Dirt and Discovery

(my first report for my class this summer)

My first impression of this work is that I cannot be afraid to get down and dirty, to put it bluntly. In the classroom, when we discussed appraisal or re-housing collections for preservation purposes, we never discussed the dirt. I have been at my internship at the Smithsonian Institute Archives (SIA) for two weeks now and I have ruined a pristine pair of white gloves, covered a t-shirt (not to mention my hands, face, and hair) in red rot and found some interesting newsprint stains on a pair of jeans. In theory, and in the classroom, this job did not seem quite so…undignified. However, I find the practice is much more to my liking than the theory. In class, it was always hard to picture “well, I would do this in this situation…” Now, being in the actual situation, I find I work better in the grime.

The pair of white gloves is my companion for my main project this summer – a digitization and re-housing of a collection of photos in the Science Service collection. These file folders contain photos, newspaper clippings, press releases and various other materials from the 1920s to about the end of the 1960s. The Science Service aimed at popularizing science – Think of it as the AP for science enthusiasts. These folders tend to be disorganized, grimy, and filled with bits of paper and rot. My gloves did not stand a chance. However, I love looking through these files. The actual project itself is very repetitive. I find a photo, place it under acid-free paper, add it to the database, scan it and move onto the next. If the folders themselves were not fascinating, I would be a robot by 10 AM. As it is, I have already scanned in over 450 photos in two weeks. Something has to keep me involved in the work and I found quickly with these files the element of dirt goes well with discovery. I am looking at files that have not been used much, if at all, since the 1960s. There are newspaper clippings about the dropping of the atomic bomb, pictures chronicling women in the lab before women were suppose to be there, and press releases about new discoveries I took for granted in high school chemistry class. It is the artifacts themselves that I have come to enjoy and because of that, I enjoy the work. I often wonder who will find these photos useful – what will them do with them? What I can add to the database entry that will help them?

Another aspect of my internship involves helping with a moving project at a warehouse in Virginia at Fullerton. SIA has to be out of this space by the end of the summer but they are using this opportunity to take stock of these collections and to do preservation and re-housing on most collections before removing them either to the Capital Gallery collections ( the building in DC where I work most days) or sending them out to Iron Mountain for storage. It is clear that this move needs to be made. I could see the list from introduction to Archives and Record Management about a good location for archives and Fullerton meets very few of them. It is also just plain dirty. A lot of the collections have not been touched in decades. I re-housed two collections out at Fullerton to date and both left me with dust and dirt everywhere. I especially enjoyed a collection of 19th century ledger books that left me with “red rot” all over my hands, face and t-shirt. Strangely though, that made me feel I accomplished something. I put that collection into a better environment so when a researcher needs to know how much the Smithsonian paid the zookeeper in 1888, that ledger will be preserved and ready for him/her.

So, my first impression of the work is that it is not easy – it is hot, dirty, tiring work some days. However, it is also very rewarding. I like the feeling that I am preserving that picture or that letter for someone down the road who will appreciate it more than I ever could. It was a feeling I knew I should get from my classes but practice is a much better way from me to understand what my professors were saying to me

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