A Blissful Endeavor

Inside the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence

Perched atop the third floor of the main Dumbarton Oaks house lies the research center’s publications department. Here, a staff of a little more than half a dozen negotiate proposals, edit content for publication, and delve into what they call digital humanities projects – a surprisingly accurate way to convey the more profound endeavor of modernizing the past.

For the past several weeks I have been contributing to the division’s Bliss-Tyler project, an online catalog of communications between diplomats and art collectors affiliated with Dumbarton Oaks.

Three chapters of the project have already been published, with hundreds of letters between 1902-1927 already publicly available.

Assigned to work on the fourth chapter, my job is to prepare the next wave of letters to be transmitted online. Although the focus of this project is to catalog the acquisition of artworks, the correspondences of this time period provide first person accounts of many historically relevant items, including the great depression, World War I, the League of Nations, and post-war reparations.

For starters, I read through the various chapters to get a sense of the characters at play. There is Royall Tyler, an intelligent man and eventual financial adviser who has particular acumen in Byzantine art, Robert Woods Bliss, a not so exceptional Harvard graduate who becomes quite influential in the League of Nations and buys much artwork with the assistance of his wife (and step sister) Mildred Barnes Bliss.

The early letters are not the most interesting; we see Royall Tyler’s persistent request to meet Mildred and the all to be expected awkwardness when she informs him of an agreed marriage with Robert.

But before I get into some of the more fascinating and at times jaw-dropping excerpts from the letters – as in the instance when Royall Tyler says “God has punished” the Bulgarians with two destructive earthquakes for their refusal to sell their art – let me first give you a better idea of what I actually do 5 days a week in my little office cubicle.

The Rundown

Staff at Dumbarton Oaks have already been working for a few years to transcribe the records of letters sent between the Blisses and Tylers. The work, however, does not stop after they have the text on the screen. From there, research primarily conducted by Yale Professor Robert S. Nelson and Dumbarton Oaks archivist James N. Carder adds to the accessibility of the project. Hundreds of footnotes, translations, annotations, and pictures are added so that any user can look at just one letter and figure out who the key people are.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is still private as we complete editorial work, but it will be published soon.

My job follows a similar series of steps that were used in the previous three chapters:

1. First, I split up a several hundred page document containing the compiled entirety of the letters into individual missives. Each letter is saved under a particular naming system and stored individually. The same process is used for a compiled list of the annotations.

2. Using an XML editor, the *.docx files are converted into html files with specific styling that the database on the site will eventually use to recognize what and where footnotes go.

3. I create a spreadsheet (*.csv) of the file names, titles, and various metadata so that they can be uploaded to the site in one round. The system used to read the zipped file of the csv and html files is fairly strict, so a little tinkering is used to remove any non-unicode characters or anomalies in file or folder names.

4. After the files are uploaded, I get to work adding links to annotations for each letter. The words requiring links are bolded, which makes them easy to recognize, but since there are well over a thousand links to be rendered, the process can be slow.

5. Additional work goes into adding images from the Dumbarton Oaks archives, relating letters by subject and date, and other various work.

A Few Snippets

While the letters up until 1927 are already up for free viewing on the site now, chapter 4 (1927-1933) will feature many interesting correspondences. Although we are at work preparing them for publication, here is a sneak preview of a few excerpts:

1. Royall Tyler on Adolf Hitler (October, 1932):

“Hitler’s day is past, and I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing that he should have been shown up by events to be the yellow warbler he is”

2. Mildred Bliss on the Great Depression (October, 1930):

“Although we’ve come through the crash unscathed there is a temporary shrinkage.”

3. Robert and Mildred Bliss on Royall Tyler’s son failing to pass the tests required for entry to Oxford (April 1930):

“Too much facility & unnecessary success are far more disturbing to the young & the year of reasonable work ahead will be studying & developing & result in his 1931 exam being a mature & good paper more useful to him in the end. I honestly believe this & am so writing him.”


About me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard college, originally from Baltimore, MD. While I am yet to officially declare an area of study, I am interested in philosophy, classics, and (a little bit of) computer science.

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