In one summary report of his work at Hagia Sophia, Van Nice wrote that the project’s mission was “recording changes in and additions to the original structure of Sancta Sophia.” To this end, he and his fieldworkers took meticulous notes on everything they saw—every crack, every hole, (filled and unfilled) every angle of every wall, everything. As cheesy as it sounds, when I read this I was struck by how similar it sounded to the character of my own project here. I too must evaluate, to the extent that it is possible, what the original structure of this collection of papers looked like, and whether changes or additions have been made over time. To do that, I too have to take meticulous notes, keeping track of every name mentioned, the contents of each folder and how they relate to the boxed grouping, where rusted paperclips may be damaging the papers they hold together, and so on. Like a piece of architecture, archival collections are complex, have many parts, but ultimately come together (or should come together) into some kind of readable order. And yet, as with almost any building, cracks in this order appear over time, new information or adornments are added and sometimes that original order is completely replaced.
One of the first challenges I faced was reconciling my own ideas about categorization with what I actually found in front of me. For example, the folder marked “RESUMÉS” in box 38 contained material that did not look at all like what I consider to be a resumé. I quickly learned, however, that the word often refers to brief summaries or reports on some kind of project or situation, in addition to being the US equivalent of “CV.” Similarly “AGENDAE” contained pages upon pages of notes that took me a while to recognize as the kind of material that I would consider an agenda. It can be difficult, going into a folder marked as something you are very familiar with, expecting to find a certain kind of document, and be faced with something quite different, which can reflect not only historical or regional differences in word use, but also personal ones. By the end of the “AGENDAE” folder, for example, I was able to see that the lists were, in fact, an amalgamation of “to-do” lists of sorts, but their form and character had thrown me off in the beginning.
The great thing about archival collections is that, as opposed to published work, personal papers contain tiny tidbits of evidence and material in the kind of mismatched, organic formations that characterize real life. What I mean by this is just that our lives are not compartmentalized into chapters, they are not proofread and revised. To be sure, archival collections have a certain amount of artificial organization imposed on them, either by the creator of the collection him or herself, or by the archivist(s) who process them. However, as opposed to published materials that are refined and polished before they are seen by the public, archival collections are permeated by a kind of natural entropy that one can never fully smooth out. In the copious agenda notes that detail the work needed to be done at Hagia Sophia while Van Nice was there during the mid 1940’s, one piece of notebook paper caught my eye because of a single line of typed script at the bottom of the page, upside-down. It was dated 1946 and it read: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” This tiny detail was a powerful reminder that these handwritten notes had a context much larger than their labeled folder suggested. They belonged to the life of an individual at a certain moment in history, where there was much more going on than restorations and research at Hagia Sophia.
The kind of voyeuristic pleasure that comes from looking at archival collections is a unique experience that differs with the kind of collection, as well as the kind of person who created the collection. Thus far, the Van Nice collection is perhaps not what one might call “juicy.” Yet, there is a certain satisfaction, or fascination, inherent in finding a proofread draft from a great scholar where the sentence “While the walls a because of the remarkable state of repair, and the immense sixw of the monumtne, many of the screts remain unkonw” has apparently been deemed clear of mistakes, or in looking at the tiny scratch sketches of buildings that are scattered through the papers, or in the personal correspondence that contains little messages in ancient Greek just begging to be decoded, even if they simply turn out to be saying “yours truly.”
Because we so rarely get to look at another person’s life from this kind of vantage point, everything becomes engaging, worthy of attention. I found it difficult to “skim” through the material at the kind of pace that is appropriate to an initial assessment of the collection because I kept having the feeling that some fascinating little gem was just around the next-page turn, or lurking behind the extra two minutes put into deciphering a particularly illegible note.
On another note, I was unexpectedly transported back to my time at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, when I came across a reference to the 20th century metallurgist and historian of science Cyril Stanley Smith, whose expansive collection of books in the history of science (including, among other treasures, a first edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia!) resides at the Huntington. Interestingly enough, Van Nice sent a reprint of his article on the work at Hagia Sophia in Forum to Cyril Stanley Smith. It was exciting and strange to have found this tiny thread of connection between these two experiences of mine that were seemingly so disparate in time, space, and subject matter.
At the end of Box 38, or Box 1 as far as I’m concerned, I feel motivated to move forward, though slightly concerned about the lack of coherency that I was able to recognize in the order of the folders. While individual folders tend to correspond relatively well to the dates and/or themes indicated on the outside of the folders in RVN’s script, I am not picking up on much of an organizational scheme at the folder level. Expense reports, budgets, general fieldwork material/notes, and so on, from all different time periods, appear next to each other, and tend to repeat each other and overlap at times. For instance, I’m not yet sure how to think about the difference between “field expenses” and “expedition finances.” Of course, it doesn’t make sense to expect complete consistency with personal records, especially when they span such a large time frame. However, the bulk of material that I have seen so far has been relatively similar—a lot of time sheets, a lot of expense charts, a lot of correspondence that has to do with the logistics of fieldwork, travel, expenses, and so on—and yet, the folder titles tend to differ, and suggest that a particular type of document will be inside, when in fact there are many different kinds of documents within.
On the other hand, I already feel closer to Van Nice, and have a better sense of what he was like as a person and what kind of shape his personal papers took. It makes me wonder, among other things, what kinds of information one could glean about me from reading things as simple as expense forms or timesheets that I fill out, and work-related to-do lists, . It’s surprising to think that these incredibly un-personal records of our lives can actually reveal so much about us; we leave records and traces of ourselves as people all the time without realizing it.
The images in this post can be found at the Image Collection and Fieldwork Archive (ICFA) at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections in Washington, D.C.