Once upon a time, when Gerald Ford was president, I had a grant to be Assistant Archivist at Columbia University Teacher’s College Archives. Many years later, I was told the archives had closed. By then my career moved on to law librarianship. But that’s another story. I’m always glad to visit archives whenever I get a chance.
The American Museum of Natural History was founded in 1869. Theodore Roosevelt’s father was president of the Board of Trustees. The Museum’s purpose is to provide scientific education and research. On Sunday, October 5, 2014, the American Museum of Natural History Library explained some of its archival holdings as part of National Archives Week.
Having completed a project for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reporting on best standards and practices for long term digital objects, I was eager to find out how the AMNH was approaching this problem, Vicky Steeves, a fellow from the National Digital Stewardship Registry has a grant funded by the Library of Congress to develop a preservation plan for the scientific papers with input from the scientists. Vicky is applying a three pronged approach: following trends in technology; using interoperative file formats and migration to newer formats when required. This is what I learned from my project. AMNH is keeping the original material.
Next I spoke to Barbara Rhodes, the Library Conservator, whose purpose is to repair and restore materials as well as preserve them for research and display purposes. One thing she does is make photocopy facsimiles of materials that are displayed. Barbara had some examples. I particularly liked a facsimile of a work by Anton von Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope (www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/leeuwenhoek.html ) she photocopied the original work on handmade paper and then bound it into a book. Except for the binding, it gave a good impression of a 17th Century work.
Stacy Schiff, the Visual Resources Librarian, explained how they plan to eventually provide online access to the Library’s one million photographic images. These include glass plates and lantern slides. Sometimes the museum gives lectures using the lantern slides. Right now the photographic materials are arranged by size. So there can be all sorts of material in one box. So far the Digital Special Collections (images.library.amnh.org/digital) has curate 8500 items by topic and format. Stacy explained that there were three stages to loading an image onto the database: scanning the image; standardizing the data and adding the cultural context. For that purpose, Library applies Encoded Archival Description (EAD) and Encoded Archival Context (EAC) for metadata. The website’s platform uses Omeka open source software. As a former cataloger, I was interested to learn that the material was described using Library of Congress subject headings, the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabulary/tgn/index.html ) and a local controlled vocabulary.
Thomas (Tom) Baione, the Library Director, presided over the Expeditions Table which displayed artifacts from Franz Boas’ ‘(http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/70705/Franz-Boas) photo scrapbook form Jessup North Pacific Expedition to Northwest Coast of North America and Siberia. Also displayed was a sweater worn
On the Central Asiatic Expedition to China and Mongolia lead by Roy Chapman Andrew (www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/24006). It was a little ragged and still had sand from the Gobi Desert. This expedition found a full set of dinosaur eggs. Later on, in the film preservation section, I saw a film of this discovery. Alas, it turned out the discovery of the eggs was staged or “reenacted” as we now say in documentary film and television.
Also on display was a beautifully stuffed canary that looked ready to fly away except it was in a glass case. Twelve year old Carl Akeley, of the Museum’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals, was the soon to be revolutionary taxidermist. Akeley was also involved with the Field Museum in Chicago (http://www.fieldmuseum.org/carl-akeley). The film preservation section also had film of a camp of one of Akeley’s many expeditions to Africa. You see an African man ironing a table cloth. The expedition members sit down at a table and are served by other men. Along comes Akeley whose chair looked like a throne to me.
Barbara Mathe, Museum Archivist and Head of Special Collections, showed us a scrapbook of photos of Native Americans. In one photo, you can see the photographer in the subject’s eye. Barbara told us that, in discussions with the Zuni, they were told certain photos could not be displayed or otherwise observed as they were taken at a secret ceremony. Even other Zuni may not look at these photos. It’s a good example of how the Museum is sensitive to the people they study.
Then it was on to the film preservation section where Gregory Rami, Special Collections Librarian, explained how they preserved films and then digitizing them. I believe he said it was in the 1980’s they copied the films onto video tape in a format that was obsolete before the invention of the DVD. This is a good example of the difficulty in preserving archival film.
It’s very expensive to digitize from film. It would cost about $16,000.00 to digitize the 1920’s 10 minute films Gregory showed. So digital copies are made from the tape copies played on the obsolete machines. I watched the films with my niece Brynn (soon to be a student at Pratt Library School). We both pronounced them “cool”. The Museum is still sponsoring expeditions which are recorded digitally.
My final stop was the Hidden Collections Table. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR) are funding an inventory and description of all the archives in the Museum Library and Scientific Departments. Becca Morgan is the Project Archivist. Metadata Analyst Iris Lee has what I consider a really fun job. She visits all the departments, talks to scientists, and discovers connections that no one knew existed.
When I was a child, it was a real treat to come to the American Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur bones. The planetarium was also fun. I am an adult. I know that there is an overwhelming and ongoing amount of treasure in the Museum It was real treat to learn about what is being done to catalog and preserve it.
The Research Library (library.amnh.org) is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 2:00-5:30 and by appointment. Email email@example.com or phone 212-769-5400.