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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shared Connections: Collaboration across Smithsonian Archives

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

As we come to the end of October and American Archives Month, I find myself reflecting on this year’s theme of hidden connections and several new initiatives on which the archival units across the Smithsonian have collaborated to “unhide” these connections and enhance online discovery of the Institution’s vast archival holdings, among the largest holdings in our nation measuring nearly 140,000 cubic feet of materials.   The primary sources of the Smithsonian document the history of art, culture, music, design, flight, space exploration, science and technology, landscapes and gardens, and native cultures in the United States, as well as the long history of the Smithsonian itself.

The most significant collective achievement of the Smithsonian’s archival units was this month’s launch of SOVA:  Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives.  This new and innovative web portal allows users to explore our nation's historical legacy as documented in the Smithsonian's vast, rich, and varied archival collections.  SOVA provides online access to descriptions and detailed inventories of thousands of primary resource collections held by multiple repositories across the Institution — all in one integrated interface.  Users can now discover previously hidden collections related by topic and/or by names of persons, families, businesses, and organizations regardless of where the collection lives.  And, they can explore related digital content from archival collections, such as letters, manuscripts, diaries and journals, ledgers and stock books, photographs, scrapbooks, sketchbooks and drawings, technical drawings and blueprints, field notebooks, log books, rare printed materials, sound recordings, videos, and much more.

Found in SOVA:   Frida Kahlo with her painting, Self-Portrait as a Tehuana, ca. 1943 / unidentified photographer. Florence Arquin papers, 1923-1985. Forms part of: Florence Arquin papers, 1923-1985.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Artwork by Acee Blue Eagle.  Forms part of the Acee Blue Eagle papers, 1907-1975. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Archival finding aids or collection guides are the key to unlocking information in SOVA. Each unique archival collection has a finding aid that provides the user with varying levels of descriptive detail about the collection, including links to related archival collections in repositories across the Smithsonian, as well as related archival collections across the world by linking to ArchiveGrid.  Digitized content from each archival collection currently maintained in the Smithsonian’s DAMS (Digital Asset Management System) is also accessed via links provided in the collection's finding aid, thus providing users with the full context of the digital objects.

Another exciting archival discovery interface shared by the archival units is the Smithsonian Transcription Center.  The website invites the public to “help make our vast collections in art, history, and science more accessible to anyone with a curious spirit,” and that they “are working hand-in-hand with digital volunteers to transcribe historic documents and collection records to facilitate research and excite the learning in everyone. Together, we are discovering secrets hidden deep inside our collections that illuminate our history and our world.”   The very nature of archival documentation makes it the ideal medium for transcription.

The Transcription Center opened in July 2013 with thousands of documents across 31 projects from eight Smithsonian museums, archives, and libraries. They have grown with the help of volunteers to include over 900 projects from thirteen participating museums, archives and libraries. Current archival projects available for transcription and review include the E. Howard Clock Orders Ledger from the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center;  the Bladensburg Union Burial Association Records from the Anacostia Community Museum Archives; artist Arthur Dove's diary from the Archives of American Art, and the Field Notebooks from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Found in the Transcription Center now:  A page from Arthur Dove’s 1942 diary found in the Arthur and Helen Torr Dove papers, 1905-1975, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Collaborative projects among the Smithsonian archivists just make sense.  They allow us to efficiently share more of our collections online with the public, thus, helping current and potential users to discover previously hidden collections and to explore the many connections to be made among our archival holdings here at the Smithsonian.

Barbara Aikens, Head of Collections Processing
Archives of American Art

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