Top of page

Digital Technology Expands the Scope and Reach of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections

Share this post:

I am happy to have had the chance to interview Jan Ziolkowski, Director, and Yota Batsaki, Executive Director, of Dumbarton Oaks, about some recent developments involving use of technology to enhance the institution’s collections.

Bill: The Dumbarton Oaks collections are as fascinating as they are diverse, relating as they do to Byzantine, Pre-Columbian and Garden and Landscape studies. Can you tell us a bit about how you are using digital technology to curate and provide access to your holdings?

One of the Maya calendars: the tzolk’in. Drawing by ML Design. From Ancient Mexico and Central America by Susan Toby Evans, Thames and Hudson, London and New York.
The tzolk’in, a Mayan calendar. Drawing by ML Design. From Ancient Mexico and Central America by Susan Toby Evans, Thames and Hudson, London & NY.

Jan: Dumbarton Oaks is formally designated as Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections. Although the Museum and Gardens are open to the public six days a week in the afternoons, the Library, Rare Book Room, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Coins, and Seals are normally inaccessible—for reasons of their limited space, the value of their holdings, and our relatively small staff—except to scholars and often by appointment only. And yet we are eager, perhaps as never before in our history, to perpetuate and promulgate our fields by making them known in the most engaging ways to the largest possible public. Digital technology is a godsend.

Bill: You have some interesting online exhibits, including the The Ancient Future: Mesoamerican and Andean Timekeeping and the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection of photographs from Istanbul and Western Turkey from 1935-45. Is the intent for the exhibits to foster scholarship, public engagement or other outcomes?

Jan: All of the above! The exhibit on Mesoamerican and Andean timekeeping was developed as a complement to a large scholarly meeting (called in our terminology a symposium) we hosted in October, which in turn was intended to engage with popular interest in the apocalyptic associations, ascribed to the Mayans, of the year 2012: think of the film by that name. The symposium was a fantastic success—more than can be said of the movie.

The Artamonoff exhibit arose from the seemingly unglamorous process of inventorying our vast archive of photos from the thirties and, beyond that, to document Byzantine sites in the eastern Mediterranean. The methodical examination of our half million images and documents—which is far from complete—has turned up many exciting caches of material. This was one. More are to come!

Yota: Incidentally, as a result of ICFA staff’s research on the collection, we discovered an additional corpus of material by Artamonoff at the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Archives, which will soon be added to the online exhibit. Artamonoff’s images of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture in Istanbul, as well as the daily life of the city’s inhabitants, have already attracted attention from new and unexpected audiences – whether historians of photography, Ottoman architecture, Istanbul in the early twentieth century, or the Russian diaspora. One interesting example is a current resident of Istanbul who was able to identify his grandfather’s house (and a relative!) in one of Artamonoff’s photographs.While our intent is to further scholarship and engage the public with our digital projects, serendipity also allows us to reach a wider audience beyond those we may have targeted. Our blogs and social media channels play a crucial role in keeping the public updated on our various digital projects, while also allowing them to participate in our ongoing work to share our collections more broadly.

Imperial Seal: Tiberios II Constantine, issued 578–82 (BZS.1958.106.512)
Imperial Seal: Tiberios II Constantine, issued 578–82 (BZS.1958.106.512)

Bill: The Byzantine Seals Online Catalogue is “an ongoing project to record the 17,000 Byzantine lead seals held by Dumbarton Oaks and publish them online.” What led you to undertake the project? How did you determine the best way to present the images and the related textual information for what appears to be a unique collection?

Jan: When I was in my first year as director, I calculated rapidly on a pad how long it would take us to complete our printed catalogue of Byzantine seals. My estimate was that we would need another seventy-five years if we continued at the rate we had been achieving since our foundation in 1940. I am a reasonably patient person, but the prospect of waiting until even my children were centenarians was too much. Instead, I committed us to digitization. My idea was to have us produce the highest-quality images we could of all the seals, to supply the metadata from the printed catalogues as available, and to consider initially providing skimpier data for many of the other seals until we could devise a more methodical way of cataloguing them. The results have been remarkable, thanks to the counsel of our consultant for Byzantine sigillography, the commitment of our Post-Doctoral Associate in Byzantine Sigillography and Numismatics, the engagement of our photographer, and the contributions of fellows, interns, and students who have pitched in with their special skills and energies. Like most digitization projects, the seals require a team effort. We like to think that the spirit and environment of Dumbarton Oaks lend themselves particularly well to such group work.

Bill: I see that Dumbarton Oaks has involvement through grants and other projects that might create born-digital research data such as digital photographs, ground-penetrating radar images, geographic information system data sets and other fieldwork data. Do you foresee a point where this data could be kept by you or another organization for secondary use?

