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Eight of the 940 watercolor illustrations of fungi by Lewis David von Schweinitz in the Academy of Natural Sciences Archives.   Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 437

Eight of the 940 watercolor illustrations of fungi by Lewis David von Schweinitz in the Academy of Natural Sciences Archives. Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 437

It is quite probable that the facts of distribution, life history, and economic status may finally prove to be of more far-reaching value, than whatever information is obtainable exclusively from the specimens themselves.”

From: “The Methods and Uses of a Research Museum” by Joseph Grinnell (1915), Popular Science Monthly 77: 163–169.

Last week’s annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists provided a great opportunity for three CLIR recipients to meet about our proposed panel for the Hidden Collections Symposium in March. Christina Fidler, Museum Archivist, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley and Rusty Russell, Collection Manager, Botany, Smithsonian Institution and I were joined by Tim White who was unable to be there in person. Tim is Director of Collections and Operations at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and we all connected via Rusty’s mobile phone set to speaker, as we sat on the lawn outside the conference hotel.  What brought two archivists and two collection managers together?  Besides being CLIR natural science museum recipients, we share an enthusiasm for linking access to archives and scientific specimen and data collections.

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Naturalist John Burroughs and Industrialist, Henry Ford in first Ford Car, 1913

Naturalist John Burroughs and industrialist, Henry Ford in first Ford Car, 1913

 The AMNH Library has been very, very…very! busy lately. This year started with the web migration in January that resulted in our magnificent new web site (kudos to Mai Reitmeyer, Gregory Raml, Jen Cwiok and Susan Lynch and Tom Baione, our fearless Library Director).

Some web links were lost in transition but have been repaired and the new site is a welcome improvement. Look for our new image database to be launched in the fall!

The new CLIR grant began in February and Iris Lee and Becca Morgan and I spent the spring planning and developing the project. Our summer interns are here and working away as you can see from Cara and Alison’s insightful postings below. We will be interviewing interns for the fall term at the end of next week. Nick Krabbenhoeft joined our team on July 15th for a six month practicum for his degree at the University of Michigan and has been consulting with Tom Trombone from AMNH Ornithology, Lawrence Gall from Yale’s Peabody Museum and Brian Wilson from The Henry Ford about the intricacies and vagaries of KE EMu software used by many of the AMNH science departments for their collections. We are investigating how the program might be used for AMNH archival records and whether it can be used to keep the EAC-CPF records that we’ve begun to produce. EMu does accommodate archival collection records in EAD in its cataloging module. Next on the list to investigate is ArchiveSpace. Iris has begun drafting the functional requirements for a system that can be used for our project to develop a cyberinfrastructure to hold our growing stores of data and based on that document, we will begin to make structured comparisons based on need, functionality and costs.

Creating and harnessing the data (sometimes this does feel like the Manhattan project!) has begun and we are struggling with issues like documenting workflows and managing permissions for the data sets in the spread sheets. Right now, Iris is the data master. This is one of the main reasons we need a content management system for the collection records (in EAD) that we created during the last CLIR project along with the creator records for names of persons and of expeditions (in EAC-CPF), and finally, for the biographical and historical notes that will relate and link many of the records, whether for collections or their creators. It’s a very interesting technological puzzle and we’re also in contact with a group working on a NYC Linked Open Data initiative.
Meanwhile, Becca, with her interns, is grappling with the conceptual issues regarding the creation of the narrative contextual notes that will be shared, in time, not only within the Museum but with other institutions. We’re closely following the development of a National Archival Authorities Infrastructure and the NAAC project. Our work shows the need for a redefinition of the contextual notes that were traditionally associated with collection descriptions but are now also associated with entity descriptions and that will be shared among institutions. For example, how long should these notes be? The answer will depend upon a number of factors, including available time, of course, and the relevance of the entity to the institution. Expect more to come on this. It gets surprisingly complex. This is not your mother’s finding aid.

