Courtesy Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives
Special Collections Library, Duke University
Five articles on the Digital Collections program at Duke University Libraries.
- Digitization at Duke: How it all started…
by Steve Hensen
With twenty-five digital collections on the Web, the Duke University Libraries are recognized for their leadership in the digitization of… [read more]
- What Gets Digitized?: Giving Local Collections Global Reach
by Jill Katte
Photos of Fidel Castro in his kitchen, World War II-era ration coupons and Nazi propaganda comic books, rare string quartets and song sheets, images of Duke Chapel… [read more]
- Opening the Door to Digital Collections
by Sean Aery
OK, let’s face it. Library website interfaces that provide access to digital library resources generally aren’t as easy to use as they should be… [read more]
- Building a Digital Collection One Step at a Time
by Michael Adamo, Noah Huffman and Richard Murray
A visitor exploring one of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections is probably too engrossed in the content to… [read more]
- Duke Digital Collections in the Classroom
by Jill Katte
Instructors in many academic disciplines have enriched their teaching by using digitized primary sources… [read more]
Learn More about Digital Collections at Duke University Libraries
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers,
who let me finish the writing of the Zemmâre and the Mawâs’et
in peace and well-being,
for ever and ever. May it be!”
(Colophon of ms. Duke Eth. 83)
Courtesy Lucas Van Rompay
Magic scrolls, Psalters, prayers, and hymns are among the treasures in a collection of more than one hundred Ethiopic manuscripts at Duke’s Special Collections Library. Christianity was introduced in Ethiopia in the 4th century AD and established by Egyptian missionaries. The Ethiopian Christian church retained its connection to the Patriarch of Alexandria until the 20th century.
The manuscripts at Duke are representative of a worldwide diaspora of the Ethiopian Christian heritage that began in the second half of the twentieth century and continues today. While the removal of the manuscripts from Ethiopia is regrettable, Professor Lucas Van Rompay takes a pragmatic view:
As scholars, we cannot undo the process by which these objects left Ethiopia and arrived here, but we can in our own way halt their movement from their original environment. By giving these objects our respect and scholarly attention and by using all possible modern technologies—such as digitizing—we can help to ensure that they will be available for study and research by the international scholarly community as well as by Ethiopian Christians in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Van Rompay, a member of Duke’s Department of Religion faculty, and Aaron Butts from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations intend to do just that—increase visibility of the manuscripts in the Duke collection and make them more readily available. The manuscripts are certainly of value to biblical scholars and to students of early Christianity. However, scholars and students of African history, popular religion, and manuscript production (all the manuscripts are written on parchment and the bindings often have interesting and rare features) will also use them.
Colophon of ms. Duke Eth. 83 from Duke’s Special Collections Library
Courtesy Lucas Van Rompay
For the past two summers Van Rompay and Butts have been working with the manuscripts, preparing a catalogue of the Duke holdings that will be published in 2010. Their catalogue will supersede an unpublished description of manuscripts 1-29 compiled in 1979 by William F. Macomber, a well-known scholar of Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic Christianity; Macomber died in 2008.
Amulet from Duke’s Special Collections Library
The twenty-nine items Professor Macomber studied include seventeen magic scrolls as well as eight Psalters, one Gospel of John, two collections of prayers, and one collection of the Miracles of the Virgin Mary. Van Rompay and Butts are cataloguing all of the manuscripts Duke has acquired since 1979 as well as the twenty-nine that Macomber described. Among the more recent acquisitions are additional magic scrolls (five with amulets), biblical texts, hymns, liturgical collections and devotional prayer books, hagiography, theological writings, and miscellaneous materials.
Most of the manuscripts date from the 19th or 20th centuries, with only a few originating as early as the 18th century. Yet, while the manuscripts are relatively recent, they are of interest to scholars because of their distinctive characteristics, the textual evidence they contain and the record of Ethiopian Christianity in the modern period that they provide.
