dynamic, continuous record of the Benin Royal Court, Nigeria. As the Royal photographer to the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II (1933-1978), Alonge documented the pageantry, ritual and regalia of the Obas, their wives and retainers for over a half-century, including the coronation of the king and the Queen Mother, Iyoba. The collection also documents historic visits to Benin by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (1956), Princess Alexandra (1960), foreign dignitaries, traditional rulers, political leaders and celebrities. It preserves an important historical record of Benin art and culture during the periods of British colonial rule and Nigerian independence in the twentieth century. The rarity and historical value of the collection are enhanced by Alonge's privileged access to the Palace as a chief in the Iwebo Palace Society, a position which presents a unique insider's view of Benin royalty. The collection is unique as an indigenously created visual record of life in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. The quality and sheer survival of the collection is testament to Alonge's technological skills in photography and his professionalism in keeping the collection ordered and well-preserved despite the heat, humidity and tropical climate of West Africa.

Chief S.O. Alonge's significance as one of the earliest indigenous photographers in West Africa has been documented in detail by anthropologist Flora Kaplan. Alonge learned the craft of photography as a youth in Lagos during the 1920s and saw himself and his profession as an honorable and distinguished calling. He clearly demonstrated an inclusive documentary perspective in his efforts to photograph many aspects of the world around him. In 1942, Alonge established the Ideal Photography Studio in Benin City and documented colonial society, the establishment of churches and businesses, and the formation of new civic organizations and social groups in the 1930s and 1940s. As a commercial photographer, Alonge photographed individual and group portraits, preserving a visual record of the everyday lives and peoples of Benin City. Alonge's studio portraits illustrate how the local residents of Benin City presented themselves to the camera and engaged with the practice of photography during the early to mid-twentieth century.

Preservation of the Chief Alonge Collection (2009 - 2010):
In 2009, an award from Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) allowed the Elisofon Archives to preserve and duplicate 150 glass plate negatives and 1800 large format film negatives in the Alonge collection. The original glass plates were re-housed in non-buffered four-flap envelopes and glass plate negative boxes with proper spacing and support. Over 50 fragile glass plate negatives with flaking emulsion or chipped corners were placed in conservation sink mats. The Alonge conservation project created master interpositives and duplicate negatives for over 2000 images. Preservation, duplication and scanning of the Alonge film negatives has allowed cataloguing to proceed and will make the collection accessible to scholars, researchers and the general public.

With Phase I funding from CCPF, preservation surveys of Alonge's photographic albums, photographs, manuscripts and artifacts in the collection were completed with Phase I funding provided by CCPF. The artifacts include Alonge’s camera equipment, his accordion and vintage pants and boots which he wore as an official photographer of the Royal Court of Benin. With Phase II funding from CCPF in 2010, the Elisofon Archives is able to preserve Alonge’s photographic albums, hand-colored photographs and prints and manuscript materials.

Amy Staples, Senior Archivist, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pack it up!

The National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Division houses collections that span the history of flight from ancient times to the present day and include a wide range of visual and textual materials – over 12,000 cubic feet of documents, including over 900 individual collections, 2 million photographs, 9.5 million feet of motion picture film, 3,500 hours of video, and over 2 million technical drawings.

Where do we get all of this collection material? Due to fiscal constraints, the Archives Division cannot purchase material, but instead must rely on donations from the generous public. Thankfully, our donors are very generous and keep me, the Acquisition Archivist, very busy.
Whether the donation is a single photograph or a 200 cubic foot collection, the procedures for archival acquisition are the same. After a donor contacts the Archives Division and offers to donate the material, we must determine if the National Air and Space Museum is the proper repository for the collection. In some cases, the donor can send us a scan of the image for review, or a list of what he or she would like to donate.

In many cases, however, an archivist must travel to conduct an onsite survey of the collection. Over the past 21 years I have been in countless attics, basements, closets, and barns, surveying and packing aviation and space archival material for transfer to the national collection. I have made trips across the country, from reviewing and packing the Krafft Ehricke Collection in sunny San Diego, to packing the George Henry Miller Collection in a middle of a February snow storm in upstate New York.

