Big Shoes to Fill: The Archives of American Gardens’ Digital Footprint
While October is American Archives Month, the Archives of American Gardens (managed by Smithsonian Gardens) celebrates the importance of archives year-round!
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, staff who manage Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens (AAG) have been primarily teleworking from home. Despite the fact that they have not been able to access the many AAG collections on a daily basis as they did pre-pandemic, they have a far-reaching digitization program to thank for enabling them to continue on with their duties without a major hitch.
The Archives of American Gardens is one of three collections managed by Smithsonian Gardens; the other two are the Living Plant Collections and the Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. AAG collects, preserves, and provides access to images and records that document the history of gardens in the U.S. In this way, AAG shines a spotlight on America’s rich garden heritage so that it can be better understood, appreciated, and enjoyed today and in the future.
AAG’s dozens of archival collections document the work of everyday gardeners and professional landscape architects alike. Over 10,000 historic and contemporary gardens across the U.S. are documented in the Archives, some with just a handful of images and others in great detail with years of journals, planting lists, and correspondence that chart their evolution.
So what has the last year and a half looked like for AAG? A link on the Smithsonian’s Digital Volunteers page to AAG’s Mystery Gardens project resulted in an avalanche of possible ID’s supplied by virtual volunteers for unidentified gardens in the Archives. A batch of contest letters from 1915 in the W. Atlee Burpee Co. Records uploaded onto the Smithsonian Transcription Center were snapped up in no time by digital volunteers who deciphered and transcribed the century-old handwritten letters so that they can now be searched easily online.
Since the early 1990s, AAG has digitized portions of its collections and uploaded the documentation online so that it is readily available to anyone looking for information about a particular garden, garden style, or even design inspiration. AAG’s earliest forays into digitization paved the way to today’s robust digitization program that enables online audiences to peruse tens of thousands of high-quality garden images. The Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA) serves as the gateway to these digital gems.
Smithsonian Gardens’ staff has made excellent use of the AAG collections online in SG’s many social media posts. Whether it’s an image of a backyard vegetable garden or an example of the work of a pioneering woman landscape designer, odds are that AAG has something online to fit the bill.
As of summer 2021, all of AAG’s digital resources are available in the Smithsonian Learning Lab, an ‘online universe’ of Smithsonian collections where anyone can choose from among the millions of Smithsonian digital assets currently available to ‘curate’ their own collection or develop educational lessons. Working remotely, a ‘virtual’ intern at AAG this summer was able to develop an LL module about wartime gardens using digital assets from AAG as well as other SI units.
Probably the most important role played by AAG’s digitized collections these past eighteen months has been to answer many of the 250+ research queries directed each year to the Archives of American Gardens. Researchers have been able to find AAG images online and used them in everything from books and newspaper and magazine articles to historic landscape surveys and Zoom presentations. Thanks to AAG documentation available online, garden lovers, writers, scholars, students, and even genealogists have been able to have their one-of-a-kind questions answered.
One monkey wrench the pandemic has thrown at AAG is that large scale digitization projects have been put on hold for the time being. These days, AAG staff visit the office intermittently to digitize ‘on demand’ in response to research requests that come into the Archives from people seeking garden images that are not yet available online. Teleworking from home, though, has provided AAG staff an excellent opportunity to catch up on cataloging projects. It’s one thing to digitize thousands of images and upload them to SOVA; it’s another thing to describe (or catalog) them so that people can find what they are looking for quickly and easily. Thanks to help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, National Collections Program, and Libraries and Archives System Support Branch, AAG has been able to add significant informational value to its digitized collections by augmenting online records with descriptions and search terms that provide essential ‘breadcrumbs’ for researchers to find.
While staffers at the Archives of American Gardens very much look forward to the time when they are back in the office and accessing the AAG collections on a daily basis, they are grateful for the digital investment the Smithsonian has made which has enabled so many of its collections to be shared across the world.
Once accessible only to on-site researchers, AAG’s thousands of fragile glass lantern slides from the early 20th century have all been digitized and are readily available on the Smithsonian’s online catalog, SOVA.