The twenty-eight Psalter manuscripts offer much to explore, from textual patterns that almost certainly reflect local religious traditions to a variation in the content of some of the prayers to an occasional unique binding to a single illustrated Psalter. This Psalter, one of only two manuscripts in the collection with illustrations as old as the manuscripts themselves, has a carefully executed drawing of King David holding his harp. The other illustration, in one of the prayer book manuscripts, is a modest, but very fine drawing of the Archangel Michael, with crown and wings and carrying a staff. In both cases, there is a clear connection between the content of the manuscript and the illustration. The rarity and simple character of the illuminations are in keeping with the general nature of the Duke collection, evidence that these manuscripts must have belonged to, and been produced on behalf of, individuals or monastic or church congregations of limited means.
The eight hymn manuscripts in the Duke collection are among its highlights. Several were intended for liturgical use: their script is smaller than that of the other manuscripts, and there is interlinear musical annotation. One collection of hymns is attributed to Yared, the father of Ethiopic hymnography.
Ethiopic hymns are typically structured around the feasts of the liturgical year. Many of the hymns are based on the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and may be seen as liturgical commentaries on the Bible, not unlike the hymns of other Christian churches. The liturgical structure of two of the groups of hymns in the Duke collection is similar to hymn manuscripts in the British Library but with sufficient variation to merit more scholarly attention.
In the field of hagiography, the biography of saints and venerated persons, one noteworthy group of three manuscripts, Dersana Mika’el, is a collection of texts related to the monthly feasts of the Archangel Michael. Each month typically includes a homily, a miracle, a salutation, and often an “explanation of the feast.” This collection is of interest, not only for its obvious links with Coptic and Christian-Arabic homilies about Michael, but also for the homilies’ attributions to church fathers of the early Christian age (Timothy of Alexandria, Epiphanius of Cyprus, and Severus of Antioch) as well as to later Ethiopian authors (John of Ethiopia and John of Aksum).
One of the prayer scrolls unrolled
Photo by Eleanor Mills
Duke’s forty-seven magic scrolls, also called prayer scrolls, many acquired bundled together, are of a recent date, although they are written in Ge’ez, a language no longer spoken in Ethiopia but which persists as the Ethiopian Church’s liturgical language. One of the most fascinating aspects of the scrolls is that, in contrast to the manuscripts, the prayers they contain address particular concerns of Ethiopian women, including illness, sterility, and unhappiness in love. Indeed, the prominence of women in these prayer scrolls raises questions that beg for further research.
With the publication of the Van Rompay and Butts catalogue, information about the Duke Ethiopic manuscript holdings will be available to anyone with access to the Internet. Digitization of the manuscripts, which is being discussed, will make the content of the manuscripts themselves available as well.
Lucas Van Rompay and Aaron Butts
Instructors in many academic disciplines have enriched their teaching by using digitized primary sources in the classroom. Recently, Duke librarians Lynn Eaton and Emily Daly worked with faculty member Keith Wilhite to provide instruction for his Writing 20 class entitled “ReWriting the 1950s.” Students explored the Libraries’ Ad*Access digital collection for an assignment that required them to create visual annotations of 1950s advertisements. According to Wilhite, the annotations provided a cultural context for the images the students selected and presented an ‘argument’ about the relationship between the image and 1950s’ U.S. culture.”
Check out the Ad*Access digital collection
Michael Adamo, Noah Huffman and Richard Murray
A visitor exploring one of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections is probably too engrossed in the content to think very much about how the collection got there. In fact, each digital collection is the product of a collaboration of eight to ten staff from several library departments who work together in a cross-functional team. The team begins each new project with a workplan and proceeds through a series of steps that culminates in the collection’s public launch.
The project workplan includes a timeline as well as statements of resource and staff requirements. Sometimes the workplan also calls for an investigation of copyright or other intellectual property issues.
With the workplan complete, materials identified for inclusion in the digital collection go to the Libraries’ conservation lab where the staff assesses their physical condition and, if it is necessary, repairs or stabilizes them before they are scanned. The conservation treatment protects the materials from damage during digitization and preserves the physical items and their content to ensure their longevity after they’ve been scanned and returned to the stacks.