Finally, anticipating our next major project to digitize some 10,000 photographs in the AMNH collection depicting North American Anthropology, we’ve been identifying images directly associated with specific expeditions and developing the biographical and historical notes to associate with those archival collections. We want to get copies of these images back to their source communities working with library school students in programs that emphasize Native American and First Nation curricula. It all comes around and we will implement a collection level approach in our image database where we can use the contextual notes generated for this project for finding aids for the photographs, many of which were taken on Museum expeditions.

Yup, a little busy. I’ll be at the Society of American Archivists meeting on a panel chaired by Sarah Demb from the Museum of London, on Thursday August 15th, called “Pushing the Envelope: Using Object Collections Management Systems to Catalog Archives” along with Carol O. Bartels from the Historic New Orleans Collection, the aforementioned Brian Wilson from The Henry Ford, and Mary E. Hope from the U.S. Army Medical Department Center of History and Heritage. Hope to see you in New Orleans!

The Research Library of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is pleased to announce that it was awarded $320,400 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through a program administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources’ (CLIR) Cataloging Hidden Collections. The AMNH Archive Project will produce in-depth descriptions, called finding aids, for major archival collections relating to Museum expeditions. The project will also result in brief histories of these expeditions and biographies of those who participated in them.

Scientific expeditions and field work are the foundation for resource gathering by natural science museums worldwide. The artifacts and specimens collected by AMNH researchers in the field form the core of American Museum of Natural History’s scientific research collections. The Lumholtz Expeditions to Mexico, 1890-98; the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1897-1902; the Vernay Hopwood Chindwin Expedition to Burma, 1934-35; the Whitney South Sea, 1921-37; the Archbold New Guinea, 1933-64; and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, 1921-30, are a few of the most prominent.

The notes, sketches, diaries, journals, specimen books, photographs, recorded sound, and moving images, made by scientists, artists and assistants collecting in the field, are held in each of the AMNH science departments and record their observations about the biology, cultural traditions and ecological conditions of the specimens and artifacts in their natural environments. Describing these archival records will enrich the experiences of all who use the AMNH scientific collections for research in the disciplines of systematic biology, ecology, cultural anthropology, and the history of science, as well as those who prepare exhibitions and educational programs for the millions of visitors to the Museum and its websites.

The project will result in the creation of an institutional cyber-infrastructure with an eye toward the long term integration of information about the archival collections and the objects and specimens in the scientific collections in the AMNH, and ultimately, with related collections in other institutions using linked open data. These records will form the structure where digitized images of the collections, whether of a bat skeleton, a field sketch of a bird, a frog call, a film of a ceremony, or a photo of a paleontological dig may someday be accessed virtually. But on a more basic level it requires working in the archives held in the Research Library as well as in each of the Scientific Departments to organize and describe the physical collections.  “The core of the project is in the links we will make between the documentary records of the scientists in the field and materials they collected,” says Barbara Mathé, Project Director.  “It will allow researchers to locate materials that, up until this point, would not have been found to relate to their research.”

Libraries, archives, and cultural institutions hold millions of items that have never been adequately described. This represents a staggering volume of items of potentially substantive intellectual value, unknown and inaccessible to scholars. The Council on Library and Information Resources administers a national effort with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to address this problem by awarding grants for supporting innovative, efficient description of large volumes of material of high value to scholars. Since the program began in 2008, eighty-seven grants totaling nearly $20M have been made to a variety of institutions nationwide. This is the second award from CLIR to support the AMNH Archive Project.

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A recent book called, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg was recently brought to my attention by a posting from the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York which will be hosting a discussion group about it in early January.  The title of this post is lifted from the title of the introduction to the book which is a subject of much discussion within both the archival and historical communities. I very much look forward to spending some time with it because it seems particularly relevant to the issues that we’re encountering on an organizational level.  These issues require a more theoretical, conceptual overview of just how archivists’ work determines the kind of historical framework that inevitably result from decisions made during processing and archival description.

