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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Archives and Manuscripts Collections in the Smithsonian Libraries

In 1992, I was hired to be the rare book cataloger for the Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), and almost all of my work for the first dozen years or so was focused primarily on monographic cataloging of printed books. But over the years since then, my work has been experiencing a noticeable transition encompassing a wider variety of formats, including archival materials and manuscript collections. Trend forecasters have been talking for years about the convergence of the LAMs (where LAMs = Libraries, Archives and Museums; this catchy phrase was used by Kiersten F. Latham and John E. Simmons in their 2014 publication, Foundations of museum studies: evolving systems of knowledge). I can attest that this is happening on a broad scale: internationally, nationally, within the Smithsonian Institution, and in the Smithsonian Libraries, library stuff is mixing with museum stuff, which is also mixing with archival stuff. There are fewer bright lines separating these formats in our daily work and collections, regardless of how our units identify themselves. To cope with all these changes, library, archival and museum workers need to be flexible and open to creative thinking and learning on the job. More than ever, it is crucial to collaborate with colleagues beyond the traditional boundaries of one’s profession to derive the greatest benefits from shared knowledge and experience.

Postcards from Ernst Mach to E. Kulke
The Smithsonian Libraries, which currently encompasses 21 branch libraries and a central administration, grew, at first informally, as the Smithsonian Institution itself grew. During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various curatorial offices developed in-house book collections acquired from the personal libraries of staff members and scholarly exchanges and donations over the years. SIL’s Director, Dr. Nancy E. Gwinn, has written an overview of the haphazard early development of the Smithsonian’s library collections, which were viewed ambivalently by the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, and which were just one part of a complicated nexus of collections competing for priority and precious resources. The Smithsonian Libraries, as it is known today, was formally created as a unit by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in the 1960s.
So what kinds of archival and manuscript materials have become part of the Smithsonian Libraries’ collections over the years? I’ll outline some examples here, many of which I have been personally involved with as a cataloger. I’d also like to note that several other staff members here at the Libraries also have archival training and responsibilities, with skills that are being put to good use as our collections continue to expand beyond the usual library formats.

The Smithsonian Libraries’ first major foray into the stewardship of manuscript collections was launched in 1974, with the gift of over 10,000 rare books and manuscripts from the Burndy Library, the private collection of industrialist and philanthropist Bern Dibner. The Burndy donation became the core collection of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Bern Dibner’s printed book and manuscript collections document the growth of European and American scientific and technological advances between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries, featuring correspondence, drafts, sketches, and ephemera by luminaries including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein, among others. The Dibner Library currently has approximately 2,000 manuscript groups, having acquired additional items from other Smithsonian units and curators as well as gifts received from outside the Institution.

In 2006, the Smithsonian Libraries received its second major collection of archival and manuscript materials with the acquisition of the Russell E. Train Africana Collection for the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. Featuring approximately 6,000 archival and manuscript items, including handwritten and typed correspondence, draft novels, photographs, sketch books, diaries, original artwork, ephemera, and both man-made and natural artifacts, the Train Africana Collection highlights the adventures of explorers, missionaries, conservationists and other travelers in Africa between the late seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The manuscript and archival materials of the Train Africana Collection are a rich trove of insights into the lives and activities of David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Ernest Hemingway, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. Thanks to the help of contract archivists and the Smithsonian’s EAD coordinator, a detailed finding aid of the Train Africana Collection, including digitized content, is available on the Smithsonian OnlineVirtual Archives (SOVA) website.

Chandeliers from Caldwell & Co.
Other branches of the Smithsonian Libraries also contain archival and manuscript collections of diverse themes and formats. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library in New York City has the papers of industrial designers such as Belle Kogan, Donald Deskey and Henry Dreyfuss, and the photographic archives of both Edward F. Caldwell & Company (one of the major lighting designers of the first half of the twentieth century) and fashion photographer Thérèse Bonney. The National Air and Space Museum Library has archival and manuscript materials ranging from a scrapbook of early aeronautica to the Bella C. Landauer collection of United States aeronautical patents. The National Postal Museum Library has the Hugh McLellan Southgate archival collection on postal history. The American Art and Portrait Gallery Library has an album of cartes-de-visite portraits of nineteenth century artists. And those are only some of the highlights.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture Library, the newest unit of the Smithsonian Libraries which opens to the public in late fall 2016, is embracing archival materials as a focal point of its collections: in addition to the head librarian, the NMAAHC Library staff includes an archivist and a genealogy specialist.