Following their stop in the conservation lab, materials are ready for digitization. Because the materials being digitized are often one-of-a-kind artifacts that may be in poor or delicate physical condition, it’s important that the electronic versions be of high quality, complete, and accurate representations of the physical object. Most digitization is done at Perkins Library in the Digital Production Center, where, depending on the items’ physical characteristics, they may be scanned on a flatbed scanner or photographed with an overhead camera. Some materials, such as film or audio recordings, may be digitized elsewhere if the appropriate equipment or expertise is not available in-house. Before the Digital Production Center staff releases the digital images, they do quality control, which includes everything from checking color accuracy to inspecting images for dust.
While it might seem that scanning and digitizing materials are the essence of what it takes to build a digital collection, this process is still just part of the initial phase of the project. The next step, assembling metadata, the information about the materials being digitized, is detailed and complex work that establishes the collection’s value to users. Without metadata, a 5000-item digital collection would be as difficult to use as 5000 photographs dumped on a tabletop.
Creating the metadata entails deciding what information to collect about the individual items in the collection, how to organize and describe each item, and what kind of terminology to use to lead people to the materials in the collection. Applying metadata can include adding captions to images, keywords to vintage advertisements, plot summaries to videos, and many other forms of description, as well as grouping similar objects into categories that users can browse. Archivists, catalogers, and other staff who provide metadata for digital collections employ the same skills they have always used to describe and arrange more traditional library materials.
While digitized items and metadata are crucial to building a successful digital collection, the collection’s user interface is an equally important element: What will users see when they view the collection on the Libraries’ website? How will they perceive and use the digital objects? To optimize the user’s experience, the production team works with librarians and other subject specialists on campus to create contextual information about each collection and present it in a way that will engage users. For a collection of photographs, for example, we may offer biographical information about the photographer, descriptions of the equipment and processes he or she used, and essays discussing the time period and cultural setting in which the photos were taken as well as the significance of the collection.
Once the team has digitized items, created metadata to describe them, and designed the user interface to display them, the collection is almost ready for publication—after the completion of two final steps. First, the technology staff brings together the data and files, which may exist in a variety of formats in many locations, to create the single database that users will see. Then, the new digital collection is placed on a preproduction server, a staging area where library staff can view, test, and experiment with it, looking for any bugs, errors, or unfortunate surprises. Once the team decides that the collection is ready for the world, we move it to the production server and it “goes live.” We announce the new digital collection in many different ways, from official press releases to posts to blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and then watch with pride as users begin to discover and explore the digital collection we’ve built.
OK, let’s face it. Library website interfaces that provide access to digital library resources generally aren’t as easy to use as they should be—especially when compared to commercial sites. Have you ever had trouble finding something on Amazon.com, Google, or YouTube? Probably not. You don’t have to read a manual or take a special class to know how to browse and search these sites. They just work. Why should library website interfaces be any different?
Libraries, including the Duke Libraries, have to keep pace with the rapidly evolving Web, which is constantly giving people new and more powerful interfaces for finding, creating, organizing, and sharing information. When you search our digital collections site, whether you’re doing research, seeking inspiration for artwork or photography, or simply satisfying your curiosity, we want the experience to be rewarding enough to keep library.duke.edu among your favorite sites. Here are a few features we’ve incorporated to keep people coming back:
A single search box. In one search, you can explore a topic across more than 20 collections with content ranging from consumer culture and advertising to women’s history.
Search refinements. As you browse and search the collections, you’ll often encounter hundreds or even thousands of results at a time. Like many online shopping sites, we provide several options that serve as guideposts for narrowing your results—one step at a time—to help you pinpoint the items you seek.
Simple Web addresses. Each of the more than 50,000 items in the digital collections has its own Web address. This means that anyone can find our collections through any Web search engine; access isn’t limited to just those users who visit the Duke Libraries’ website. In fact, search engines drive almost 40% of the visits to our site. This also means that you can easily bookmark any item to return to later, cite, or share with friends and colleagues through social networking and bookmarking services like Facebook, Twitter, and StumbleUpon. These services have driven over 50,000 visits this year—nearly 10% of our inbound traffic—and are often the primary drivers to our most frequently viewed items.
