The Questions to Answer in the End

(last reflective paper for class)

As I wrap up my summer internship, everyone at work has been asking me what I liked best, what I did not like, do you still want to be an archivist after this? In turn, in order to answer, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what exactly it is that I like about the work. I will admit, sitting in a windowless room, staring at a computer screen day in and day out would have driven me insane two months ago. So one perk to the job is the variety. Because we had a schedule of some sorts at SIA, I knew what building and what I would be working on every day. My supervisors did not always have that luxury. The variety of their work excited me – some days they worked on digital materials, another day they would be processing, the next they would be out at an appraisal or doing outreach with another office in the Smithsonian. I like a job that gives me variety and a sense of adventure. Being an intern there to work on a single project, I did not always get that variety myself but I see the possibility of it in the profession.
I also answer to the “what did you like” question, the feeling of discovery. True, a lot of the collections I worked on outside of my scanning room were not the most riveting of materials – a lot of administration paperwork and so on but a few of the collections were truly interesting and I was never sure what I was going to find next. One collection, from the National Air and Space Museum had video footage of planes being flown into Dulles airport for the NASM Hazy Center Annex at the airport. How often to get to see a space shuttle piggy backing on a 747? Or another collection from the National Museum for Natural History was entirely correspondence between a geologist and professors, collectors, and experts in the field with some fun dirt samples and weird leaves thrown in for good measure. I like wondering also who will use this collection next and what will they discover in it?
I am hard pressed to answer the question “what did you not like.” One thing I did not care of was the isolation from the archives department. Because of the location of the scanning room, I rarely saw my other interns or, often, my supervisor simply because of my location. That is no fault of the profession, more poor office planning. While I like having a space to work in alone and be able to organize everything “my” way, I would like to see other people from time to time…I also did not like getting frustrated with the work which would happen every so often. I would find whole groups of photos with no names or find ruined pictures that no one bothered to remove the first time the collection was looked over. However, my supervisor assures me that that is simply a part of the work. There will be boxes of unknowns and silly people who do not understand what happens to rubber bands thirty years down the road (they harden and stain and crumble…not good). It is a frustrating job I have been forewarned by everyone in the office but also a rewarding job. I have only been able to observe the reference desk a few times but the look on people’s faces when we have that obscure document from the National Museum of American History or we have that photo of the old National Air and Space Museum is worth it.
As for the last question, “do I still want to be an archivist”, the answer is a resounding yes. It took me so long to find a career that was challenging and rewarding enough to keep my interest and fit into what I am personally interested in outside of work. Now I just need to work on the inevitable next question: “what kind of archive do you think you would like to work in?” I am still deciding this one. I really enjoyed my time at the Smithsonian and I would definitely apply if they decide they want to hire in the spring but I want to keep my options open and I have been lucky enough to have co-workers this summer who have experiences in just about every type of archive you can find so they have given me a lot to think about. It’s a question I am still working on but I feel this summer has given me a taste of an institution and an environment that I would be very happy to work in long term any time in the future.

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learning goal check

(reflective report for school)

I thought this week since I only have about three weeks left I should reflect a little on how I am doing with my project and my learning goals for the summer. For one, I am realizing now that I was unrealistic in thinking I could complete the project this summer. It was never the intention of my supervisor that I should finish however; I thought to myself I could get the main boxes scanned over the course of the summer. I started on the letter H. I am just now rounding the corner of the letter L. It sounds like I have not gotten far at all. But looking at the numbers, I have scanned over 1770 photos into the database. Sadly, I am never going to see the final steps of the project personally at SIA. The refining of the metadata, the linking of the actual photo file to the database entry and the launch of the database into SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institute database on-line where it would be searchable by the user will take place long after I am back at school or even out in the work force. I am just starting to realize the massive amount of time and resources it takes to make a project like this get off the ground and to finally see it completed.

My supervisor took time to explain to me this week about the SIRIS protocol and what the collection will need to go through still after the scanning is done. She was very interested in using flickr as a resource to help identify people we know little or nothing about in the Science Service photos. The Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress have both already utilized flickr to not only give better access to their users but to tap into their users’ information. It is amazing to me the network of resources outside of an institution that are available if we only have the tools to use them. I will be interested to see if flickr or a site like it will be used with my collection in the future. This fit well into one of my learning goals for the summer which was to understand how a digitization project comes together from start to finish, what an institution needs to know or learn to make a project of this magnitude a worth-while endeavor that will ultimately help the user of an archives to better access and understand a collection. What I find interesting in this case, with the Science Service photos, is we have a lot of blanks. Photos with only initials and a last name or, worst-case scenario, simply a last name. No university, no area of science to go off on. I have googled many and come up with full names for few. It is another project in itself and one that digitization of the photos could help complete if SIA decides to go the ‘flickr route.’

