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The Completion of the Online Bliss-Tyler Correspondence Project

Posted On March 02, 2016 | 10:48 am | by meredithb | Permalink

What was life like for American expatriates in the early twentieth century? How did the Forty Martyrs micromosaic come to Dumbarton Oaks? Scholars, art enthusiasts, and readers across the world have a new online resource to help them answer these questions: in December, Dumbarton Oaks published the final chapter of the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence, the institution’s first large-scale online publication.

The Bliss-Tyler Correspondence comprises over one thousand letters and telegrams shared between Dumbarton Oaks’ founders, Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, with Royall Tyler, the close friend and connoisseur who advised their art purchases, and his wife, Elisina Tyler. The collection reflects the frequency of their correspondence over a lifelong friendship: the earliest letters date to 1902, before the Blisses’ marriage, and end in 1953, the year of Royall Tyler’s death.

The online publication project was born in 2008, after Senior Fellow Rob Nelson examined the Blisses’ correspondence, held at Harvard’s Houghton Library, in order to complete a paper on their collecting of Byzantine objects. According to Archivist and House Collection Manager James Carder, Nelson suggested that Dumbarton Oaks transcribe and publish the materials. In 2009, Carder received permission from Houghton Library to do so, and he began making brief trips up to Cambridge to transcribe the thousand longhand letters held there—or “channeling Mildred Bliss,” as Carder called the arduous process of deciphering her handwriting.

As Carder transcribed the letters, he also began compiling information for the annotations and introductory chapters that would introduce readers to the broader context of the letters and their authors. “The letters made references to artworks, people, places, and events” whose connections to the Blisses might not be immediately clear without this background information, Carder said. For example, Edith Wharton appeared frequently in the letters as a close friend to both couples—in particular, to Elisina Tyler, who was at the author’s bedside upon her death in 1937 and who became the executor of her French will.

When he had completed three chapters—about the early lives of the Blisses and Royall Tyler, of the Blisses’ early collecting while living abroad during the 1910s, and on their return to D.C. and Robert’s subsequent posting to Sweden—Carder approached Publications about publishing the materials. The timing was fortuitous, according to Sara Taylor, managing editor of art and archaeology. “We had been planning for a website revamp, and we were thinking about a new online publication mode,” Taylor said.

Publishing the many letters in print might have been “unwieldy,” as Carder suggested, but the online project provided the unique opportunity to experiment with new publication methods. Presenting the letters online also showcased the interconnectedness of the people and objects that appeared across the fifty years of correspondence. Building the ideal platform was a significant institutional project: from 2010 until 2012, the Publications department worked to devise a host of online tools to aid the reader experience, including a full-text search feature; a database of people, places, and objects linked to each letter; an interactive timeline of artwork purchases; and detailed annotations for each piece of correspondence. “The idea was to move beyond a static book presentation to create something that’s more dynamic,” said Lain Wilson, who began migrating the content to the public website in 2013.

Despite the considerable departure in presentation, Taylor emphasized that most aspects of the publishing process—rigorous editing, constant communication with authors, constructing a cohesive design scheme—remain the same, no matter the media in which a publication is released. Even so, crafting and disseminating an online publication differs from publishing a book, in which all content must be complete before it is laid out on the page and sent to the presses. “We could put the first three chapters online while James and Rob completed their work,” she said.

Perhaps the most substantial difference, however, is in the wider audience that an online publication has the potential to draw. Unlike the relatively limited reach of most scholarly publications, the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence will be available to anyone who types in related keywords during an online search. This is particularly significant in the case of primary sources like the letters between the Blisses and the Tylers; such artifacts may be utilized for purposes as varied as determining the provenance of an artwork or understanding the operations of the League of Nations in Hungary, where Tyler served as the organization’s financial advisor. At the most basic level, Carder suggests, the letters serve as a window into the time during which they were produced. “With seventy years distance, these become unspoken stories of how the wealthy in America conducted their lives,” he said.

To those who brought the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence to completion, the opportunities for day-to-day communication offered by online publishing are key benefits of the medium. An online publication is a product and a work-in-progress: it is a serious, scholarly work that invites collaboration and constant reevaluation. “Scholars throughout the world can help shape how subsequent chapters come together,” Taylor said. “We can continue to research, to put that research out in the world, and to edit and update it.”