Unlocking the Archive: Opening a World Wide Web of Opportunities

by Caitlin Ballotta, August 6, 2012

What a whirlwind summer this has been—in the best possible sense, of course!  Over the past 10 weeks, I have been interning in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks, working toward the creation of an online exhibit that will bring together three of ICFA’s archival collections.  Throughout the many phases of this project, I have learned so much from the dedicated archival team, and I would like take this opportunity to share a few of those lessons with you…

Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute

My internship began with a period of what can only be described as total immersion.  In an effort to familiarize myself with the life and work of Thomas Whittemore (1871 – 1950), the famed (and, from what I have gathered, quite unique) founder of the Byzantine Institute, I devoted my first few weeks to conducting research.  Poring over the contents of an array of acid-free boxes filled with Whittemore’s papers and effects, I entered each day into the world of the professor-archaeologist-jetsetter-philanthropist-socialite himself via a road paved with primary sources. Having read through a plenitude of colorful correspondence (to, from, and even about Whittemore), having examined the protagonist’s peculiar penmanship and cryptic style of note-taking, I can truly say that Mr. Whittemore and I have become more than mere acquaintances.  (Although I must admit that the conversation has been rather one-sided…)

The subsequent stages of my project put my newly-acquired knowledge of archival methodology to the test.  First, given the opportunity to process one of ICFA’s collections, I revised a finding aid, or a document that, once finalized, will serve as a road map of sorts for researchers—that will allow ICFA’s visitors to navigate box and folder contents with independence and ease.  (For more information concerning archival processing, please see my first blog post, “History:  The Story Starts with the ‘Stuff.’”)   Next, I commenced with digitization, making electronic copies of photographs and other visual materials from the collections for purposes of preservation and eventual dissemination to a wider audience via the Internet.  (For additional information about the process of digitization—including its many associated challenges, please take a look at my second blog post, “Digitization:  Handling the Past with Kid Gloves.”)

Summer interns examine materials from the Whittemore collection.

In preparation for the impending launch of the online exhibit, I recently gave a presentation for a group of fellows, staff members, and interns here at Dumbarton Oaks.  After leading listeners on an hour-long journey through Whittemore’s life and times, I set them loose to examine a selection of documents and visual media depicting the various facets of the legendary figure’s identity.  Able to flip through the very pages of history—the “stuff” from which Whittemore’s tale has been crafted, attendees in a sense “met” for themselves Whittemore the man as distinct from his retrospectively-hewn identity.

Narrating Whittemore’s life for a group of Dumbarton Oaks affiliates

Having the opportunity to engage with a “live” audience through my presentation has given me an even greater appreciation for the ways in which unlocking the archive and inviting individuals to interact with the past can enhance learning; that I will have the chance to reach an even larger viewership through the online exhibit I am designing, moreover, is incredible to consider.  I see a great deal of potential for increased discourse among academic institutions and members of the public—not to mention among scholars themselves—as more organizations embrace the trend toward the digital humanities.  While this rapidly-evolving technological age has certainly presented many challenges, it has further granted us numerous vehicles with which to “bridge the gap” between “then” and “now,” between “here” and “there.”  I am extremely excited to be a part of this movement, and I look forward to witnessing what the future will bring.

Fellows, interns, and staff study collection materials. Visitors to the upcoming online exhibit will soon have the opportunity to interact with ICFA’s holdings in much the same way.

About Me
I am a rising junior at Harvard College, and I am concentrating in English while pursuing a language citation in Spanish.  How did I become interested in archiving?  In part, I attribute my obsession to National Treasure.  However ridiculous it may sound, the movie’s protagonists showed me that history is a plotline that is just waiting to be uncovered, written, and perhaps even revised.

One thought on “Unlocking the Archive: Opening a World Wide Web of Opportunities

  1. Hi, just so you know, I am including Thomas Whittemore in my “Isabella Stweart Gardner and her Circle” Walking Tour this coming Sunday at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Whittemore is a fascinating guy, one of many such that Isabella collected in her lifetime.

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