Along with the start to finish of a digitization project, I have learned a lot about processing collections: when to toss, when to keep, when a finding aid is “good enough” to work for the moment. Something the classroom and the real world have both agreed on whole heartedly is there is never enough time, people, or money to do everything you want to do with a collection and its finding aid. Sometimes, one simply has to say that it is as good as it is going to get for the moment and move on. A perfectionist would die a slow and painful death in the archives. You are perpetually leaving everything half done with the idea that some day you will come back and finish that finding aid to perfection, list other collections that link to it in the archives and elsewhere, come back and digitize everything. In reality, the collections I put back on the shelf today at Fullerton will probably never be returned to – they will live with a simple listing of folders and a brief summary of where the papers come from and what they may pertain to during the dates listed. A user could use them easily, true, but we could do better…if we had time.

So, my learning goals are there. I feel I have gleaned a lot from my digitization project as well as the time I have spent processing collections. I learned patience certainly but from discussing the big picture, I see that it is hard work and lives you often with the feeling that if you only had a little more time, it could be done that much better. It is a problem found in many lines of work. However, I often find myself wondering, as I work on a collection, which will use it next and what can I add to a finding aid to help them in their scavenger hunt. So I add a few lines to a summary, a few lines after a folder name to say something interesting I have found in my perusal of the collection over a few hours of processing. It is not much but the user is something SI has made me very aware of and I feel that one of my lessons, even if it was not in my learning goals or even something my supervisor has pointed out to me, is that the user is always there in the back of my mind and I am working to make the user’s quest in the archives go that much smoother. If it takes me five extra minutes at my computer, in the end, I think it is worth it.

A weekend of cemeteries

It was actually more cheerful than it sounds for the most part. Work last week went quickly. Having Monday off helped a lot. I scanned for three days and was out at Fullerton again on Friday where I finished the collection I had started the week before so that was good. I also finally got a chance to meet with my supervisor for a bit and got a lot of questions cleared up I had lingering from the appraisal I had tagged along to plus some questions I had about the scanning project I was working on. Friday night I stayed over at Mackenzie’s since we planned on leaving at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning.

Actually, it wasn’t even dawn yet. We left DC at 4:30 AM and arrived in Gettysburg a little before 6 AM. We headed up to Little Round Top to have a view of the battlefields before the sun rose. I have to admit, seeing the misty fields and the sky lighten purply red was beautiful. I lived there for four years and didn’t see it. Funny the things you never get around to doing just because you assume you have all the time in the world to do them in. We continued on down into the park afterwards, watching the sun come up before we had breakfast at LD’s after a brief side trip onto campus to get to the ATM. Campus is a bit torn up at the moment. They’re building the new athletic center but the new child care center they opened last year looks beautiful even if it was weird to see a building where Stone Lot used to be. After breakfast, we walked the National Cemetery all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial Wall at the back with the Gettysburg Address engraved next to a bust of Lincoln. We then drove up to the Peace Light and did a lot of the Auto Tour. We also climbed to the top of Big Round Top – not that you can tell from the pictures – not much a view through all the trees up there.

We stopped at the new Visitor’s Center on the way out of Gettysburg and it is HUGE! I think the new store is bigger than the entire old building. I didn’t like that the old buildings were just sitting there crumbling though – they need to tear them down or find a use for them – they look awful. The new center is beautiful though and huge and fits the needs of the area much better so kudos to the designer. We headed over to Lancaster next and explored Amish Country. We just drove around, picking a few side roads to explore down, to see off the “real” Amish, not the tourist displays. Their farms are simply beautiful – so big and in perfect condition. A lot of farms were bringing in their hay so they had these beautiful Belgian work teams out in the fields. It was different to see work horses actually “working” instead of the hitch classes I loved watching at the state fair. I have a lot of respect for their way of life but I don’t think I’m signing up for it any time soon. I wouldn’t last long anyway. What would they do with a girl who can’t sew or cook to save her life? I might not be such a hopeless case with baking…hmmm….something to think about. Maybe I could do a vacation to Amish Country and stay on a farm for a week. I think that would be enough time for me to miss my computer and air conditioning sufficiently enough.

