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Monday, February 25, 2013

But, everything is online...right?


NMAI Archive Center Stacks
Archives around the world document human history.  They hold materials fundamental for academic and personal research on almost every subject conceivable and have long been collecting immeasurable amounts of material long before the birth of the internet.  The Smithsonian Institution, for example, was founded in 1846 with a dedication to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”.  The Smithsonian’s first website was inaugurated in 1995.  That leaves 149 years of collected knowledge before we even had an online presence. 

In addition to working at the National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center, I am also in graduate school.  I am often frustrated with the assumption by students that research can be done solely through the use of the internet.  The internet is a useful tool, however, it is inconceivable that over 149 years of material could be fully digitized in the 18 years since we've had the internet, let alone high-quality equipment.  Can you imagine loading a digital archive on Netscape?

A portion of the Museum of the American
 Indian, Heye Foundation Records

Never fear!  Archivists around the Institution are working tirelessly to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mission of “diffusion of knowledge” and bringing you complete and accurate digitized material.  The project that I am involved with is the digitization of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records. Over the past two years we have digitized 51 boxes of manuscript material, that is, more than 50,000 pages!  

Digitizing archival material is a bit more complicated than running documents through a scanner as we have unique and original material.  A few examples:

Fragile Materials: Manuscripts like this field notebook from 1896 require special care, handling, and more time when imaging.

Culturally Sensitive Materials: This is defined in different ways by members of individual tribes, ethnic groups, nations, communities,and religious denominations, but usually include materials that relate to traditional knowledge and practices.  Such materials may not be digitized.

Oversize Materials: The physical size of certain items also require additional digitizing techniques.

So, what is available online?  While large collections may not be fully digitized, we have a lot of digital resources available to help the researcher in their quest.  These online finding aids serve as a guide to the collections and provide a detailed description of the contents and arrangement of an archival collection.  After that, once a researcher gets familiar with our collections, they may make an appointment to come see us and conduct their research!

Remember, Archivists and Librarians are here to help you.   If you don’t live in the DC area, ask your local reference librarian for a place to start. As you are considering avenues of research, don’t limit yourself to what is available online, or you may be missing out on a world of knowledge.

Nichole Procopenko
Archives Scanning Technician

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