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While some are speculating that the Mayan calendar points to the end of the world in December 2012, others say it simply marks a milestone. Let’s consider it a new beginning.

The AMNH Archive Project archivists have ended their Hidden Collections era.  Becca Morgan is doing a project for the provost, reviewing the rights for images to be used for MorphoBank and she is also presently working at the Library of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Iris Lee is just about wrapping up her work in the AMNH Library archives and is currently engaged in some other very productive work to be announced shortly.

We have hope that they will both be able to return to continue their work with the AMNH Museum archives on a project that we have dubbed “Hidden Connections.”  Meanwhile, without any delay, three interns have begun working here this term, anticipating this next phase of the AMNH Archive Project. So we have set up this page on the Hidden Collections blog, called Hidden Connections.  Interns, Beth Turk, James Rodgers and Jessica Hope will post their observations  about the process of their work this term.  Note that postings have been delayed because of Super Storm Sandy but all posts to this blog dated November and beyond are part of this next phase of our work in the American Museum of Natural History Archives.

Each of the three students’ assignments vary slightly but the goal is to develop and document the process of creating authority records using the EAC-CPF standard with a particular emphasis on creating historical notes for selected Museum expeditions and, in some cases, biographical notes for those who participated on the expeditions.  Beth is a graduate student in Anthropology at Columbia University.  James is a graduate student in Museum Archives at N.Y.U. and Jessica has traveled here from Australia, where she is a graduate student in Museum Studies at the University of Sydney.

I will allow them to introduce themselves and their projects in greater detail  and will be adding some resources that we have in place that will, hopefully, aid the process. In order to track the development of our ongoing work, each student will be posting comments to the blog on the days they work.

One of the major topics that I hope that we can all reflect upon is the changing nature of archival description in a linked data world.  For example, with the widespread diffusion of contextual (biographical and historical) notes, recording the source of the information in the notes becomes extremely important.  And what is very much of interest here at the AMNH is how to–effectively and efficiently–gather these notes in a way that they might be re-purposed for other collections of the same provenance, since there is an enormous overlap among the archives in the Museum.  Doing this will save time, allow for consistency and best of all, allow for connections to be made among records for both museum collections and archives.

For example, imagine a researcher is working in the Ornithology Department with a bird specimen that was collected on the Whitney South Seas Expedition.  The researcher may wonder about the circumstances of how the bird was collected but can find no field notes in Ornithology.  However, on  the same day that the bird was collected, a herpetologist on the same expedition recorded the environment, for example, the location and the weather, in her field notes and might even have referenced the name of the scientist who collected the bird.  Without a reference to the Whitney Expedition and the  names of other scientists on that trip, the ornithologist would not know to look in the Herpetology Department for the notes.  We have minimal records, thanks to Becca and her interns’ work in the Science Departments, but if we can start matching the names of individuals who are documented to have been in the same place at the same time, (using the expedition data that we already have or can develop further–see the Resources page) a lot of additional information will become quickly available.  And imagine, with linked data, the connections will be made, in time, to collections outside the AMNH.  Many of the expeditions were collaborative and many of the scientists worked for other institutions as well as AMNH.

This might, admittedly, sound a bit overwhelming!  But by using a systematic approach to develop authority records for the names of the Museum expeditions and the names of those who participated in them, there is enormous potential for linking collection records for archives and collected objects, integrating and greatly expanding the research potential of all types of collections.

I just had a conversation today with Kristen Mable in the Anthropology Department Archives.  A researcher had called her for some biographical information about someone in the Department.  She had very little information and spent some time researching it.  She remarked how useful it would be to have that information on hand.  Once we have decided upon a centralized place to store and access these biographical notes, the work done ad hoc for researchers can be saved for the future.

Exciting times!

Check in over the next few weeks as the students start posting to the Hidden Collections blog and I add more resources to the Resource page.



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