One of the latest collections donated to the Archives, was the Howard Levy Photography Collection. Levy was an American aviation photographer, whose work spanned from 1936 until 2009. We were extremely pleased when Mr. Levy’s family contacted us and offered his material to the national collection, and four of our archivists took a daytrip to survey the collection. Based on the survey, we estimated that the collection consisted of over 200 cubic feet of aviation photographs and related documentation that would be a valuable resource for our curators and public researchers

After the Museum’s Collection Committee approved the acquisition and the donor signed off on the Deed of Gift, allowing for the widest possible use of these valuable images, a team of four archivists travelled to the site and spent four long days sorting and carefully packing the collection into boxes. As the material was packed, a basic listing of what was placed in each box was created.

The collection was then loaded for transfer. As we were transporting the collection in August, we had to be particularly careful about keeping the photographic material at a constant temperature and humidity during the move. To that end, we separated out the series of negatives and transported them in my car, where we could more easily control the temperature. The rest of the collection was carefully packed to ensure the best airflow in the Museum’s box truck. After we returned to our off-site storage location in Suitland, Maryland, we transferred the boxes to our humidity and temperature controlled storage box and the collection was cataloged.

We are proud that donors trust us to house their valuable collections and we are pleased to make the material available to aviation researchers around the world.

Patricia Williams
Supervisory and Acquisition Archivist
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Learning patience, one box at a time

Examples of crumbling carbon paper and newspaper clippings:
 just some of the problematic materials that can slow down the
processing of a collection
When I first started my work in January 2009 at the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections here at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I was a semester away from getting my masters at the Information School at the University of Maryland. I was ecstatic about working at the Center; as someone who decided to pursue a career as an archivist in order to have a hand in the sharing of people's stories, I still get giddy when I think about all the individuals whose words, voices, and images line the stacks.

In addition to being ecstatic, I was idealistic. I was assigned to process the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, one of the most important in our stacks, and man, I felt AWESOME. This was going to be exciting! The things I would get to touch (with white gloves, of course)!  The correspondence I would get to snoop around in! The photos I would discover! Being an archivist was going to be JUST LIKE THE MOVIES!

But as the weeks went by, it became clear that I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. Masters, shmasters--nothing in library school could have prepared me for the odyssey that lay ahead. The boxes I would have to go through seemed to multiply like the lidless Tupperware containers in my kitchen. Paper was crumbling at an alarming rate. I would find materials with no discernible context stuffed in folders with completely unrelated items. Not being psychic, had no idea where they belonged. Sometimes there  would be a lead, and I'd follow it until it took me somewhere that made sense. Other times, into the miscellaneous box it would go.

Just as often, however, I would find treasures. Letters and signed first editions from Langston Hughes, typewriter artwork by Harry Smith, photographs of 1960s Kentucky by Jim Garland, impassioned folk music manifestos by Moe Asch. Months passed, and I finally started to see my progress. Beautifully arranged boxes began to emerge out of the chaos. I was getting somewhere. Slowly but surely, I made my way through the collection, folder by folder, box by box.

Little boxes, all the same: Part of the Moses and
Frances Asch Collection, now manageable for
our beloved researchers
I was able to continue my work as a processing archivist starting in August 2009, and even after more than a year of working on the same collection, I'm still learning how to be okay with chipping away at the collection, despite not having an easy way to measure my progress. The historical importance of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection and its record of being heavily used, combined with the fact that it "looked like someone emptied everything in Moe's office out of an airplane" (this astute observation was provided by our head archivist, Jeff Place), has made it necessary to approach the materials with care and concentration. Being satisfied with a slow job well done will be a constant battle for me, but knowing that there are long-unanswered questions already being illuminated by my work thus far is extremely gratifying. I became an archivist to help tell people's stories, and there's nothing like wading through them like molasses to help me see the many hundreds of them, slowly drifting right through my white-gloved hands.

For more on how archival processing works, see Jennifer O'Neal's earlier post on "The Art of Processing an Archival Collection."

Friday, October 22, 2010

An Undercover Invention: Baseball Covers and Stitching

Willie Mays baseball card, ca. 1955.  From the Ronald S.
Korda Collection of Sports and Trading Cards
For baseball fans everywhere, October is a sacred time. It signals that The Fall Classic or the World Series is almost upon us. With talk of pennant races, batting averages, and future trades it’s hard to escape baseball. While cruising through the vast holdings of the Archives Center (over 20,000 linear feet of stuff) I recently discovered a hidden gem that many baseball fans will find interesting. It’s the fascinating yet little known story of an experimental baseball stitching machine made by the United Shoe Machinery Corporation (USMC) of Beverly, Massachusetts. I had a vague recollection that baseballs were hand sewn, but surely technology had caught up with this small, but significant cultural object? I guessed wrong. The baseball is a complicated little sphere. I began to delve deeper and what I discovered is that the baseball cover stitching process has resisted mechanization.