Digital videos. Building on our initial success in creating digital collections of photos, printed advertisements, sheet music, and other materials, we have recently introduced our first two digital video collections: AdViews (thousands of vintage TV commercials) and the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive (over 100 interviews featuring cultural icons of the 1970s and 80s). These two new collections led us to explore two popular services—YouTube and iTunes—as delivery systems for library digital collections, and the impact has been tremendous. The Diamonstein-Spielvogel collection has attracted over 63,000 viewers in its first year online, and AdViews amassed an astounding half-million views in its first two weeks alone.
Mobile and interactive access. We have been looking beyond the traditional point-and-click navigational approach and anticipating increased access from devices other than desktops and laptops. This year we became the first library to offer image collections through an iPhone or iPod Touch interface. DukeMobile, a free iPhone ‘app’ with Duke maps, news, directories, and multimedia on-the-go, literally puts our digital collections into the palm of your hand—any time and any place. Another new interface, a ‘3D Wall,’ allows you to view hundreds of images together on a continuous plane while zooming in or out and scrolling quickly through the collections without having to wait for new web pages to load.
We’re excited about what we’ve done so far, but we’re just as excited about what’s ahead for the Digital Collections Program. We’re currently redesigning our Web interface to the digital collections, making changes that are more than cosmetic: Want a printable PDF of a piece of sheet music from 1850? You’ll soon be able to get it with a simple click. Want to flip effortlessly through that 100-page 19th-century cookbook? We’ll make it possible. We’ll provide new search capabilities, better ways to view, export, cite, and embed items, and tighter integration between the collections we’re hosting ourselves and the ones that reside on YouTube and elsewhere.
To increase the distribution of our digital collections, we employ tools such as syndication and aggregation. Syndication means storing and exposing our collections and data so you can find, search, and use them through any number of interfaces, not just our site, and not just Google. Aggregation lets us connect you to relevant information no matter where it resides. Our cross-collection searching is one example of aggregation, but aggregation offers the potential for searching beyond the holdings of a single institution. For example, imagine executing a single search to find digitized Civil War era documents held by ten university libraries (including Duke). Imagine finding an item in our site and in the same record seeing related items, blog posts, videos, and other resources pulled in from around the Web. The more connected our collections are to each other, to other libraries’ collections, and to resources on the open Web, the easier it will be for you to find them.
Giving Local Collections Global Reach
Photos of Fidel Castro in his kitchen, World War II-era ration coupons and Nazi propaganda comic books, rare string quartets and song sheets, images of Duke Chapel under construction, portraits from a 1920s African American photography studio, and a video interview of choreographer Merce Cunningham. These diverse materials and other resources from the Duke University Libraries, reborn as digital collections, are now available at Duke and around the world.
The Libraries launched its Digital Collections Program in 2008, consolidating many disparate digitization projects into a formal initiative supported by a cross-functional team of expert staff from across the Libraries. In establishing the Digital Collections Program, the Libraries set several objectives:
- Create digital collections that are distinctive in terms of their content and/or the means of access they provide to their content;
- Provide digital access to library and archival materials at Duke, especially materials that reflect strengths in the Libraries’ collections and that are useful for teaching, learning, and research at Duke and elsewhere
The digitized Walt Whitman manuscripts and the portfolio of documentary photographer William Gedney are two of the Libraries’ distinctive collections that are now readily accessible to the campus community and researchers worldwide. The Whitman collection includes manuscript drafts and revisions of his poetry and prose as well as proofs and published versions of his work from his early career in journalism up through the end of his life. The 5,000-item Gedney collection includes selections from the photographer’s finished prints, work prints, contact sheets, notes, notebooks, handmade photographic books, book dummies, and correspondence
- Transform unique teaching and research materials of broad value held by Duke faculty members, departments, and programs into digital collections that are searchable and accessible over the Web
The Americans in the Land of Lenin digital collection brings together photographs documenting the daily life in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the personal papers of Robert L. Eichelberger and Frank Whitson Fetter held at Duke. The collection complements the University of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections as well as the Russia Beyond Russia Digital Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, providing scholars everywhere with a wealth of primary research sources online.
- Reformat and preserve text, image, sound, and moving image collections that are not readily accessible in their current format or would be damaged by use in that format
Prior to digitization, videos in the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive and television commercial films in the AdViews collection were essentially inaccessible because researchers who wanted to see them had to request viewing copies, an expensive and time-consuming process. Transforming the interviews and commercials into highly-accessible digital collections has led to their viewing by hundreds of thousands of visitors, while protecting the original films and videos.