We made one more stop in PA – Harrisburg. We visited the Capital building which is very ornate and decorated within an inch of its life. It also looked very rich – something tells me Albany would not be this impressive. One of these days I should visit my home state’s capital though…add that to my list. We got back to DC around 6 PM and I had a quiet night after that.

I didn’t start as early the next morning as I had wanted to so it was already blazing when I got to Arlington National Cemetery. Visiting a place with little shade in a Code Red Heat Advisory is a bad idea – I advise against it. I especially advise against climbing hills and stairs to visit graves in this heat. Just some friendly advise. However, I liked seeing the Kennedy graves again – they are beautifully presented on the hill overlooking DC. I then walked up to Arlington House and saw the house (not much there currently) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers from the Civil War. I started the trek then to the Tomb of the Unknowns. Made it there in time to see the Changing of the Guard which was great – such ceremony to a little thing. Must be the British left in us. I felt bad for those guys though in full outfit under than sun. It must have been 100 by then.

After the Changing, I walked over to the Challenger memorial. I was pleased to see a memorial had been added for the Columbia crew as well. Not a tear shed yet which was impressive as I’d even listened to John Denver’s tribute to the Challenger crew (They Were Flying For Me) before I came (I swear my iPod is psychic – what song does she most not want to hear on the way to Arlington?) which never fails to tear me up on its own. Lastly, I walked up to the mast of the USS Maine, the ship sunk off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After that, I had to hike all the way back to the start of the cemetery. At that point, the $15 tour bus looked like money well spent but I stuck it out. Luckily, all of Kathy’s reminders of sun screen and water had been remembered before I left the house so I didn’t melt.

Once back on the Metro, I had some time to kill so I found a bookstore off Metro Center and succeeded in only spending $10 – this is impressive people, look impressed – before I headed over to Chinatown to see Mamma Mia! In not spoiling the movie for anyone, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. They stayed very close to the musical’s original plot – always keeps me happy – and even kept a lot of the fun dances I remember from the stage show. My one gripe is that, I am sorry, but Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. It was painful at times. This is why James Bond does not sing people and he shouldn’t have too. Even Meryl Streep, a woman who I didn’t think had a musical bone in her body, sounded better than him. In fact, I was very surprised by Meryl’s performance. She had me won over by the end (although, I would have staged The Winner Takes It All a bit different but that’s just me). Other than that, it gets three stars from me.

This week is looking fairly standard. I have another report due on Friday so I need to come up with a topic for it here soon. I also am hoping to go see The Phillips Collection on Thursday night and then I think my museum/gallery list is complete – I may have a few stragglers to finish up. I’m actually not down here for much longer which is blowing my mind – I’m not quite sure where the summer went to be honest. However, I have a full couple of weeks left so I’m making the most of it.

Family Times

When family comes to visit, I have time for nothing else. Last week was fairly quiet at work. I finished another box on Thursday and was out at Fullerton in Virginia all day on Friday. My parents and Ally got here on Saturday afternoon. I went with them to their hotel over in Georgetown. It was a very nice hotel – I was impressed. After they settled in, we walked down to Foggy Bottom to get them metro cards for the next two days. We’d made plans to meet Kathy and Scott on the waterfront from dinner so we were going to head to Georgetown. We took the bus over to Kennedy Center and walked down past Watergate and the waterfront into downtown Georgetown and the shopping district. I got a a great deal in H&M and we wondered the Shops at Georgetown (a mall) before we headed back to the waterfront. We ate at Tony and Joe’s, a seafood restaurant right on the docks – it was a beautiful night.

The next day we did the Smithsonian Zoo in the morning. Mom got to see her pandas. Her and Daddy went early so Mom actually got to see them moving. All I saw them doing was sleep – lol. The sea lions were the best to watch though and they had tons of a personal favorite, the golden lion tamerin. It got pretty crowded by the beginning of the afternoon so we headed out. We had planned to do the monuments this night but it started to pour just after we got off the metro at L’Enfant. So we headed back to Union Station so Dad could take pictures somewhere. 🙂

The next morning, Ally and I did the Holocaust Memorial Museum while Mom and Dad did the Air & Space Museum. It was my third time doing the Holocaust Museum and I got through it this time without crying once – I am making progress. After we met up with Mom and Dad, we went and ate at the Natural History Museum and then went and visited the new Jim Henson exhibit at the International Gallery. I am in love with this exhibit – it has some of Henson’s earliest artwork along with lots of video footage throughout. Not too mention, puppets of Kermit, the Fraggles, Bert and Ernie, Rowlf and more. I am totally going back several times. Its open until October so anyone coming down – you must go!

