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Diving into the Zoological Gardens and Aquariums Ephemera Collection

The Zoological Gardens and Aquariums Ephemera Collection began as an all-call for interesting memorabilia relating to zoos, aquariums, gardens, or the societies that support such institutions. Many items were received, cataloged, and filed in cabinets located in the former library space at the National Zoological Park (Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC). A previous attempt was made to rehouse, organize, and digitize parts of the collection, but the project was left incomplete. The collection was eventually moved to the National Museum of Natural History Library so that the items could be properly archived and stored.

“Illustrated Guide and Catalogue of Woodward’s Gardens” (1873), bearing signature of Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway.

When I arrived at the Natural History Library’s main location at the beginning of the summer of 2023 for my internship, I got my first look at the Zoological Gardens and Aquariums Ephemera Collection. After performing a short survey assessment of the collection, my supervisor Bonnie Felts and I came up with a game plan to rehouse and document the collection. During our discussion, we decided that our end goal for the project was to conserve as many of the items as possible and make them discoverable for future research.

View-Master reel for the San Diego Zoo.

I found that the collection included a wide variety of diverse pieces from various time periods. While some items do not have a date included on the object, the collection appears to range from about 1873 to 2008 according to the items that do have dates listed. The objects in the collection are mainly guidebooks, maps, pamphlets, postcards, and reports, but there are also disparate items such as stickers, coloring books, and view master slides. As I went through the collection, it was interesting to review the objects that people thought important enough to save. Some of these items are over a hundred years old and represent a piece of history not only to the Smithsonian, but to the people who spent time at these institutions.

“Popular Official Guide to the New York Zoological Park” in a new enclosure.

As someone who is just stepping foot into the library and archives space, it was an incredible learning experience to be able to work with this collection. It was empowering to take part in the hands-on work of rehousing the collection mainly because it was a collaborative experience. Instead of being given a concrete task list, my supervisor was open to my input on how best to conserve and house the various objects in the collection. We worked together to create a system not only to rehouse the items, but to make sure those items were able to be found later in our finding aid. My favorite piece of the rehousing process of the internship was learning how to make a four-flap enclosure for some of the larger delicate artifacts. The hands-on learning of rehousing the collection into archival mylar, folders, and boxes, along with the creation of the finding aid and four-flap enclosures are skills that I will be able to take with me into the next steps of my career.

“10 Miniature Cards of Florida’s Gulfairum in Color” from Fort Walton, Florida.

Overall, my experience with my Smithsonian Library and Archives internship was incredibly informative. Not only were the skills that I learned important, but the experience of working in a library or archive space was key to my educational growth. Through the internship I gained introspection that this was the correct step for my future and my career. Having this opportunity and space to learn and grow gave me incredible insight into how important these spaces are for future generations and why I want to be a part of them.

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