- Contribute collaboratively to national and international digital collections initiatives that benefit Duke and the larger research community
The Digital Collections Program participates in the Open Content Alliance, a permanent online archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia material from institutions around the world. Duke has contributed The Chanticleer yearbooks from 1912-1960, as well as Utopian literature, advertising texts, and other materials.
We knew when we began the digitization program that in addition to articulating clear objectives, we also needed to define a rationale, an organizing principle, which would guide us in choosing from among many worthwhile projects the ones that would best support interdisciplinary research, visual studies, and global engagement at Duke. We considered these University priorities and the Libraries’ collecting strengths and arrived at four themes that would drive the development of digital collections: advertising and consumer culture, documentary photography and film, Duke University history, and transcultural experience.
In addition to selecting projects that fit all of the criteria, we are intentionally digitizing diverse formats and media types, including images, texts, film, video and audio. As of September 2009, we offer nearly 40,000 digital objects in a cross-searchable interface, all freely available to researchers on campus and worldwide. The following samples provide a sense of the diversity and richness of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections.
AdViews provides access to a wide range of vintage brand advertising from television’s first four decades, the 1950s to the 1980s. When AdViews is completed in December 2009, it will include 12,000 commercials produced by D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (DMB&B), a New York advertising firm founded in 1929. The DMB&B archives are held at Duke in the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, a research center in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
This collection documents the life and work of Durham, NC, activist and community organizer, Sam Reed, and The Trumpet of Conscience, which was both an organization and publication that he founded in Durham. From 1987 to 2000, the Trumpet of Conscience worked to promote social justice and improve race relations. The group’s mission was “To come together, to listen to one another, to strive toward reducing and eliminating the root causes of crime and divisiveness in our midst.”
The Sam Reed and the Trumpet of Conscience digital collection includes newsletters, planning documents, photographs, awards, speeches, and interviews created and collected by Sam Reed. These materials are held in the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
From 1908 to 1932, Sidney Gamble visited China four times, traveling throughout the country to collect data for social-economic surveys and to photograph urban and rural life, public events, architecture, religious statuary, and the countryside. A sociologist, renowned China scholar, and avid amateur photographer, Gamble used some of the pictures to illustrate his books. The Sidney D. Gamble Photographs digital collection of approximately 5,000 photographs represents the first comprehensive public presentation of this large body of work that also includes images of Korea, Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Russia.
Digitization of the collection was performed using the original, highly-flammable nitrate negatives. The Sidney D. Gamble papers are part of the Archive of Documentary Arts in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
To learn more about all of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections, visit the A to Z list of collections at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/az-list.html.
With twenty-five digital collections on the Web, the Duke University Libraries are recognized for their leadership in the digitization of library materials. But the Duke Libraries’ leadership extends beyond merely making its collections more accessible via the Internet. The Libraries are also establishing digitization procedures and standards and contributing to a national conversation on the possibilities and limitations of digital technology.
The Libraries’ initial involvement with digitization was in some ways more the consequence of serendipity than careful planning. But I like to think that once we began it was nimbleness and a willingness to take chances that led us to explore the new technology with the most ancient of our collections and, further, to do this before the Internet as we know it even existed.
In 1992 the Special Collections Library and Duke’s Department of Classical Studies were working on an NEH-funded project to preserve, photograph and better integrate the Library’s holdings of papyri into the research mainstream by entering records of our holdings into Duke’s online catalog. Our collection of around 1,400 Egyptian papyri, dating from the 12th century BCE to the 10th century of the present era, was an important documentary resource for Coptologists, Egyptologists, students of literature and religion and anyone else interested in ancient Egypt.
Although the materials were rare and unique, we approached the collection as simply another archival resource and created standard catalog records for the items. The project also required that all the pieces in the collection be photographed. We briefly discussed digital scanning (then in its infancy in libraries), but we eventually dismissed the process as being too complex and too expensive.