The National Collections Program’s Collections Digitization Reporting System (CDRS), a Smithsonian-wide initiative to get a grip on documenting significant materials that have not been described adequately even at the collection level in the various online catalogs of the Smithsonian, has spurred the Libraries’ staff over the past couple of years to identify and describe various pockets of archival and ephemeral materials scattered across its locations, in an effort to make these formerly hidden collections (as the Council on Library and Information Resources would refer to them) findable and properly preserved, and, where appropriate, eventually digitized.

Several recent Smithsonian-wide developments are helping the Libraries to transition into a unit where its archival and manuscript collections are nearly as accessible as its printed and digital materials:

We have multiple options for online discovery of collections: At the Smithsonian, the Libraries’ holdings are available through its dedicated SIRIS catalog, the Collections Search Center with over 10 million records of museum objects, archives and library materials from across the Institution, and the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA), which came online in 2015 and contains finding aids for more than 8000 diverse collections of primary resources from more than a dozen repositories at the Institution. The Libraries’ collections are also indexed in OCLC’s Worldcat, a global union catalog of library resources in all types of formats, and some of our digitized materials are available through the Internet Archive and the Digital Public Library of America, as well as more specialized thematic web projects like the the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Livingstone Online. To take full advantage of these various outlets, the Smithsonian Libraries has been prioritizing efforts to upgrade the description and access points for its archival and manuscript materials and, where possible, make them available in digitized form, since these unique collections hold the greatest interest for researchers who would otherwise be unaware of their existence.
Aeronautica scrapbook page
We collaborate with other units at the Smithsonian, which generously share their expertise and advice through forums such as the SIRIS Members Group, which provides discussions and training about Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) and other cataloging standards like Describing Archives: a Content Standard (DACS) and Resource Description & Access (RDA) that shape the content and structure of collections data in our online catalogs; the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Special Collections Council (SIASC) which addresses concerns of the collecting units and supports projects that benefit them; the Smithsonian Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Users Group which has been instrumental in launching the SOVA database and training staff in the use of Archivists' Toolkit; and pan-Institutional initiatives like the Field Book Project, a partnership of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

We have the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center, which went online in 2013 and has now had over 1,000 projects transcribed from fourteen participating museums, archives and libraries. The Smithsonian Libraries has so far contributed fourteen of its manuscript and archival holdings for transcription, including the commonplace book of a late eighteenth century English woman interested in scientific topics; a scrapbook of papers related to physicist Ernst Mach; a notebook of pressed butterfly specimens collected in East Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century; and a parallel vocabulary of the English and Potawatomi Indian languages, to name a few. Currently, the Transcription Center is featuring a fifteenth century Latin manuscript of Boethius’ De institutione arithmetica, complete with intricate palaeographical markings and abbreviations. The international community of Smithsonian Volunpeers, or digital volunteers, has diligently and accurately transcribed the various works made available through the Transcription Center, and thanks to their efforts, these texts are now keyword-searchable in the Collections Search Center.

Cropped section from page 125 of Boethius' De Institutione Arithmetica
Twenty-first century library, archival, and museum work here at the Smithsonian and elsewhere is continually subject to transitions: in organizational structure, workflows, formats, priorities, staffing, budgets and technological developments. Regardless of our job titles, we have to be flexible and continually learn new skills to deal well with the changes, since the tasks and policies that have traditionally defined our collecting units are not always things we can, or need to, sustain. While this ever-changing working environment is challenging, I welcome the opportunity to collaborate more closely with my colleagues across the Institution –archivists, conservators, researchers, curators, information managers, social media officers, exhibition designers, and others – to improve the ways we present our collections to the world.

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

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