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.

Digitization: Handling the Past with Kid Gloves

by Caitlin Ballotta, July 19, 2012

I am currently in the digitization phase of my summer project here in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks.  (For a bit more information concerning the online exhibit I am designing, take a look at my previous blog post, “History:  The Story Starts with the ‘Stuff.’”)  Having devoted the past few weeks to producing electronic copies of photographic prints from several of ICFA’s collections, I have come to realize that converting the physical to the virtual is both an art and a science.

Unaltered photograph (before cropping) revealing negative decay

You see, the initial aim of archival digitization is to produce (as far as is possible) an exact replica of the collection item—to create, in this case, an electronic “original” that reflects the true state of the print photograph. Thus, be there inexplicable blotches and blobs, misshapen borders, or grainy patterns, my job is to capture them all. Before you begin to feel too disappointed, though, let me assure you that these are not the files that will ultimately appear online; the unaltered versions exist for documentation purposes and further serve as backup files (just in case The Unspeakable should happen).  I will make any necessary touch-ups, including cropping and color correction, to a separate, smaller file before publication.  Only the best will do for our viewers, of course!

Adjusting the camera height in order to capture the entire image within the frame

Digitization, however, is easier said than done.  Far more involved than pushing a button and watching a computer do its work, creating an electronic replica of a print is achieved through what can at times be a rather lengthy process of trial and error.  Each photograph has a unique “fingerprint” of sorts—its own size, degree of darkness or lightness, paper type and texture, and even reaction to environmental or storage conditions over time; therefore, every image offers the technician a new set of challenges. In my case, after selecting an array of images to feature in the upcoming online exhibit and attempting to digitize several of them using ICFA’s flatbed scanner, I discovered that many of the photographs’ high levels of contrast, in addition to the incredibly
(, incredibly) glossy paper on which they were printed, yielded a “hazy” pattern when scanned.  After several failed experiments (of which I will spare you the details), I concluded that digitization by camera was the only viable alternative.

Experimenting with various filter settings in order to produce the best digital representation of the original print

Converting ICFA’s Slide Room into a photography studio, I devoted an entire week to photographing the photographs (as ridiculous as that turn of phrase may sound) to be used in the exhibit.  While this method called for a good deal of experimentation with lighting and filter settings, ultimately requiring me to capture multiple versions of each image for eventual comparison and selection, I am quite pleased with the results.  Now in the midst of cataloguing, cropping, and retouching the digital files, I am excited about the progress I have made over the past few weeks and look forward to finalizing the exhibit…Stay tuned!

Cropping digitized photographs for online publication

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.

History: The Story Starts with the “Stuff”

by Caitlin Ballotta, June 25, 2012

Thomas Whittemore, Founder of the Byzantine Institute

This summer, I am working as an intern in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) here at Dumbarton Oaks.  As you may have guessed, ICFA is home to images; however, its vast stores further hold a treasure trove of other materials relating to Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and garden and landscape studies, including moving films, maps, manuscripts, notes, and nearly any type of paper record imaginable. Over the past few weeks, I have tried my hand at processing one of ICFA’s many collections, learning the “ins” and “outs” of archiving through close interaction with a “paper trail” that documents the archaeological activities of Thomas Whittemore (a colorful and enigmatic character, active in the early half of the twentieth century, who can best be described as an English professor-archaeologist-jetsetter-philanthropist) prior to his founding of the Byzantine Institute in 1930.

Examining folder contents in order to revise the collection’s finding aid

I am currently revising a finding aid, or a tool that will serve as a point of access to this collection for future researchers.  My task, then, is to understand the context surrounding the materials entrusted to ICFA in order to catalogue and arrange the individual items in a logical order that simultaneously preserves the integrity of the collection itself and the way in which it was created.  In short, I am working to make collection contents utilizable so as to facilitate scholars’ and visitors’ research experience.  (In some cases, however, an archive’s holdings are too extensive to allow each and every item to be documented on a finding aid, and researchers can (re)discover some rather fascinating gems as they sift through the contents of acid-free boxes and folders!  Take, for instance, this wonderful piece by Suzanne Fischer that appeared in The Atlantic last week.  In it, she wrote of one researcher’s “chance” encounter with a piece of Lincoln lore.)

Shelves of Archival Materials in ICFA

I can’t begin to express what a privilege it has been to immerse myself in history through the archival process.  Reading original correspondence and examining notes and drawings made by the very subjects of my research have made the past come alive for me—have opened a gateway into history in a way that no passage from a textbook can mimic.  When I delve into a collection, it is as though I am communicating directly with the players who once inhabited the narrative I am striving to comprehend and convey.  Just think:  Housed within an archive’s myriad rows of storage containers, protected from the elements, are the components of a great many stories.  History is, after all, a retelling of past events, and its anecdotes have to originate from somewhere…  For me, then, an archive is a space teeming with life; it is a place devoted to preservation in which an individual can touch—can interact with— those well-catalogued items that help us to construct the ever-evolving historical narrative that shapes our present.

What is next for me, you ask?  I will soon begin designing an online exhibit relating the early activities of Thomas Whittemore.  I certainly hope that everyone will come to appreciate Mr. Whittemore as I have over the past few weeks.  Below is a sneak peek…Stay tuned!

Thomas Whittemore and George D. Pratt bring relief supplies to Russian and Bulgarian monks living on Mount Athos, 1923

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.