|Photo by Jennifer Wright, 2009.|
Over spring break, I took a tour of the Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian Institution Archives is where the Smithsonian houses the records relating to the documentation of the institution itself. The location in Washington D.C. is more of a staging area for processing and sending requested records than a long-term storage location. The Smithsonian has several larger locations in Pennsylvania for long-term storage. The materials that are permanently stored in the D.C. location are the materials that are too delicate to be moved over long distances. The D.C. building the Smithsonian Institution Archives is housed in is actually new. The Archives moved in 2006; they were the first tenants of this building, and were able to negotiate the creation of certain rooms to fit their needs.
Upon walking into the D.C. location, there are several viewing rooms for material: a larger well-lit room for paper material and several smaller rooms set up for viewing audio-visual material. Walking into the back end, one of the first rooms of note is the room where paper records of all the activities of the Smithsonian Institution Archives are held. Appraisal and description decisions made by the Archives are held in this room in paper form. Moving further back, there are rooms set up for processing and description of materials. Here archivists and interns work to describe the incoming accessions from the various Smithsonian branches. These processing rooms are mainly for the description and arrangement of physical documentation; the electronic documentation is worked on in another room. The electronic records processing is done by coordinating between electronic records specialists and the other archivists stationed at the D.C. office. In the AV preservation room are most analog recording devices known to man hooked up to a digital system that will create five different copies varying in amount of compression: the most compressed files being the access copy distributed to the public to the least compressed files that will be stored as a master copy. If the physical medium is too degraded, the archivists will flag it for the digital archives specialist to take a look at it.
Further back in the archive, there are stacks that serve several functions. First there is a system set in place for the material that cannot be moved to another location. When the Archives moved in 2006, most of the free space was immediately taken by materials that could only be stored at the D.C. location. Within these stacks there is also a cold storage vault for delicate materials that need to be stored in colder temperatures. Several sections of the stacks serve another function however. They act as a holding location for both newly accessioned material and material that has been requested by researchers. The newly accessioned material is then sent through processing and then eventual storage, and the material requested by researchers is then pulled for researchers to view in the viewing rooms. Finally, there is the conservation laboratory.
The laboratory is well stocked with most equipment necessary for the conservation of any kind of material. There is a chamber that allows no humidity as well as stations set up for conservators to create their own mixtures to fit materials. The system that determines what materials have the most need of conservation takes into account notes made by archivists and researchers who will flag materials along with various standards set in place by the system. This covers the majority of the D.C. location for the Smithsonian Institutional Archives. The Archives realized there were too many documents to store in a single location, and therefore turned the D.C. location into a place for processing and viewing of documentation while the larger bulk of the materials was stored in Pennsylvania.
This post was contributed by Matthew Cresson, an MSLS student concentrating in archives and records management. Matt volunteers with the Paul Green Foundation and is Vice President of the Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists.