A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project

by Caitlin Ballotta, July 3, 2014

Shelves of archival materials in ICFA

Shelves of archival materials in ICFA

This summer, I have the pleasure of interning in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at beautiful Dumbarton Oaks.  During my last internship with ICFA (I was here two summers ago, and I’m just delighted to be back!), I designed an online exhibit chronicling the early life and career of Thomas Whittemore, a man who—let me assure you—is one of the most fascinating people whom you’ve (probably) never heard of.  While my previous project involved a good deal of digging through the archives and imagining myself in conversation with the people whose papers and personal effects I routinely rifled through, my current project is rather different:  I get to talk to people.  You see, talking is key when it comes to collecting oral histories, and that is my task this summer—well, part of it, at least.

Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute (AKA the subject of my research last summer)

Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute (AKA the subject of my research last summer)

I should note that ICFA’s oral history initiative is distinct from, but related to, the Oral History Project being administered by the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA).  Whereas the DOA seeks to gather Dumbarton Oaks affiliates’ memories of the institution and their perceptions of how it has changed over time, ICFA aims to uncover information pertinent to its Fieldwork Archives—to get down to the “nitty-gritty” with regard to important conservation and excavation projects undertaken by Dumbarton Oaks and the Byzantine Institute.  ICFA’s questions, then, are more targeted and are designed to enhance our—and, by extension, our researchers’—understanding of the collection materials.   Luckily, ICFA’s and DOA’s missions and, at times, our lists of interview candidates overlap, which enables the two departments to collaborate, whether by conducting joint interviews or by helping each other to establish contact with persons of interest.

Before I proceed, I must confess that I haven’t gotten to do much talking to people as yet.  That will come later on in the summer.  The last few weeks, in contrast, have been devoted to an extensive pre-interview process.  By this, I mean that I’ve spent my days identifying “key suspects” from our collections; investigating their lives and work; and, last but not least, tracking them down.  (In case it’s not clear from the preceding, I’ve begun to think myself an amateur detective.  But this is perhaps not surprising, given that I was always an avid Nancy Drew fan.)  I’ve also recorded my findings in a dossier of sorts, making recommendations as to whom ICFA should seek to interview and in what order.  Additionally, I’ve just begun contacting potential interviewees—or, in some instances, contacting someone who knows someone who knows the desired interviewee.  (Six degrees of separation, anyone?)

File Folder with Poreč Materials

File Folder with Poreč Materials (1997- 2000)

During the first stages of my investigation, I spent some time poking through several of ICFA’s archival collections. While I examined correspondence, financial records, and photographs galore, it was a sampling of fieldwork “notebooks” from different projects and periods that caught my eye this time—and that compel me to make a brief and rather off-topic meditation on the art of note-taking.



Fieldwork notebooks from Bargala excavations (1970)

Fieldwork notebooks from Bargala excavations (1970)

A series of notebooks from excavations at Bargala (located in the modern-day Republic of Macedonia) in the summer of 1970.  Each excavator had his or her own notebook—all the same size, all the same brand—within which to keep a log of work done or discoveries made from day to day.  While every worker certainly had a unique style of note-taking—some in pencil, others in pen; some with drawings to scale, others with rough sketches; some writing full paragraphs, others listing bullet points—the notes’ organization was fairly consistent.  That is to say, each notebook was home to a self-contained series of observations that were bound together and organized chronologically, often featuring (hand-written) page numbers, tables of contents, and indices.  Enhancing readability even further, certain reader aids were added retroactively to the individual fieldwork notebooks so as to make them work together as the chapters in a textbook might.

A notation at the end of Susan Boyd’s fieldwork notebook directs the reader to consult pages 86-97 of John Rosser’s notebook.

A notation at the end of Susan Boyd’s fieldwork notebook directs the reader to consult pages 86-97 of John Rosser’s notebook.

Indeed, John Rosser's Bargala notebook picks up, as promised, where Susan Boyd's had left off.

Indeed, John Rosser’s Bargala notebook picks up, as promised, where Susan Boyd’s had left off.









Sampling of Ann Terry's Poreč Notes

Sampling of Ann Terry’s Poreč Notes

A collection of notes and papers from the newly-donated (and thus still-to-be-processed) Henry Maguire and Ann Terry Poreč Archive.  Making three trips—in 1997, 1999, and 2000—to Poreč (located in modern Croatia) to study the mosaics that adorn the Eufrasius Cathedral, Maguire and Terry published their findings in a beautiful two-volume book, Dynamic Splendor (2007).  ICFA’s Poreč Archive, then, gives insight into the pre-publication process, allowing researchers to see the notes and illustrations that gave shape to the book.  These notes, however, are quite different from the ones taken at the Bargala excavations.  Not contained within notebooks, for instance, Terry’s observations are recorded on loose sheets of paper of differing sizes (and colors).  Some pages are typed; some are hand-written; and still others contain some mixture of the two.  There are print-outs of e-mails, sticky notes, and even annotations made to Xeroxes of a collaborator’s drawings.  I think it fair to say that these observations would be nearly impossible to navigate were it not for the notes Terry provided to ICFA…

Photo log from the Bargala excavations--a pre-Excel spreadsheet!

Photo log from the Bargala excavations–a pre-Excel spreadsheet!

What is the point of these observations, you ask?  Well, what originally struck me about the differences in note-taking style was how much our conception of and our relation to information has changed—and will continue to change—over time.  Indeed, the advent of new technology alone would be enough to guarantee that.  What I mean is that many of us today (myself included) have notes in any number of places:  in notebooks, on scraps of paper, in our cell phones, on our computers, on USB drives, in that mysterious non-vaporous entity known as The Cloud.  And while technology certainly increases our access to information, it also presents us with more and more ways to hide it (often unintentionally) from one another—and, interestingly enough, from ourselves.  Things that were once locked away in file cabinets now reside in e-mail inboxes and computer folders within folders within folders, never to see the light of day once created.  What will happen to these records in the future?  What will the archivist’s job be like in the years ahead, now that a “paper trail” is no longer just a paper trail?

These issues merit a blog post—to say nothing of a book—of their own, but they further remind me of just why oral history is so valuable:  you can learn a lot from “stuff” (indeed, that’s why I love archives), but you can learn a great deal more from the people who created, owned, or worked with said “stuff.”  This was certainly the case, for instance, when DOA and ICFA conducted a joint interview with Robin Sinclair Cormack back in 2011.  While speaking with Mr. Cormack, we learned that there was a “secret project” (that had since been “covered up” and thus omitted from fieldwork reports) involving the bronze doors of the Hagia Sophia—something that the rather more reticent materials in our collection certainly could not have told us.  Oh, the intrigue…

As I am no Nancy Drew, I will most likely not uncover any secrets that can rival The Story of the Bronze Doors when I enter into the interview phase of my project later on in the summer, but I am excited nonetheless.  You see, oral history enables archivists and researchers, the detectives of the scholarly realm, to read between the lines—to make the “paper trail” (whether paved with paper or electronic media) a tad bit easier to follow.  And that, Dear Reader, is excitement enough for me.  Let the sleuthing begin.


About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College in May with a degree in English.  I am deeply interested in the intersection of technology and education.  Thus, when my internship with ICFA ends, I will seek to work in the Digital Humanities field while applying to graduate programs in English.  My eventual aim is to teach at the university level and to aid in the development of online supplements for humanities education in primary and secondary school classrooms.

One thought on “A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project

  1. Pingback: Operation ICFA Oral History Initiative: A Case Not To Be Closed | Dumbarton Oaks Interns

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