The United Shoe Machinery Company was formed in 1899 by the consolidation of the most important shoe machinery firms in the industry—Goodyear Machinery Company (made machinery for sewing the sole to the upper in welt shoes), Consolidated Hand Lasting Machine Company (made machines for lasting a shoe), and McKay Shoe Machinery Company (made machines for attaching soles and heels). On May 1, 1905, the new company became officially known as the United Shoe Machinery Corporation. The merger revolutionized shoe equipment manufacturing and the shoe industry itself. With this merger, conflicting patents were eliminated and patents supplementing each other were brought under United’s control to permit their prompt combination in a single machine or process. To ensure efficiency, the new company also continued the practice previously followed by its constituent firms of renting machinery instead of selling it. After the 1899 merger, United grew rapidly. By 1910, it had an eighty percent share of the shoe machinery market with assets reaching forty million dollars and it had acquired control of branch companies in foreign countries. USMC was headquartered in Boston and its main manufacturing plant was in Beverly, Massachusetts.

USMC applied the company's expertise in machine technology to other areas of development in order to diversify its product line. Under the direction of the Research Division, the company engaged in military, computer, and other automation projects. The EX files or “experimental files” in the collection represent ordinary experimentation related to the development and improvement of shoe manufacturing machinery, and work done in connection with the company's post-World War Two diversification efforts. The files cover all aspects of an experimental project, from conception through the experimental working out of problems, to the final decision to adopt or not adopt the idea for production. They also provide information on the functions of the Research Division, the manner in which it operated, and the way in which production decisions were made. In particular, they illustrate the Division's interaction and cooperation with the company's Patent Department. The files usually contain notes, technical drawings, photographs, and patent information.

Starting as early as 1949, the company undertook three experiments to create a baseball stitching machine: EX#16002, EX#16116 and EX#16279. These three projects document experimental work in the area of baseballs, specifically of automatic controls, component inserting, and stitching. The objective of the experimental projects, according to a July 11, 1950 work request was “to develop a suitable baseball covering equipment for mechanizing to the greatest practical extent both parts of the present discretionary hand lasting-lacing operation.” The full development included an analysis of the hand procedure and how each portion of that work would be handled. The ball starts as a round cushioned cork center called a "pill," then is wrapped tightly in windings of wool and polyester/cotton yarn, and then covered by stitched cowhide. The process of assembling a baseball involves two types of workers: assemblers (who assemble the core parts of the baseball) and sewers (who stitch the cowhide covers onto the baseball by hand). There are 108 stitches in the cowhide leather of each ball and each is done by hand.

Research personnel at USMC recognized that this development would be extremely difficult and expensive. Indeed, from July 1950 to November 1961, the total expense of the project was $343,000. In 1950, the economics of baseball stitching were detailed in a cost chart. The labor rate for lacing was .15 to .20 per ball with a production rate of five to six balls per hour. Clearly mechanizing would increase the production dramatically.

The initial work order EX#16116 was opened to study and model work necessary to illustrate a method for preparing baseballs prior to stitching. In a December 5, 1949 memo from W.L. Abel of the USMC Research Division, it was stated that “very little consideration has been given to the mechanization of conditioning and preparation of baseball covers for machine stitching (this being the case both inside and outside the company). All attempts that we know of have been principally with the mechanization of the stitching.”

Engineers at USMC broke down the problem into five areas: cover assembly (lasting); needle threading; start of stitching (anchoring the first stitch); stitching or lacing; and lastly, final stitching (final thread anchoring). Previous automated machines exhibited two serious problems: they were unable to start or stop the stitching process without manual assistance, and they were unable to vary the tension of the stitches. From 1950 to 1955, the basic model work was conducted, resulting in equipment which demonstrated the operations. In 1955, formal design and detailing was initiated to resolve existing engineering and design problems and to record, in drawing form, several pieces of equipment necessary to accomplish the overall objective.

Schematic mechanism for a baseball cover sewing machine designed by S.J. Finn, March  1949.  Drawing by Don Hamm.  United Shoe Machinery Company Records, Box 105A, Folder 2.
Inventors don’t work in isolation, and at USMC the development process was both shared and well documented through notebooks, memos, drawings and photographs. We are fortunate to have this documentation in the Archives Center. The baseball stitching project was a team effort. A cast of “inventive talent” was involved, principally Sidney J. Finn, who initially brought the idea forward in 1949, Otto R. Haas, and Joseph Fossa. While I found no evidence of it, I like to think that all three men were baseball fans or at least played on the company’s baseball team.

W.W. Pritchard of the Research Division noted in a January 1949 that one of the problems is “the lasting of the baseball cover and that the matter should be referred to the inventive talent at Beverly to see if they can come forth with any ideas as to how this might be accomplished.” Haas’s earlier work related to baseball sewn covers (US Patent 2,840,024) and an apparatus that sews together the edges of a baseball (US Patent 2,747,529). Joseph Fossa held several patents for baseball sewing apparatus, principally methods for spheriphying baseballs (US Patent 3,178,917) and for methods of assembling by sewing the cover pieces of baseballs (US Patent 3,179,075). The “inventive talent” of Finn, Haas, Fossa, and countless other USMC engineers all assigned their patents to the United Shoe Machinery Corporation under the direction of a robust patenting programming.

Many of the baseball manufacturers, such as A.G. Spaulding, J. de Beer and Son, MacGregor, Wilson, Lannon Manufacturing, George Young, and Tober Baseball Manufacturing Company, were all aware of USMC efforts to create a stitching machine. While the customer base was limited in number, the potential revenue from a stitching machine could have been substantial. Because of insufficient interest on the part of these baseball manufacturers (the baseball industry was not sufficiently well organized at this point to sponsor the development of a machine) and unresolved problems by the company’s engineers, the experimental work orders were closed.

In 1972, Robert H. Bliss, Planning Director of USMC, wrote to R.B. Henderson, Vice President of Research and Development at AMF Voit, “Our development program was curtailed in March 1961 when the Baseball Manufacturers Committee of Athletic Goods Manufacturing Association declined to support further development, and our management made a decision not to further fund the program without industry support.” Bliss further noted that the baseballs stitched on USMC’s model machine “were more uniform in appearance that a hand-laced ball, but there was some speculation that a major league pitcher could tell the difference and would prefer a hand-laced ball.” While the economics of the time were considered good, the company could not justify spending more money on the project. Other than increasing the company’s knowledge in the area of stitching technology, there was little likelihood that a broad application would result.

Baseballs are still hand sewn. Rawlings Sporting Goods, Inc. (now part of Jarden Team Sports), in Costa Rica has an exclusive contract to produce “professional” baseballs for the Major Leagues. The amateur baseballs we throw around in the backyard are manufactured elsewhere. Attempts have been made to automate the process of stitching cowhide covers on baseballs, but none has been successful. C.B. Bateman of USMC said in August 1963, “we have a long, long way to go for a commercial piece of equipment to be presented to the trade.” And we’re still waiting. Play ball!

-Alison Oswald, Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lorenzo Dow Turner papers

Pioneering linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner proved through scientific research and audio recordings that the Gullah language, spoken in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia by descendants of African slaves, retained African words and expressions and conveyed cultural traditions. The Lorenzo Dow Turner papers at the Anacostia Community Museum Archives contain approximately 110 field recordings made by Turner in the United States, Brazil, and Africa; they include songs, stories, and poems used by Turner for his seminal work, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Although the bulk of the field recordings made by Turner are held by the Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington, the holdings at Anacostia Community Museum Archives have major research value and supplement the holdings at Indiana University.

Dr. Turner recording in Africa.  Many times Turner ran the recorder in Africa
using the battery of his truck as a source of energy.
Recently, Anacostia Community Museum received a grant from the Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee, to support the preservation and digitization of these recordings produced between the 1930s and 1950s. Once the project is complete, we look forward to making the recordings available through reference copies during on-site visits to our archives and through catalogue records in SIRIS. In the meantime, the archives staff is digitizing photographs taken by Professor Turner in Africa, Brazil, and the United States. You can view a sampling of those images here. To learn more about Lorenzo Dow Turner, check out Margaret Wade-Lewis’s biography, Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies. You can also view the Finding Aid to Lorenzo Dow Turner papers at the Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University Library.