After that, we went back to the hotel for a bit before driving back down to eat dinner. We ate at an Italian restaurant at the Ronald Reagan building – I had this fabulous Primavera dish. Afterwards, we walked over to see the White House so Ally could see it before she left again. From there, we drove over to the Capitol building and Dad took pictures forever. Thankfully, there was a band playing on the Capitol Steps so I did some swing dancing on the lawn of the Capitol to entertain myself. We did a family picture too – our first since Ally could talk. It’s been awhile…Next was the Lincoln Memorial and we got to meet up with Aunt Michele, Uncle Joe and Joey here so that was great. We then walked down to the World War II memorial. This is very close to my favorite one – it was beautiful to see at night with all the lights in the water.

The next morning, the family took off for Atlantic City, Ally shoved into the backseat (luckily, I managed to get my stuff on the route home – not much leg room because of it though – sorry!). I got to meet Aunt Michele, Uncle Joe and Joey for lunch yesterday luckily. I had them meet me at the food court at the NMAI – the best food court of the Smithsonian which they loved so I was glad we got to eat together then 🙂

The rest of this week is shaping up. I’m back at Fullerton on Friday. The new Batman movie comes out this weekend and I’m off to Gettysburg of all places on Sunday. First time back since I graduated so it’s going to be weird but good. I’m excited for some Rita’s and dinner at LD’s again though 🙂

Work Culture at SIA

(reflective report for school)

For this week’s report, I wanted to reflect a little on the work culture and management of the archives at the Smithsonian. The other archive I had worked in prior to this internship was my undergraduate college’s archive. While the students there were allowed to dress casually, for the most part, it was a formal environment to work in with a hands-on management style. The Smithsonian archives takes a much more casual, hands-off approach to management that creates a very casual, very relaxed work culture where there is little difference between the manager and the intern in how you interact.

In terms of management, which in turn creates the work culture, there is very little “intense” management. My supervisor works on the opposite side of the building from where the scanning room, where I spend most of my time, is located. She comes over to see me maybe twice a day if she is even in the office. Often much of the staff is out of the office at other archive locations or involved in work at other museums for the Smithsonian. Because of this, I am in charge of my time management and project advancement. I have no manager breathing down my neck if I get a bit behind on a box because there were more pictures in some of the folders than usual. I have no deadline except what I myself set. For my work style, this type of management is perfect. I have a lot of independence in how I structure my days. On certain days that I am out of the scanning room and either out at the Fullerton warehouse or working on a different collection at Capital Gallery, I am always given instructions first and ask any questions before I am set loose and once again, I set my own pace. This works very well for me, as I stated before. I do not hesitate to ask questions if I get stuck or confused but I am not left feeling like my supervisor will be constantly looking over my shoulder either. For me, this means I enjoy the work more, learn more and work harder. I am my hardest taskmaster. A more controlling management style would get me nervous and flustered and I would enjoy the work less.

That said I found having my work checked over is a good thing for me. A fellow intern is doing quality control on my work in the scanning room, making sure my entries in the database are filled out correctly and match up to the digital image. Being my own taskmaster so often means I can get a little sloppy. I think I tend to get into a zone of repetition and stop paying as much attention as I need to the details. Having my work checked this past week reminded me that, while I enjoy my independence at work, I also need to police myself a bit better in general. I am trying to check over my entries at the end of the day to make sure I did not forget something silly like changing a folder name or not putting a “dr.” before someone’s name where it belongs. If I take the time to do this, most of the mistakes my fellow intern is finding would disappear.

Because of this management system, the work culture at SIA is very casual and informal. The director of the archives is approachable by everyone and anyone in her office. All have an open-door policy. I joke and laugh with my supervisor a lot and they encourage all the interns to discuss our projects but also just to talk in general. We have the Internet radio playing when I am over in the archives offices, working on a collection. We share fun or weird discoveries in our collections with each other and our supervisors. The dress code is very casual so I personally am even more in a comfort zone at work. The Records management side tends to be a bit more formal so I am definitely more comfortable in the archives offices even if I spend the most time on the records management side in the scanning room. It is an interesting office because of the physical split in where the archives have their offices and workspace and where the records management teams have offices. However, while more formal in dress, the records management people are just as casual in manner and also add their own radio and stories to the atmosphere of the office. Overall, I find it a very comfortable and relaxing place to work. I like being able to set my pace and be my own manager for the most part around people who are encouraging and helpful as well as genuinely interested in sharing their experiences and learning mine.

