Operation ICFA Oral History Initiative: A Case Not To Be Closed

by Caitlin Ballotta, August 8, 2014

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured:  magnifying glass and trench coat.

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured: magnifying glass and trench coat.

When last she wrote nearly one month ago, ICFA’s aspiring detective (that would be me) had just made contact with a few “key suspects”—that is to say, with several desired oral history interviewees—in possession of valuable information concerning ICFA’s image and document collections.  (For more on the pre-interview phase of Operation Oral History Initiative, please see my previous blog post, “A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project.”)  And now, with less than one week of my internship left to go and two formal interviews under my belt, I can proudly say that I have never felt more detective-like in my life.

Before you think me too crazy, I should state for the record that I am not claiming to be a real detective.  That job title I’ll leave for the professionals.  (And for Nancy Drew, my childhood idol.)  What I am saying, though, is that I have a newfound appreciation for what it is that detectives do—because what they do is very similar to what I (attempt to) do:  to get the whole story.  Think about it in this light:  getting to the bottom of things requires asking the right questions in just the right way, whether the questioner be sizing up suspects or collecting oral histories.  I would argue, in fact, that—although their respective interview tactics and the nature of their interactions with their interviewees may differ—both the detective and the oral historian are, in essence, collecting witnesses’ reports of events that have already transpired.  Both, then, are interviewers by trade who must be able to account for quirks of memory, to sense if (and why) interviewees are holding back, and to draw them out as necessary in order to “close the case.”  No small feat.

Practicing the interview process.

Practicing the interview process.  A very entertaining pastime.

Interviewing—or, better, conversational detective work—is not a job for the faint of heart.  Indeed, from the first moments of my initial “practice interview” (one of my supervisors, Rona, graciously played the part of Particularly Difficult Interviewee in order to test my skills as an oral historian), I quickly saw that the interviewee is not the only one in “the hot seat,” so to speak.[1]  The interviewer, too, must be ever on his or her toes. This requires becoming well-versed in the interviewee’s background so as to be prepared for anything that might arise over the course of an hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father's (architect Robert Van Nice's) work at the Hagia Sophia.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father’s (architect Robert Van Nice’s) survey work at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Yet preparedness is not enough.  Try as the interviewer-to-be might to “script” his or her part of the interview by drafting a lengthy (read:  very, very lengthy) list of questions ahead of time, he or she cannot predict where the conversation will lead once the interviewee gets to talking.  For this reason, the oral historian must be quick on his or her feet—that is to say, an adept multi-tasker who is able to keep track of a whole host of things at once while simultaneously helping the interviewee to feel at ease by providing the appropriate verbal or visual cues.  Consider a brief (and not at all comprehensive) Interviewer’s To-Do List:

  • (1) Listen to the interviewee: Listening to and processing what the interviewee says is absolutely vital.  This may seem obvious, but listening—really listening—is easier said than done when there are so many other things on the interviewer’s mind.  For further explanation, read on…
  • (2) Determine which (if any) questions are being answered simultaneously: As I mentioned above, there is no fixed script, and an interview can go in any direction—or, quite often, in multiple directions—at any given moment.  Keeping track of the topics discussed by the interviewee is essential so as to avoid asking redundant questions.
  • (3) Come up with impromptu follow-up questions: At times, the interviewer will want to know more than what the interviewee has said of his or her own volition, and it is up to the interviewer to get the particulars.  On the other hand, a single response from the interviewee can on occasion render an entire series of prepared questions irrelevant, forcing him or her to devise new ones on the spot.  (Yes, I speak from experience.)
  • (4) Steer clear of interrogation tactics: By this, I mean that the interviewer sets the tone for the interview—both in terms of what he or she asks and how he or she asks it.  Because the oral historian wants an interview to have the easy flow of a conversation, rather than the more staccato rhythm of an interrogation, he or she should aim to insert logical transitions between the various thematic segments of the interview.
  • (5) Aim for variety: The best interviews incorporate a mixture of question types. Biographical or fact-based questions and name or place association questions are useful in that they help to “warm up” the interviewee and to set him or her at ease.  Indeed, these seemingly basic questions (which often elicit interesting and unexpected responses) are just as important as the “hard-hitting” ones—for instance, those comparing personal with broader (societal or institutional) reactions to past events or social dynamics. Finally, while oral histories call interviewees to reflect on the past, it is also worthwhile to ask the interviewee—a person who, like the interviewer, is an individual living in the present moment—about his or her vision for the future.
  • (6) Respect time constraints:  Sadly, an interview cannot continue indefinitely, and some questions will inevitably go unasked.  The clock is ticking as the camera is rolling, and it is the interviewer’s job to prioritize questions accordingly—and to strike a careful balance between the depth and breadth of the discussion.
I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who--in addition to serving as Curator of the Photograph Collection (ICFA)--participated in a number of fieldwork projects in Cyprus and in modern-day Macedonia (FYROM).

I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who served as Curator of the Photograph Collection (now ICFA) and who participated in a number of  Dumbarton Oaks-affiliated fieldwork projects.

While I am not a real detective, I do love a good mystery story (give me anything Agatha Christie)—or any good story, for that matter.  Perhaps that is why I’ve enjoyed my summer in ICFA so much:  I’ve had the chance to “read up on” an array of interesting people and then to hear their (oral his)stories as they tell them.  Beyond just reading or listening to their stories, though, I’ve also gotten to help in recording them—and even, to a certain extent, to help in shaping them.  As I see it, the oral historian is something like a co-author—or perhaps a ghostwriter—of an interviewee’s oral history.  Without doubt, the interviewee is the primary author (not to mention the protagonist) of his or her tale, but the interviewer, the question-asker, lends to that tale its particular narrative bent by encouraging the interviewee to focus on specific topics.

In just a few days, my part in ICFA’s Oral History Initiative will come to an end, but the project itself will continue after I go.  As long as there are more mysteries to solve—as long as there are more stories to collect—ICFA will have its work cut out for itself, and you, Dear Reader, will be able to follow along once the Oral History Initiative web page (which is currently in progress) launches.  And so, since I am not quite a detective, I can happily say the following:  case not closed.

 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.

[1] That is not to say, of course, that our oral histories are at all confrontational.  On the contrary, our conversations are quite congenial.  What I mean to say is that the very nature of the interview process places both the interviewee and the interviewer on the spot.

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.

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.