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75 Years Ago this Month: An Administrative Structure for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Posted On September 22, 2015 | 14:37 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (October 2015)


“Chart of Personnel Dumbarton Oaks,” prepared by Ethel B. Clark, October 28, 1940.

On October 28, 1940, a couple of days before the official inauguration of Dumbarton Oaks, the rare book librarian Ethel B. Clark sent Mildred Bliss a “Chart of Personnel” for the administration of the nascent institution. The chart is preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. In an accompanying letter, she explained: “Here is a chart, embodying, I hope, the ideas of yesterday.”

At the top of the chart was John S. Thacher (1904–1982), labeled “Administrator,” although his official title would be “Executive Officer.” Thacher was an art historian who had received his baccalaureate degree from Yale University in 1927 and his doctorate in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, in 1936. That same year, he began work at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, where his title was Keeper of Paintings, although he served primarily as an auxiliary to director Frederick B. Robinson in the director’s office. At Dumbarton Oaks, Thacher became director in 1945, a position he held until his retirement in 1969.

As indicated on the personnel chart, directly reporting to Thacher were Clark, Keeper of Rare Books and Manuscripts; Barbara Foster Sessions, Librarian; and James Bryce, Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds.

Clark (1878–1964) had cataloged the Blisses’ personal library before the transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940. After the transfer, she served as Keeper of Rare Books and Manuscripts from 1940 until 1944, when she reached what was then Harvard’s mandatory retirement age. Between 1940 and 1942, Clark also supervised the Dumbarton Oaks bindery, located at what would become the Fellows Building (known today as the Guest House), where she assisted in the binding of 388 volumes for the research library. On the “Chart of Personnel,” reporting to Clark were a bookbinder, a sewer, a letterer, and a book cleaner. Clark also published occasional essays on the collection, such as Chronicles of Froissart at Dumbarton Oaks, in 1947.

The librarian Barbara Sessions (1899–1980) had majored in English at Smith College, where she met the composer Roger Sessions (1896–1985). They were married in 1920 and eventually lived in the Villino Cordignano on Bernard Berenson’s Florentine estate, Villa I Tatti. She assisted Berenson there as librarian and researcher. The Sessionses divorced in 1936, the year the Blisses hired her to help augment the Byzantine library at Dumbarton Oaks in preparation for the opening of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. She remained at Dumbarton Oaks until 1946. Reporting to Sessions were Berta Segall, who supervised the art collections; Margaret Rathbone, cataloger and research librarian; Elizabeth Dow and Louisa Bellinger, researchers for the Census of Byzantine and Early Christian Objects in North American Collections; Nathalie Scheffer, librarian in charge of the Slavic language division; and Elizabeth Bland, secretary to the librarian and acting registrar.

Bryce was in charge of the Gardens and Grounds, and had served as head gardener for the Blisses since 1936. He served as superintendent until 1948. During the Second World War, Bryce led other staff members in giving Victory Garden demonstrations to local groups interested in growing their own food. The Dumbarton Oaks kitchen garden became the focus of this initiative, but the Blisses also provided a half-acre at Massachusetts Avenue and Whitehaven Street for community Victory Garden plots.

At the sides of the “Chart of Personnel” are the words “Inspiration” and “Anima,” with arrows pointing to the founders, “Mr. & Mrs. Bliss.”