Website Review

Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS)

The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) provides access through its Collections Search Center to over 2.3 million records, with 290,000 images, video and sound files from Smithsonian museums, archives, and libraries. More than 10 percent relate to children and youth.

The search engine, designed for researchers rather than the casual browser, is powerful and well organized, allowing both quick access to the collections and an overview of types of media. As this image shows, a user can limit the items by clicking + or –. The number of each item appears in parentheses.

Three searches are representative of the material on children and youth. "Children" results in more than 23,000 hits, including photographs and negatives, sculptures, paintings, advertisements, video, sound recordings and texts.

"Boy" returned 16455 documents, "girl" 20221, and "youth" returned 3005. Some of the results are not associated with images but refer to cataloguing data from a museum, library, or collection. Some of the thumbnail images can be magnified, while others cannot.

The terms tested above returned anything titled, tagged, or captioned with one of the keywords, or in the case of books, where the word appears in the table of contents or summaries. Much of the material on children included photographs from the late 1800s to the present, most of which are not associated with much information as to provenance or subject.

Quite a number of the photographs belong to collections of anthropological studies in various parts of the world. Such collections can be researched further under the photographer's name. Such collections would likely appear in books and articles on the subject.

A number of materials are related to soap advertisements – Ivory, Pears, Breck shampoo, and other brands. This material consists of line drawings, advertisements in magazines, trade cards and booklets. Much about the 19th- and 20th-century culture of childhood and motherhood can be learned from these images and texts. A particularly striking advertisement warns the reader that it is very difficult to find anything as pure, and features a stern patriarch leaning over to inspect socks and stacked laundry that his daughter or servant holds timidly.

These ads took it upon themselves to educate mothers on raising their children, as well as capitalizing on images of sublime motherhood embedded in domestic scenes. On the other hand, an embossed paper Pears' advertising card called "You Dirty Boy" features a buxom, no-nonsense woman roughly cleaning the ears of a chagrinned little boy over a basin. Dreamy, out-of-focus images of blond, blue-eyed Breck girls recall ideals of female beauty from only a few decades ago.

Searching large archives using keywords related to children often brings up surprising items. Children, for example, are frequent subjects of outdoor sculpture, being featured as fountains, as symbols of the virtues, and as capricious traditional bronzes, such as the large, multi-figure statue of the game called "Crack the Whip" by J. Seward Johnson, Jr. Other items include paintings of children, sound recordings of children's songs, songs about children, toys, and ethnographic arts from the National Museum of the American Indian, such as a collection of beaded balls that were fashioned by young girls for eligible young men to whom they were betrothed.

How to Cite This Source

"Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #452, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/452 (accessed April 21, 2014).

The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) provides access through its Collections Search Center to over 2.3 million records, with 290,000 images, video and sound files from Smithsonian museums, archives, and libraries. More than 10 percent relate to children and youth.