An Interview with Jessica Richardson Smith, Museum Anthropologist and Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Jessica Richardson Smith is the Research Services Librarian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. She pursued three majors—Anthropology, Latin and Greek, and Geology for her Indiana University BA degree from the College of Arts and Sciences. While at Indiana, she used the museum practicum course in the Department of Anthropology to gain a range of experiences working in the Midwest Archaeological Laboratory. That work resulted in a published paper—Tools of the Trade: Chipped Lithic Assemblages from the Hovey Lake (12Po10) and Ries-Hasting (12Po590) Archaeological Sites, Posey County, Indiana (with Cheryl Ann Munson, Meredith B. McCabe and Dean J. Reed). She earned a master’s degree from the Department of Anthropology at the George Washington University and leads the Wymer’s DC project.
Jason Baird Jackson (JJ): Before we circle back and discuss your experiences at Indiana University and George Washington University, I’d love to begin by finding out about the mission of the Historical Society of Washington and your role there. What are your core responsibilities as a Research Service Librarian?
Jessica Richardson Smith (JRS): Sure! The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is a 122-year old educational and research institution that collects and shares the history of Washington, D.C., emphasizing the local community over the federal city. We are a team of seven who strive to produce diverse public programming and exhibitions, as well as public access to our collections. That’s where I come in as the Research Services Librarian. The core of the Historical Society is our research library which houses over 100,000 photographs, over 800 manuscript collections, and hundreds of maps, prints, and objects—all on D.C. history.
My day-to-day duties consist of working with researchers in our library to help them find the information they need. Whether they are writing a scholarly article or just bought a house and want to learn about its history and their new neighborhood, my job is to help facilitate their needs with what our library can offer. Another facet of my job is to know what the other repositories in the city have. If the Historical Society doesn’t have some piece of information, I want to know where I can direct them.
I love my job—I never do the same thing twice and each day I am learning more and more about this city, our collections, and our members. On any given day, I may meet members of our community and learn about their projects and passions, research a topic in our collection for a researcher working remotely, or help troubleshoot a long-shot research query that someone submits based on a decades-old memory. Every day is something new and every day is something interesting. The best part is when I can apply what I learn one day to a question we get the following week. That’s great. It makes you feel like you are making real headway into learning the complex history of a city like D.C.
Also, because we are a small institution with a big mission, my colleagues and I are expected to wear many hats. In addition to my librarian duties, I also participate in shaping our public programming and exhibitions; I conduct photo research for our publications; I digitize material and tackle rights assessment questions; and I track our library statistics. Each of these things are being juggled on a day-to-day basis, which can be demanding but also very fulfilling.
JJ: It sounds like you are in a sweet-spot in terms of scale. Your institution is big enough to be doing important, interesting work but small enough that you have not gotten trapped in a specialist silo in which you do only one task over and over again.
Washington is such an incredible place for museums, libraries, and archives. What is it like to work in a small-but-old museum/library in a city of large-but-old museums/libraries? Do you feel connected with GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museums) professionals around the city or, like many of our colleagues elsewhere, do the day-to-day demands of the job keep you from connecting to colleagues around the city?
JRS: I can’t speak for what it is like at other institutions, but I think we do a good job of collaborating with our fellow institutions in the city, particularly those with a local focus. The D.C. Public Library, National Archives, Library of Congress, National Building Museum, the newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—these are all institutions we work alongside and collaborate with in order to forward our mission of preserving local D.C. history.
As the Research Services Librarian, my daily duties are often intra-institution focused but I regularly refer our library patrons to other institutions around the city when we don’t have particular resources. While this means I don’t personally interact on a daily basis with my GLAM colleagues, there is mutual awareness of our work through referrals. At the Historical Society, our main collaboration with our GLAM colleagues is through joint public programming, from conference plenaries to archival fairs, workshops, exhibitions, etc.
JJ: I am especially glad to hear that you have not only pathways to connect with colleagues, but that your institution is well-situated enough to support, and to see the value in, outreach, research dissemination, and professional development activities like those you have just mentioned. One of my reasons for being interested in your connectedness to the cultural institutions of DC is that you were trained at the MA level there, at George Washington University. That institution has a unique advantage in that it trains students in a city with so many public collections and so many collections-oriented professionals. Before we turn to your undergraduate experiences at Indiana, could you describe your graduate studies? What did you study? What role did hands-on work play in your career?
