Texas Parks Internship Report
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) oversees and protects wildlife and state parks. Within the TPWD, the curatorial department cares for the historical records and artifacts gathered at or around the state parks. While the majority of the TPWD offices are near the Austin-Bergstrom airport, the curatorial and archaeological departments are in a secondary location off Airport Commerce, since they need access to a warehouse to house their artifacts. The curatorial department’s work entails carefully labeling the document; photo; or artifact; taking pictures of it, and then entering the pictures and any pertinent information about the object into Re:Discovery, the local database. In addition, they also restore or, if the artifact is simple enough, make replicas of objects used in displays or in recreations of homesteads or ranches. For example, my supervisor, Sally Baulch, spent some time sewing curtains for an 1850’s ranch home, and mentioned replicas of leather belts lent to an employee’s childs’ school play for “natural wear and tear.”
Because of the large number of state parks Texas has and the amount of historical sites, there are thousands of entries in Re:Discovery. This database contains all important information about an artifact, including subject material, title (if applicable), size, and condition. Each item is labeled with an accession number providing the year it was donated, followed by the collection number and the number of the individual item. For example, in a collection of marketing photos taken between the 1950’s and 1970’s, the year it was transferred to the curatorial division was 2016, the collection was 24, and there were about 204 individual photos to be labeled and scanned. These entries can then be searched by their accession number, and can be edited if the condition of the item is changed at all.
Recently, work has begun to move the collections from Re:Discovery to Portfolio, an online database that will allow all state parks in Texas to access the archive records, instead of having to send a representative to Austin to physically search for the collection and items they wish to see. Re:Discovery, unfortunately, is over a decade old and can abruptly crash, which is one of the reasons behind the decision to move to Portfolio. Some days it would crash more than once, or give a “permissions” error, but rarely was any work lost. Portfolio is also the curatorial department’s attempt at building an outward facing image; even though the archive records have always been available to the public, few people know that it is. According to Sally Baulch, not even many state parks’ employees know they can request information from the curatorial department; and even if they did, it could be potentially difficult to gain access as previously stated. While I did get to work with Portfolio and learn how to use the program in its beta form, I only moved over two collections: one regarding the Kreische Brewery, and a smaller portion of the Barton Warnock Herbarium collection. The Kreische collection was a test to see how pictures were uploaded and what quality we could expect them to be, and the second was to test whether or not metadata attached to the local file of the photo would be transferred when it was uploaded.
Because there are many different collections from such a long span of time and covering so many subjects, no one in the curatorial department is doing the same thing for very long; often larger projects are set aside to finish smaller ones and then picked up again later. The curatorial department proper has three current employees, though the Buffalo Soldier Program works in the same area; and, while claims of being understaffed were never made, they could certainly achieve more with a larger amount of volunteers and interns. This would allow for the full-time staff members to work for longer on larger or more important projects, while volunteers take over scanning and digitizing photos or artifacts as well as entering them into Re:Discovery or Portfolio. This is what I was doing during my internship; helping ease the workload from the archivists while learning how to follow their career.
Working with these collections provided me with a general learning experience; some days knowing how to read 20th century script is the most important, while others it was being able to identify objects in old photos that have yellowed or degraded. The first collection I worked with—a box of letters from the Penn family who that owned a ranch near Dallas and eventually sold it to be made into what is now Cedar Hill state park—was already labeled with the accession numbers but hadn’t been added to the database. However, because the Kreische Brewery photos had already been catalogued in Re:Discovery, there was little I could add to the documentation, unlike with the marketing photos or the Penn letters. There was, however, one picture from the Kreische family that I found had pencil drawn over the eyebrows, either as a prank or by the woman herself in an attempt to make her eyebrows more prominent. I say that she may have done it herself because the pencil lines were done carefully, and not in a way that suggested a devious intent. Things like this, when noticed, can be added to ReDiscovery or Portfolio in the description section.
Because the digital images are just as important as the textual information in the database record, it’s vital to have at least basic Photoshop or photo editing skills; cropping, lightening or darkening shadows, adjusting contrast, and adding the accession number must be done for each image. It is useful for interns to come in knowing the basics of programs like Photoshop, since otherwise there could be a potentially steep learning curve. It’s also important to know that the quality of the photo or scan is the priority; the more a photo is edited, the more it could potentially lose. For example, to preserve the “truest” image, letters are usually not scanned, unless the ink is too faded, because the scanner often attempts to auto-correct the tone of paper, especially when it is brown or has yellowed.
Working in the curatorial department may have had a learning curve, but what can sound like an arduous process in the beginning doesn’t stay that way for long. In addition to entering the Penn letters and the marketing photos to Re:Discovery and the Kreische Brewery photos and Barton Warnock Herbarium, I also helped the neighboring archeology department by scanning and uploading several dig site reports from the late 1980’s and 90’s from the Lake Whitney State Park, including a report on racial history and relations in the area. The scope of just two of the departments that make up Texas Parks is enormous, but everything done produces tangible accomplishments and results.