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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

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