Jan: Our mission is to further scholarship. We hope to make as much of our digital treasures freely available as we can. At present the restraints are first and foremost technical. We want to be acknowledged and to have some control over the quality of reproduction from our images, but we are without any desire to profit in dollars and cents from what we possess.

We have many ambitions, some of which will take many years to fulfill. For instance, I would love to see us arrange both images and other evidence relating to the gardens so that it would be possible to visit the space virtually and to navigate it not only across space but also across time. A visitor could look at a present-day planting and see what occupied the same site twenty, forty, or sixty years ago. Such a perspective could provide information about changes in garden practices and culture. It could also tell us something about climate change.

Another example would be the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Dumbarton Oaks played a central role in the study of the architecture and the cleaning and restoration of the mosaics in this extraordinary monument. Often the images in our archive provide better information about architectural and artistic features of the edifice than can be gleaned from the building in its present condition, after the toll that has been taken on it by neglect, repurposing, and time. My dream is that one day our photos and documents could be digitized and be accessible at the touch of a finger to a person who toured a three-dimensional model virtually.

Mosaic detail of angel from the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Catalog/Accession No.: 47043b9367f94b4cbcdd299b2b3e7d03
Mosaic detail of angel from the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Catalog/Accession No.: 47043b9367f94b4cbcdd299b2b3e7d03

Bill: What is your approach to managing and preserving your digital collections? What are your major challenges? And how do you see your digital preservation requirements evolving?

Jan: We have recently switched to a new content management system that, in conjunction with our new website, has offered new possibilities for displaying and managing our digital collections. We have also just finished a six-month internal and external review of our digital holdings, procedures, and current and future needs, with a view to improving management of our digital assets. Having invested significantly in the creation of digital collections, we are committed to sustaining these digital assets for the long-term. In the coming year, we will be looking to make further investments in IT support to further our digital initiatives and ensure the long term preservation and dissemination of our work.

Bill: Can you tell us about your staff who work with the digital collections? What kinds of background and training are you looking for?

Jan: More and more of our staff work with digital assets, to varying degrees. Images of most museum objects have been captured on site, although the medieval manuscripts travel to Cambridge to be digitized. The Library mounts many online exhibitions, especially to enhance our symposia. The Gardens, Rare Book Collection, and Library have collaborated in a massive digitization of correspondence and other materials related to the design and construction of our gardens. The Rare Book Collection has been digitizing selections from its vast holdings. We have spoken already about Byzantine seals, and a similar story could be told about our plans for Byzantine coins. Our Oral History project, involving recordings (both audio and audiovisual) and transcriptions, constitutes another body of material.

In the future I expect that we will need to have a relatively small number of colleagues who are devoted full-time to IT matters. Our database specialist needs to be flanked by a digital assets manager and by a person tasked more generally with helping us to prioritize among potential digital initiatives and to make them happen. All three of our full-time staff in Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives are heavily concerned with the digital collections there, although that concern is immediately visible in the title only of one. In our Library and Museum, no staff member has a job title that signals explicitly a connection with digital collections, but I know that more and more of my colleagues spend increasing amount of time on digital collections.

The background and training we seek varies widely. Some of our needs are extremely specialized, requiring knowledge of specific content relating to our fields of study or demanding particular degrees … but in the end high energy, passion, intelligence, and collegiality count greatly.

Bill: Looking into the future, where do you see Dumbarton Oaks going with regard to digital technology in general and digital information in particular?

Jan: Our greatest strength and impact involve people. The humanities, a branch of learning in perpetual crisis, have become particularly devalued over the past decade. They have not elicited as strong or persuasive a defense as they deserve. Dumbarton Oaks can offer a model for ways of bringing information technology to bear upon art history and archaeology, philology and history, and all the other fields that help us to understand what people of other places and times communicated through images, words, and objects. We are small, but I hope that in our smallness we work efficiently and beautifully, like a Swiss watch. A place that has librarians, archivists, museum curators, publishers, and gardeners as well as Byzantinists, Pre-Columbianists, and Garden and Landscape scholars. It is through collaborations across disciplines that we can make meaningful progress and DO’s community aspect both fosters and facilitates such exchanges.


  1. Thank you for a very informative report. The short online biography of Nicholas V. Artamonoff makes him seem like an exceedingly interesting (and well traveled) person. Meanwhile, the close-up detail in the images of the Byzantine Seals is excellent. (I wished for a how-we-did-it technical note.) I’ll be interested to hear if the Dumbarton Oaks folks benefit from crowd-sourcing on those rather, um, arcane seals, just as they benefited from Adil Murat Kansiz’s message from Istanbul identifying his great-aunt in one of Artamoff’s photographs.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.