Making Connections

by Iris Lee on

Library News

To quote one of the Museum’s renown residents: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” Thank you, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, for the humbling reminder that we are cosmically more than the sum of our parts. Our connections swell beyond the expanse of our universe.
Globular cluster, painting by Helmut Wimmer, [1970s]. AMNH Library - Image no. ptc-1334
Globular cluster, painting by Helmut Wimmer, [1970s]. AMNH Library - Image no. ptc-1334
Wimmer, Helmut K. (artist)

A large part of my work as the Cataloging and Metadata Librarian is to provide descriptions of the published and unpublished material we have available at the Research Library. No surprise there: we have a book, a journal, a set of photographs, a collection of manuscripts, a painting, a microscope that we want the public to know about – you can find it in our catalog. I am also responsible for making descriptions of creators available, primarily those that are associated with the Museum: personnel, expeditions, exhibitions, departments, and more. If you’ve ever found yourself in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you will appreciate the abundance of content linked in an intricate network of relationships.

I’m a far way from dealing with cosmic relationships to star dust – I’ve leave that to the astrophysicists! As an information specialist, and human being, I am driven by the connections among people, the things we’ve built, collected; the places we’ve worked and explored; the larger groups to which we belong. There are stories bound into every node of connection. For instance, you can trace a story beginning with a person, who went on expedition, whose research on the expedition was published and displayed for public exhibition, manifest in records from the department from which they worked and the artifacts they left behind.

Skeleton of Corythosaurus, Belly River beds, Alberta, Canada, 1912. AMNH Library - Image no. 18552
Skeleton of Corythosaurus, Belly River beds, Alberta, Canada, 1912. AMNH Library - Image no. 18552
Brown, Barnum (photographer)

While I don’t tell the stories that lie betwixt these connections, I do try to create the pathways behind the screen. Underpinning the content displayed for optimal reading consumption is a structured framework of metadata elements defining what groups of text represent. It is within these defined representations that connections can be rendered. It is the reason why Subject Headings in libraries narrow your search helping you find related books. It’s how you can browse lists by your favorite author. In the authority database, it’s how you can find out about the many exhibitions that were held in the now historic AMNH Corner Gallery.

It is a work in progress. The connections are only as strong as the information that is available; enriched records will result in more relationships. But I’m not alone in my efforts to create networks among creators of archival material. The Library was one of the inaugural members of SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context), an international cooperative that includes archives, libraries and museums that is working to “build a corpus of reliable descriptions of people, families, and organizations that link to and provide a contextual understanding of historical records.” (See: What is SNAC?)

The Library is one of several institutions contributing to this larger body of entities, appropriately called constellations in SNAC. The online resource supports descriptions from multiple sources, enriching a collective knowledge base and expanding connections. I may be working to make connections in the microcosm of the AMNH, but the cooperative network demonstrates how our work as librarians and archivists can be more than the sum of our parts.

Searching SNAC for distinguished anthropologist Margaret Mead, I can find details of her career and life within and outside of the AMNH. Archives related to Mead can be found in many institutions and she is directly associated with many individuals and other entities, as seen in the "Relationships" tab. Viewing her constellation in the "Connection Graph", you see a visualization of her network, with Mead at the center. Expanding out to a wider view, you see her connections branch out into their own constellations of relationships, revealing a potential for endless stories. This insightful perspective is only possible through the collective efforts of archivists, metadata specialists, technology developers and many others who have aided in enriching entity descriptions. It is satisfying to see cooperative work come together in this meaningful way, and I look forward to the ways in which it is used in future research.

This is the eighteenth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Iris Lee, Metadata and Cataloging Librarian.