Concurrent with our papyrus project, the Research Libraries Group selected the Duke Libraries and eight other institutions with significant photography holdings to explore access and description issues for digital photography collections. Each institution submitted 1,000 images from its collections (in Duke’s case, the images were drawn from 14 different collections) on the general theme of the urban landscape. A Texas firm scanned the images and then set about creating an Internet-accessible database that would provide a framework for both describing and viewing the images.
But both the image and papyrus projects were overtaken by rapid advances in Internet technology. In 1993 everyone began talking about Mosaic, the first graphical browser for something called the “World Wide Web.” It became clear to us almost instantly that Mosaic offered a much more dynamic approach to sharing digital images from the papyrus collection. The potential for the image project was the same. After hundreds of hours of work, the Internet image database was nearly complete when someone hesitantly pointed out that if we used the Web we could do everything we had been trying to accomplish on our own and do it much better. The database was scrapped and the project disbanded, though each of the participating institutions took their images back and promptly created websites for them.
Moving the Duke Papyrus Archive to the Web sparked a revolution within the field of papyrology and led to the development of increasingly sophisticated databases. Columbia University now hosts the Advanced Papyrological Information System, which has searchable digital images of virtually every important papyrus collection from around the world in addition to integrated access to important research and editorial tools. Similarly, the Urban Landscape images are now just one small part of the rapidly growing Duke Digital Collections.
With the success of these projects came the realization that many other collections were also good candidates for digitization—especially those that comprised unique resources and were either heavily used or of special interest to scholars and the public. Over the next few years, the Digital Scriptorium, the unit formed within the Special Collections Library to manage digital projects, undertook collaborations with the Library of Congress American Memory/National Digital Library, creating two sites, Historic American Sheet Music and the Emergence of Advertising in America, the latter drawing on the collections of the Libraries’ John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History. Subsequent partnerships with the Duke Endowment, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Humanities Center, and others supported two more sites devoted to advertising, Ad*Access and Medicine and Madison Avenue, and another dedicated to the work of documentary photographer William Gedney.
While each project has provided lessons and led to advances in technology and project management, overall we have gained an understanding of the great opportunity digitized collections give us for sharing our resources with the world of scholars, students, and the general public. Because the most obvious candidates for digitization are often found in the unique resources in special collections libraries, it has been especially important to develop a common descriptive framework so that all the digitized materials—whether they are papyri, sheet music, documentary photographs, or journals and books—can be searched though a standardized user interface.
The Story of Two Books
The Writing of 444 Days: The Hostages Remember and Guests of the Ayatollah
In the spring of 2003, as many of journalist Mark Bowden’s reporter friends journeyed to Afghanistan to write about the progress of post-9/11 U.S. military initiatives or to Iraq to cover what would prove to be the last weeks of Saddam Hussein’s reign, Bowden had other plans.
Bowden, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, the author of the bestselling book Black Hawk Down, and a screenwriter on the blockbuster movie adaptation of that book, also hoped to travel to the Middle East to work on a story, but his destination was neither Afghanistan nor Iraq; to his colleagues’ surprise, he was instead headed to neighboring Iran.
Nearly three years earlier, at the urging of sources he had cultivated while writing Black Hawk Down, an account of a U.S. military mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Killing Pablo, about the hunt for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Bowden had begun work on a new project, a narrative of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. His sources, among them several men involved with Delta Force, the U.S. Army’s elite counterterrorism unit, believed they could give him unprecedented access to people and documents relating to the legendary unit’s first mission, a failed attempt to rescue the Americans who had been held hostage in Iran.
As Bowden began to read about the event, he realized that all of the books that had been published—personal narratives by former hostages, policy reviews by government officials, military histories—seemed incomplete, telling only small pieces of the story. He began to envision a book that would weave the various stories into a comprehensive account of the hostages’ 444-day ordeal, the rescue mission, and the political negotiations going on behind the scenes.
By 2003, Bowden was deep into the material. He had read all of the contemporary news articles detailing the crisis that he could find and had scoured memoirs written by former hostages. He had also begun tracking down former hostages and interviewing them about their experiences.
