PACSCL Spotlight: Amplifying BIPOC Voices in the Field
An interview with Synatra Smith
What is your role?
CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for African American Studies at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a nutshell, I do very cool techy things with Black history, specifically Wikidata, photogrammetry, and (eventually) augmented reality and virtual reality.
How did you get into the field?
I started volunteering at a small, local Black museum after completing my Ph.D. program in anthropology just to see if it would be a good fit professionally. I was offered a position in the education department by the end of the summer. I worked in that department for about three-and-a-half years, as well as in programs, collections, outreach, etc. At the end of 2019, I applied for my current postdoctoral fellowship and got it! I was told that my museum experience really helped my application since I would be the first CLIR fellow at an art museum instead of an academic library.
What is your favorite collection item at your institution? What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across while working in GLAM institutions?
The Malcolm X Steles by Barbara Chase-Riboud. I haven’t seen them in person yet but they look amazing on the website.
Tell us about your experience in the library field?
I’ve been working in the library field for about a year, and I’m really enjoying it. My fellowship is such an amazing learning opportunity where I can immediately apply the new skills I’m learning on the job (e.g. Wikidata editing, photogrammetry, 3D modeling). My fellowship also allows me to work on my own research on Fridays, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with a few of my colleagues in other parts of the country on some very interesting research and speculative projects.
Please highlight any projects related to BIPOC art, history, and culture that you are working on.
I am working on quite a few projects. One is to research Black artists with work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection to update their Wikidata pages. Another is to use photogrammetry to create 3D models of public art created by Black sculptors and muralists, which will be curated into a 3D story map using ArcGIS. Basically, I take a couple hundred photos of a statue at as many angles as possible and use software to stitch everything together and make a 3D model, which I then pull into another program to clean up any areas I wasn’t able to photograph. I’m also working on a research project with a colleague in Houston for the HBCU Library Alliance and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). We have interviewed staff at five HBCU libraries about their capacity and needs related to accessing their collections.
How do you think your experience as BIPOC influences your work as GLAM professional?
I am both personally and professionally invested in researching and highlighting Black artists and scholars. I used to work at a Black institution with an all BIPOC staff, most of whom were Black, and now I work at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). But I have maintained my commitment to focusing exclusively on Black art, history, and culture.
If you weren’t a librarian or archivist what would you want to be?
If I didn’t work in GLAM I’d work in education.
What do you wish more people knew about your job?
That a lot of the tools used for working with 3D objects are free or very cheap. The main thing is to just have a great device that can handle all of your processing needs. Wikidata is an open-source tool. Blender (3D modeling software) is free with tons of tutorials on YouTube. Agisoft Metashape (the software that stitches photos together to create models for photogrammetry) was about $60 for an individual educational license. ArcGIS is probably the most expensive software I use at $100 per year. Still very affordable, all things considered.
If you could give advice to emerging professionals, what would it be?
Networking is key! I’ve somehow been fortunate enough to land myself in an ideal networking space through CLIR. I find out about all kinds of opportunities, paid and unpaid, through newsletters and just being active in any opportunities to meet with past fellows. Same goes for my experience coming to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Temple University Libraries. I try to make my interests known so that people can share relevant opportunities with me.
What are you currently reading or listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of 1970s Afrobeat music while I work.
What are three things you enjoy outside of work?
Sewing, indoor gardening, reading books written by Black women.
Where would you like to go on a dream vacation?
Johannesburg for Afropunk
What have you always wanted to try but never have?
You’re happiest when…
The sun is shining. I’m a summer baby and the sun is my “ruling planet” as a Leo, so being in the sunshine really just charges me up and lifts my mood all on its own.