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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

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