Visiting the Libraries

Luckily, I have only during the day on Saturday to write about and then this week and I am all caught up!

Saturday, I did the two libraries in my neighborhood. I started at the Folger Shakespeare Library, home of the largest collection of Shakespeare scholarship on this side of the Atlantic. It is quite small, most of it is only open to researchers but the current exhibit is on Armor and Shakespeare which was interesting to look through. My main reason for coming though was right inside the door of the Gallery. One of the First Folios. I had seen one in Stratford of course but I loved this one because it is encased with a touchscreen system which lets you digitally browse through the book as they have digitalized the first part of it. It was fun to look through and see the spellings and find my favorite lines. Like I was looking through Romeo and Juliet and found “I bite my thumb at thee sir!” It took me back to eighth grade and my first experience with Shakespeare (which I will admit, he’s grown on me over the years). I also looked into the theater they have at the library. Their season is already done for the year which is a same, I would have liked to have seen a production there. Though it was sort of a poor substitute after seeing the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company theaters in Stratford, it was still faithful to the intimate and country feeling to the theaters of Shakespeare’s time. I picked up a copy of Much Ado about Nothing while I was here. Now I am quoting my favorite Shakespeare heroine non-stop; I need a Benedick to burn my library for 😉

After I finished at the Folger, I crossed the street to the Library of Congress. It seriously is one of my favorite buildings in DC. It has the unassuming green dome terraced, with the fabulous fountain out front and Minerva everywhere (they insist on the Roman names here so I will grudgingly use them – the Greek ones are prettier). I wondered in and just missed the start of the tour but since I couldn’t see the Main Reading Room without a tour, I nonchalantly joined one in front of the Guttenburg Bible. I really enjoyed my tour actually. The tour guide was this adorable old woman who knew everything about every mural, stone bust and painting in the place. The Main Reading Room is sadly under refurbishment at the moment so sections of it are covered in scaffolding and sheets. But it was beautiful to finally see it in person after seeing it in the movies for so long. After the tour disbursed, I wondered Creating the United States which had drafts of the Declaration and Constitution on display along with countless letters and journals. I then found Thomas Jefferson’s Library. It is a reconstruction of Jefferson’s original library that he sold to Congress to start their library. It was a nice tie-in to my visit to Monticello last weekend though I wonder were exactly all those books fit at Monticello… I then walked through an exhibit on the Exploring Early America – lots of maps and arguments over who gets what land in the New World. There was a very neat case on pirating in the New World though. After this, I wondered downstairs and into the Bob Hope Gallery, focusing on Bob Hope but also looking at Vaudeville and Hollywood in general during his time. I saw yet another Oscar – seen a lot of those lately. I then shopped (of course – they had a book store people…) and picked up a great read on the presence of American Women in the Library. I then went and got my Reader’s Card for the Library in the Madison Building so I can actually go and use the Library now if I want to which I am excited to do. I just need to figure out when exactly I am doing that and what I want to look at. The woman who did my application for the card gave me the name of a fabulous woman’s history librarian so I hope to get a hold of her and look at some of their woman’s collections. Maybe store up an idea for a thesis for when I get back to school for my woman’s history masters….

This week has been fairly standard at work – I’ve been scanning all week with the new resolutions the Smithsonian just approved so my pictures take twice as long to scan now but I did the Kennedy files this week which were fascinating to look through and read all the newspaper clippings (like, FYI, did you know the Kennedys had a child die 20 hours after birth while in the White House? I didn’t even know little Patrick Bouvier Kennedy ever existed…that family really is cursed.) We did have our staff picnic yesterday. They shut down the Folklife Festival to the public for the day and give us the run of the place. This year the tents are Texas, Bhutan and NASA (as it’s their 50th anniversary this year). We ate at Texas – Taquitos but I want to try Bhutan when I go this weekend. Hopefully I don’t murder any tourists before then. I cannot wait for the Fourth of July to be over and done with – too many Americans around for my taste. Most of the time I’ve noticed, the tourists come from outside the States. One day, eating lunch in my favorite spot, I didn’t hear English anywhere around me. I like it that way – ugh, Americans.

I will report on the Fourth of July next. I cannot wait for this fireworks show!!!!!

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