A question I'm often asked as an archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian is, “How do I find what I’m looking for, and once I find it, how do I access it?” The Smithsonian is one of the world’s largest repositories of primary sources, with archival holdings measuring somewhere in the area of 137,000 cubic feet, spread across 14 museums and other research centers within the institution. These amazing resources include letters, journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and sound and video recordings, with subjects ranging from art and culture to science and technology. The scope can make searching for specific information a daunting task. Luckily, Smithsonian archivists have been hard at work making it easier to find the material you are looking for, and making it increasingly possible to view a digital version of the letter, field notebook, or photograph in question.
In October 2015 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). This online interface provides access to archival finding aids—inventory lists that provide context and detail to the many pieces that can make up a collection. Currently the NMAI Archive Center has 101 archival collection records, including photographic, paper, and media collections, available via the SOVA. Of these 101 records, 28 collections have full finding aids.
You can browse the SOVA by Smithsonian unit, making it easier to focus your search on NMAI’s archival holdings specifically.
If there is digitized content available within a collection, a symbol will appear in your search results next to the collection name.
The papers of the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles (1840–1928)—the husband of Indian rights writer and orator Susette Bright Eyes LaFlesche (Omaha) and a progressive figure in his own right—are one example of a fully digitized collection now available online. You can browse the full collection here.
One of the museum’s largest archival collections is the records of our predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York City. The MAI records include collectors' field notebooks, catalog lists, and expedition records, as well as exhibition and organizational files. (For a more in-depth look into what this massive collection holds, take a peek at the earlier blog post Finding Treasure in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records.)
As many of you may know, in 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MAI. As a part of a year-long anniversary celebration, every month the Archive Center is putting new digitized content from the MAI records up on the SOVA. These records will be accompanied by stories from the 100-year history of the MAI. As our first offering the Archive Center has made available the MAI’s annual reports from 1917 to 1989. These annual reports give a keen insight into the activities of the museum from its earliest days up until it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution.
The MAI annual reports offer an great opportunity to learn about conducting research using the SOVA. For instance, say you want to know what expeditions the museum funded in 1924. You can easily find this information by following the digitized content boxes in the MAI finding aid to the Publications Series:
You can then select the annual report folder you're interested in. If you're looking for 1924, you’ll want to click on Folder 2.
You can then browse through the annual reports until you find 1924.
The annual reports are just one of the many treasures among the MAI records. Make sure to check back with us every month for new and exciting stories from the archives!
—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center