Early on, he had come across a copy of Tim Wells’s 444 Days: The Hostages Remember, a work of oral history published in 1985 that wove together passages from interviews with 27 former hostages. Bowden was amazed by both the number and depth of Wells’s interviews, but also curious about what might have been left on the editing room floor. For example, there was a series of interviews with Bill Daugherty, a CIA officer who was harshly interrogated for months by his captors. “If you look in Tim’s book, there might be five or six sentences taken from Bill Daugherty,” Bowden says. “I said to myself, ‘to get those five or six sentences, he must have done an extensive interview.'”
Bowden noted that Wells, a Duke alumnus, had donated his tapes and transcripts, along with other research materials, to the University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library (RBMSCL). He scheduled a trip to Durham to see what else he might find in the Wells collection.
“It was like discovering hidden treasure,” Bowden recalls. “There were these long, involved interviews done with the hostages just a year or two after their release. Here I am tracking them down twenty years on, and here was the original stuff. Just an ocean of it.” He was especially pleased to find thorough interviews of hostages who had since passed away, or whom he had not been able to reach.
“I remember going to the woman who was working at the library there, telling her I wanted to copy the collection,” he says. Bowden pledged, when he was done with his own book, to donate his materials to the library so that they could sit alongside Wells’s for the convenience of future generations of researchers, a promise he followed through on soon after the publication of Guests of the Ayatollah in 2006.
Together, the Wells and Bowden collections represent a wealth of firsthand information about the hostage crisis—in the form of taped interviews and transcriptions, but also artifacts like personal letters and diaries. The materials provide a fascinating look not just into the minds of the hostages and their captors, but also into how the research process works. “If somebody wants to write a full and complete history of the [Jimmy] Carter presidency, I don’t think they’ll be able to do it without going through the Duke University library,” Tim Wells says. “Not just because of me, but because of Mark and other contributions along the way.”
The Iranian hostage crisis, which began thirty years ago this fall, was a pivotal event in Carter’s presidency. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students scaled the walls of the United States embassy in the capital city of Tehran and took hostage some sixty staff members. Their initial intention, members of the group later said, was simply to stage a short but highly visible protest to inform the world of America’s crimes against their country—among them the 1953 CIA-led coup that ousted Iran’s democratically elected government, subsequent American support of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s violent regime, and the U.S.’s decision in October to admit the deposed shah, whom Iranian revolutionaries wished to bring to trial and punish, ostensibly for cancer treatment.
But what began as a student protest was fed by the enthusiastic support of rioters across the city. Caught up in the moment, the Iranian students bound their captives, whom they suspected of spying, imprisoned them, and interrogated them. Motivated by revolutionary zeal and by what they saw as the will of the Ayatollah Khomeini, they combed the embassy—or “spy den,” as they called it—for paperwork that they believed would prove their worst suspicions about the U.S. When all was said and done, they would hold fifty-two of the hostages for 444 days, releasing them only after Carter, their perceived arch-enemy, was replaced after his first term by Ronald Reagan, whom they believed, incorrectly it turned out, would be more sympathetic to their plight.
As all this was going on, American media outlets had few facts to report, often relying instead on rumor and suspicion to fill their stories. Foreign diplomats were able to communicate, on and off, with three top U.S. officials who were held separately in the Iranian foreign ministry offices, and the hostage-takers staged a handful of media-friendly holiday “parties,” but for the most part, the hostages’ stories would not be told until after their release.
In January 1981, when the hostages were released, Tim Wells was just three-and-a-half years out of college, working as a paralegal for a Washington, DC, law firm. The hostage crisis, he recalls, “was one of the first major news stories in the world that I’d ever paid attention to.”
“The story ran for fourteen months, and then all of a sudden it was over, and everybody went home,” he says. “I thought it was one of the most intensely covered but virtually unknown stories ever to come along. Nobody really knew what happened to the hostages during those fourteen months other than the hostages and the terrorists.”
His curiosity was further piqued by a chance meeting with Bill Belk, a former hostage who had served as a state department communications and records officer in Tehran. Wells began to track down hostages to interview them about their experiences. Fortuitously, many of the former hostages, as state department employees, had remained in the Washington area, and Wells was able to find them fairly easily and without incurring much expense.
“Once I got through with the Washington people,” he says, “I had to travel, particularly to see the military folks. I was pulling a credit card out of my pocket and hoping I could get a book contract and pay it back. My girlfriend thought I was crazy.”