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum

Who Doesn't Love a Man in Uniform?

Check out THE BIGGER PICTURE's recent See Here post for Revolutionaries admiring Washington's attire.

Freer|Sackler Archives

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How Can I Get a Job? (Libraries, Archives and Special Collections)

Dear Readers,

I don't have to tell you that it's a tough job market out there.  The economy has been rough for everyone and museums, archives, libraries, and many other art and collection based jobs have been put through the wringer when it comes to budget cuts, layoffs, program cuts, etcetera.  If you're starting in the curiosity phase of pursuing a job and education in a libraries, archives, or special collections field it is good to be realistic when looking at what the job market looks like now, and in the future.  I have high hopes, history, and some factual based projection that the economy will continue to grow back, and the profession will continue to grow as it has been since its inception.  In fact, when looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010-2011 edition for Archivists, Curators and Museum Technicians, you'll see the profession is projected to grow a faster than average 20% by 2018.  The statistics for Librarians are also expected to grow at least 8% and job competition to be favorable to potential employees as many librarians retire in the coming years.

This post aims to educate and help provide you vital references no matter what phase of the profession you are in.

Would you like a job at the Smithsonian?  All Smithsonian jobs go through the website, where you will also find library, archives, and special collection jobs with the National Park Service, the Army, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and many other federal institutions. recent Search for Librarian recent Search for Archivist

Still in the education phase of the profession?  Check out internship opportunities at your local, state or federal repositories.  You can find Smithsonian internship opportunities here:

For historians, museum studies, public historians some of the best places to look for employment, networking and continuing education are:

American Association of Museums (AAM):

National Council of Public History (NCPH):
American Association of State and Local History (AASLH):

Most of the sites break the jobs into categories, for example archives or exhibits. The more advanced job searches also provide searches by locations. 

Interested in the profession and want to obtain your masters?  Check the Society of American Archivists' Directory of Archival Education for a list of accredited schools and programs.   In this job market you almost always need a master’s in the museum world and some type of specialized experience through an internship.

Additionally, taking a Digital History class that trains you how to use systems to create websites, blogs,  etcetera really boosts a resume.  You'll notice more and more of us in the profession are online and working our social media avenues to help create education and outreach opportunities.  Archivists, Librarians and Special Collections personnel are no longer in a dark corner of the basement.  We have to be able to present ourselves and our collections well in order to serve our public and communicate within our larger business/organization hierarchies.  With lack of resources for everyone paired with the forward momentum of the web, any HTML and social media skills you have will be an asset!  Pair your outreach and web abilities with a solid base of national standards like MARC, DACS, and EAD you'll be well on your way.

With your education and job search efforts, the last key step is the network!  Make sure you are a member with all pertinent professions and take advantage of their continuing education courses, networking opportunities, and job announcements.

Societies, Councils, Consortia
Society of American Archivist:
Northwest Archivists:
Midwest Archives Conference (MAC):
New England Archivists (NEA):
Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists (SRMA):

A directory of Archival Organizations: local, national and abroad as taken from the Society of American Archivists' Associated Organizations & Associations page.

Directory of Archival Organizations in the United States and Canada. This directory lists national, regional, state, local and provincial archival associations in the United States and Canada.

International Archival Organizations. A listing of archival organizations outside of the United States.

Associated Professional Organizations. A listing of organizations whose members share similar professional interests and job responsibilities to those of archivists.

Official Representatives and Coalitions. The SAA President or Council appoints members to serve as representatives to a number of important committees and bodies outside of the Society of American Archivists.

Repository of Primary Sources (maintained by Terry Abraham). 
A listing of over 3400 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Archives Portal. An international gateway for archivists and archives users.

Find your favorite museums, associations, and professional organizations on social media websites so that you can network with your peers and potential future colleagues and managers.  Just google job networking and you'll see a slew of articles on why networking and staying present in your professions' conversations and social media interactions will help keep you a step ahead of your competition and may even help you locate job opportunities as they arise. 


I will add to this post as more helpful sites come to me, and feel free to post your own findings in the comments below!

Best of luck and I look forward to working with you in the future,

Rachael Cristine Woody

Freer|Sackler Archives