JRS: From 2014 to 2016, I was in the MA program in the Anthropology Department of The George Washington University. The department offers several program concentrations— International Development, Museum Training, and Medical Anthropology. I chose Museum Training as my concentration so my coursework bridged traditional four field anthropology seminars and hands-on museum anthropology courses.
One of the reasons I chose to attend GWU was that they offer exceptional opportunities for hands-on courses and internships at other institutions across the city. I took methodological courses on preventive conservation, taught by a licensed conservator and former employee of Smithsonian’s American History, museum anthropology classes after hours at Smithsonian’s Natural History, taught by their anthropology curators, and I had a year-long internship with The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. These experiences, from my hands-on coursework to my internship, directly influenced my career path and subsequent employment by the Historical Society. In my museum anthropology course work we used case studies of community museums across the world to discuss the essential value of community engagement with material culture and the critical role that access to material plays in community engagement.
With this in mind, for my thesis project, I created an interactive map that took those museum anthropological concepts of more open access to material culture and community engagement and paired it with an historic image collection from the Historical Society. This was the creation of Wymer’s DC, an interactive map and research tool which contextualizes the John Wymer Photograph Collection through a geospatial lens. The impetus behind this project was to provide greater digital access to this valuable historic image collection and place it on a platform such as a map that might help the community better connect with the photographs.
The Wymer project has opened a lot of doors for me here in D.C. for future collaborations on this project as well as other digital humanities projects. From my academic trajectory starting at IU and continuing through my coursework, hands-on experiences, and internships at GWU, I have found a niche in D.C. history and digital projects that I am happy with.
JJ: Wow! I really want to explore Wymer’s DC with you, but first let’s follow the training through line. It sounds like you got a lot out of your masters experience in anthropology at George Washington. Do you feel like your undergraduate training at Indiana contributed to your efforts in graduate school and now? If so, what are some high points of your IU work? Along the way, could you explain your major and other aspects of your studies?
JRS: IU was an incredibly fruitful place for me and absolutely contributed to where I am now. I graduated in 2014 with a BA in Anthropology, Latin and Greek, and Geology. What I love so much about my experience at IU was the opportunity to explore so many academic fields. I always knew I would be pursuing Anthropology as my career path, and Geology was very connected to that. I had taken Latin during high school and wanted to continue throughout college. When I added Greek, I suddenly have enough courses to make it a major. Before I knew it, I had three majors. While the work load was heavy, I don’t regret any part of my experience there.
During my summers at IU, I pursued paleo-anthropological field work, going to Africa twice for field schools (once to South Africa in 2011, and once to Tanzania in 2013). Those experiences were definitely hands-on and some of the best times of my life. There is a wonderful camaraderie that develops in the field and I am still friends with many of the folks that I met on those trips.
From 2012 – 2014, I volunteered at the Midwest Archaeology Laboratory (MAL) under Cheryl Ann Munson who was my mentor at IU. At her lab, I worked on late-Mississippian archaeological material and was exposed to the rigor of working in a lab and taught processing techniques I wouldn’t have learned from coursework. Without the work I did with Cheryl and the hands-on experience I gained in her lab, I certainly would not be in the position I am today. It was a very gratifying experience to be part of a lab where our work was valued and it gave me a confidence in my skills that I carried throughout my graduate studies.
JJ: I am glad that your IU experiences were so rich. Earning three majors is certainly impressive! When you worked in The Midwest Archaeology Laboratory were you taking the museum practicum course in Anthropology? Illustrating the impact of that course, and cognate courses around the College and campus, is one of the reasons why I have been doing these interviews. If you have any particular thoughts on practicum courses and internships that would help us strengthen such programs at IU, I would certainly welcome them.
JRS: Yes, I was at MAL for four semesters—the first as a volunteer, two for museum practicum, and the last as an intern supported by the Hutton Honors College Undergraduate Pre-Professional Experience Internship Grant. My experience with the museum practicum courses was great and I would recommend the course to any undergraduate. Additionally, the Hutton Honors College grant I received funded my work at MAL for the last semester and also covered the costs associated with my undergraduate honors thesis. I would encourage students to explore their options and find a museum or repository that interests them and take advantage of practicum courses or grants that support their time.
