As director of the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Archives, Pam Henson is the keeper of American history at the points where it intersects with the Smithsonian’s history. The archives include financial records, photographs, portraits, blueprints, newspaper clippings, and thousands of pieces of correspondence, including Wilbur Wright’s first letter to the Smithsonian. “Institutional history” is a rather cold term for what Pam finds in these primary sources—an intimate understanding of people who have been involved with the institution.
“The Wright letter is physically revealing,” she said. “The letterhead shows that they were not at an engineering firm. They were in a bicycle shop. You see that they were fairly modest in the way they present themselves. You get that, their quietness and modesty, but also their seriousness of purpose. They were systematically going about things. They were going to the experts first. It conveys exactly where they were at that point in time.”
Pam spoke to us in the week after the Columbia disaster. In the television coverage, she recognized the kind of inchoate history that is in the first newspaper reports of the Wrights’ historic flight.
“There were the speculations that very quickly disappear,” she said of the Columbia story. “Can this be terrorism? That was a silly kind of speculation. Then you heard things that sounded like rumor but might turn out to be very important. A reporter had heard of someone in California who saw debris. At first this seemed unlikely, but it turned out to be a Cal Tech astronomer. This evidence might show exactly where the failure began.”
As Pam sees it, newspapers occupy a “gray area” between primary and secondary sources. A firsthand account of an event in a newspaper article is a primary source; a reporter’s synthesis of information is a secondary source.
“It’s a matter of who’s saying it,” she said. “It’s instinctive for us to go to the people who actually experienced an event. Think of the questions that are asked in court. Were you an eyewitness? Is this hearsay? Those are good analytical terms for students to use.”
The complete text of Wilbur’s letter is online at the Smithsonian Archives website.