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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beyond the Reading Room

When I first came to work at the Smithsonian Archives, I was not sure how much archival work I would participate in. In the Institutional History Division, I assumed my work would focus mainly on research and writing. My background was in history and so this is what I thought I would be doing. Well, as the adage goes, “Never Assume….”

Expedition Members Lifting Titanotherium
Expedition Members Lifting Titanotherium
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives
As a historian by training, prior to working at SIA my archival experience dealt mostly with researching in an archive. Here at the SIA, I went beyond the reading room and learned how to catalogue and what this thing called MARC meant. It has been a rewarding experience that has taught me how the realms of archivists and historians truly merge together and has made me a better researcher. I know possess the knowledge of the intellectual and physical control of a collection and how best to access those materials.

My archival and historical worlds have come together in the Collections Search Center and SIRIS blog. Before I can write a post, I first have to find images or information in our online databases, and before I can find that information, I have to catalogue it in the databases. For example, if I wanted to post a blog about Charles W. Gilmore’s 1931 expeditions (and an image is not already scanned), I have to search the archival collections for some information about these expeditions and Gilmore himself. When I find the image and information that I am searching for, I then scan the image and add the metadata necessary for cataloguing. My next step is to catalogue the record into the database that SIRIS draws its data from. Once the record is completed it then becomes searchable to the public. Now that the record is live on the web, I share the research experience or interesting story about the image on the SIRIS blog, using both the archival and interpretation skills I have learned.

Expedition Members Uncovering Fossils
Expedition Members Uncovering Fossils
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives
The archivist, the one who decides what materials to save, and the historian, the one who interprets the saved material, have a mutual interest: creating the most accurate interpretation of the past through the materials left behind. On the SIRIS blogs, historians, archivists, librarians and an array of other museum professionals, fellows, volunteers and interns write about the materials preserved at the Smithsonian. Here their worlds, like mine, cross creating a shared dialogue for colleagues and the public to participate in.

With archivists and historians learning how to cope with digital media, what to save, how to save it and how to interpret it, shared ventures may help ease some of questions and concerns that change inevitably ignites. As my colleague Rachel Woody most recently suggested in her post “Back To School For Archivists Too,” collaboration is vital to the growth of an institution and here on the SIRIS blog we should continue to encourage just that.

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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