Archives and Audiences: Susan Smith, National Postal Museum Smithsonian Institution

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Career Member Kristi Chanda interviews Susan Smith. Dr.  Smith, Winton M. Blount Research Chair for the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, discusses the museum’s archival holdings and her role in supporting research in postal history. 

KBC: What is the overall mission of your institution? 

SNS: The mission of the Smithsonian is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Within this framework, the role of the National Postal Museum is to preserve, study and present postal history and philately. More specifically, the museum’s mission states that “Through the preservation and interpretation of our postal and philatelic collections, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum educates, challenges, and inspires its audiences on the breadth of American experiences.” 

KBC: What are your current goals and how will hiring an archivist help achieve these goals?

SNS: My job as the Winton M. Blount Research Chair is to enable and support research in the fields of philately and postal history. This involves research conducted by the staff of the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian as well as by researchers from around the world. In order to more effectively promote the scholarship related to the museum’s mission, I am working to make the museum’s archival holdings more accessible while expanding their depth and breadth. Although I am not an archivist, I am a historian with a tremendous appreciation of archives born of my own experiences as a researcher. Moreover, and more importantly, discussions with staff and external researchers have made evident the ways in which we could improve how we support the development of the philatelic and historical fields. The materials held by the museum are varied in type and include personal papers, citizens’ letters to postal officials, interviews, logbooks, airmail contract cards, print and digital photographs, postal forms, postal registers and ledgers, blueprints, and stamp production designs. These and other materials are housed in several different spaces. Museum staff continue to be offered intriguing potential donations but have been reluctant to accept them for the lack of an established space and system of categorization. 

The challenges we face limit access to materials that would enable historians to examine broad and diverse topics. These range from philately as a very popular hobby to the state-sponsored design and iconography of stamps from around the world; cultures of letter-writing; the development of domestic and international business ties and practices; America’s expansion, with new post offices marking the arrival of the federal government and potential markets for industries that built upon as well as supplied the postal system; the role of the Postal Service in creating and breaking employment barriers based on race and gender; and the bureaucratic, labor and business practices and problems in an organization which, at its peak in 1999, had nearly 800,000 employees spread throughout the United States and its territories. There is potential to create and communicate knowledge about these subjects, but we have to unlock the sources by locating, acquiring, preserving, and organizing the material to be searchable and findable. And we haven’t forgotten that we must also do these things as we begin to collect the born-digital material that will enable us to document the operations and innovations of the modern Postal Service, stamp design, and mailing industries. The museum is working to hire an archivist who will help us define the intellectual framework that will both improve access and respond to trends in the fields that intersect with philately and postal history.

KBC: In what ways are you advocating for archiving in your institution?

SNS: Smithsonian staff are fortunate to be able to compete for funds from the Smithsonian’s Women’s Committee to undertake projects that provide greater access to Smithsonian collections. I successfully applied for funds to hire an archival contractor to survey the materials and establish the scale of the work to be done. My colleagues in the curatorial and collections departments and the librarian shared their extensive institutional knowledge with the contractor, and archivists in other units shared insights. When pandemic protocol finally allowed limited access to collections, the contractor was able to examine some of the materials. She provided a blueprint for steps to be taken to realize intellectual and organizational frameworks and to create the policies necessary for an accessible archive, producing an excellent starting point for the museum’s future archivist.

KBC: What lessons can be learned from your experience?

SNS: I have loved working in archives, but not every person who works at, interacts with, or is a stakeholder in the museum has had the same experiences. In advocating for the development of a formal archive at the museum, I have had to learn how to speak with internal and external stakeholders about the differences between museum and archival practices and functions. The response has been overwhelmingly favorable because of the shared goals to improve and advance access and use of the materials for all. I imagine that the lesson that can be learned from my experience is a common and essential one: keep in mind the people who must be involved to make an archive possible, accessible, and successful, and work with them early and consistently.