JJ: Thanks for this additional detail on your move from volunteer, to practicum student, to funded intern. Having made a number of recent improvements to our practicum program at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, we are preparing to launch a paid internship program aimed especially at students who want to go further than their practicum alone will allow.
I hope that we can return now to the digital humanities project that you did for your thesis at GWU. Wymer’s DC seems every impressive and to integrate a number of kinds of data and technologies. Could you explain the background to the project and what you think it is teaching you about the state of digital projects in the cultural sector? Did you get a lot of training for such work along the way or did you teach yourself? What would you say to a student interested in pursuing digital humanities/digital social science work along these lines?
JRS: Thanks for your kind words, Jason. Wymer’s DC is a digital mapping project that started as part of my thesis, but it has grown to have a life outside of that. It is named for the historic image collection is uses—the John P. Wymer Photograph Collection from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
This collection is unique among its peers in that it is a collection of 4,000 images from 1948-1952 that systematically documented all of Washington, D.C. through street photography. It is rare to have a collection that illustrates what the entire city was like, not just specific neighborhoods or certain types of buildings. The Wymer collection is invaluable as a resource because it covers everything from residential and commercial spaces to parks and government buildings.
At the Historical Society, we describe the collection to researchers as “Google Street View before there was Google Street View.” And one day, it just clicked and I realized that someone ought to put the Wymer images on a digital map, not only because that would help researchers better visualize the collection but also because it would make the images far more accessible.
I searched for examples of mapped image collections in order to understand what previous researchers have done, the aesthetic they used, the software they employed, its usability as a research tool, etc. I certainly do not have the programming skills to do a project like this myself. I collaborated with Thomas Smith, software engineer, and we worked together to design a map interface that we thought would make a successful research tool.
Thomas and I designed the features of the site and then he worked his programming magic and made our vision come alive. It was then my job to manually find the exact location of each Wymer image on Google Street View, trying to match the angle and position as closely as possible. This was hundreds of hours of work for us and we aren’t finished yet.
While we did look at existing mapping models (ex: A, B, C), the software used in the site is created by us. We made it open source and freely available so that other people can make similar maps with their image collections. My hope is that more and more historic image collections will be mapped like this as they get digitized.
In the feedback I’ve received from researchers and colleagues, everyone has been very supportive of our efforts and excited to see this type of map expand into collections of different time ranges. Many colleagues from other institutions around the city have said that they have discussed similar projects but it has never taken off. Why? I think it is because this type of project is incredibly labor intensive and local institutions don’t have the budget to accommodate a non-essential project that takes hundreds of hours of staff time.
My advice to anyone interested in pursuing digital humanities projects: build strong ties with cultural institutions. Without my existing connection with the Historical Society, I wouldn’t have been granted such extensive access to their collection. It takes a big leap of faith to provide thousands of high resolution scans of rights-protected images to a researcher and trust them to use them appropriately.
JJ: That is a great overview of an exciting project. We have photographs from Bloomington, IN that could be presented in a similar way. I look forward to studying the project in detail in the future. For now, let’s conclude our discussion of it with the question that always arises in connection with impressive digital humanities projects of this sort. From the website I see that it is a partnership project with your employer but not a fully integrated project of the institution. What are your thoughts on sustainability and the future? Will you keep running it into the far future or are their plans to make it more of an institutional project? There are pros and cons to both, of course.
JRS: Yes, that is a question I get asked frequently. When the site was created, I was not employed by the Historical Society and their participation in this project was to provide high resolution scans of the images and grant permission to use them. At this time, there are no plans to transfer control of Wymer’s DC over to them. The site is relatively inexpensive to run and Thomas and I are invested in making this a lasting project. Furthermore, at this time the Historical Society does not have the staff time or money to dedicate to this type of project.
That said, Wymer’s DC is mutually beneficial to both the Historical Society and myself. I was able to use their images to create this website and, in exchange, they now have an interactive map for one of their flagship collections which can be used in their programming.
JJ: It will be great to see where you and your partners go with this great project. It will also be interesting to see what new endeavors it inspires around the world.
Thank you Jessica for sharing inspiring stories with me. I wish you well in your great professional endeavors.