His enthusiasm paid off. After compiling several hundred pages of manuscript, in which he interspersed brief historical synopses with firsthand hostage accounts, he sent his unsolicited draft to an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., whose work he admired; the editor purchased the book on the spot.
But as Mark Bowden would suspect years later, Wells’s 469-page book would represent just a fraction of the work Wells put into his interviews. Over the course of three years, he had talked to thirty-six of the former hostages, often speaking to the same person on multiple occasions. As he went, he typed up transcripts of the conversations, producing more than 5,000 pages of notes, all of which now reside at Duke’s Special Collections Library, along with his original tapes.
The first manila file folder in the Wells collection contains the yellowed transcript of an interview with Bill Gallegos, a 22-year-old marine guard at the time of the embassy takeover. The interview was completed on January 3, 1984, less than two years after his release:
“TIM: Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of what you were doing before you went to Tehran?
“BILL: I went to embassy school before I went to Tehran. Let’s see, I spent a year in Okinawa, Japan. And from there I went to Quantico, Virginia, to embassy school.”
As the conversation progresses, Wells asks his subject about whether he was aware of the risks he faced in Tehran: “Every place that I put on the dream sheet was a hot spot,” Gallegos replies, referring to the list of preferred assignments he submitted prior to receiving his posting. “So—I wanted to go—I’m adventurous I guess.”
Wells walks Gallegos and the other former hostages through their stories patiently, allowing them time to finish thoughts before asking for specific details that will help him, as an oral historian, to recreate the scene for readers.
Joe Hall, a military attaché, talks about the early days of captivity. “I mean I was really starting to feel gross. I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I hadn’t bathed. I was going on like four or five days in the same clothes by then. Hadn’t slept worth a darn….” “How about street noise at that time?” Wells asks.
The audio tapes of the interviews are fuzzy with age, but it’s intriguing the hear the former hostages’ voices coming through a quarter of a century later, calmly discussing their ordeal, at the time just a few years removed from the experience. Those are the words that Bowden heard when he visited the library to examine the Wells papers almost twenty years later.
Bowden’s research process was somewhat different than Wells’s. While Wells was primarily interested in collecting the firsthand accounts of the hostages, Bowden hoped to weave the hostages’ stories into a larger narrative. He began, with the help of a research assistant, by running a computer search and pulling all contemporary news articles that mentioned the crisis. At the Carter Center in Georgia, he found tapes of contemporary news broadcasts, which he had transcribed. He read every book he could get his hands on that dealt with the crisis.
Like Wells, he spoke to as many former hostages as he could locate, ultimately interviewing twenty-nine. But he also expanded the scope of his inquiry, tracking down several of the former hostage-takers, some of them who later served in government posts, to hear the other side of the story. His planned trip to Iran in 2003 was pushed back and then cancelled, but he did visit twice over the next two years, getting a feel for the rhythms of Tehran, and walking inside the old embassy.
In addition, he drew on his military contacts to learn about the failed rescue attempt—a topic that Wells had shied away from because it would have distracted him from the hostages’ story—and about roles played by the few CIA officers stationed at the embassy, information that Wells had not been able to pry loose at the time.
Bowden’s papers are revealing. The first five-and-a-half boxes, out of a total of nineteen, consist of bound news articles, drawn from an online database and organized by date. In the week after the crisis, there are 137 articles that discuss it. On January 19, 1981, the day before the hostages are released, there are 136.
Other boxes contain information about the rescue operation, a trial transcript from Roeder et al v. Iran, a class action suit filed by former hostages in U.S. court, a diplomatic chronology, and Xerox copies of several shredded and reassembled “spy den” documents, mostly innocuous files taken from the embassy by the Iranians and presented as evidence of U.S. spying.
There are six boxes of files on the hostages. For some hostages, there is little more than a typed and bound transcript, with lines numbered for easy reference. But for others, there are handwritten outlines and questions that Bowden has jotted down. There are things as mundane as Mapquest directions to former hostages’ houses alongside copies of more significant artifacts like diaries and letters written from captivity. Flipping through the files, you get a sense of the hugeness of the task Bowden faced in telling the story.
Bob Ode was a retired Foreign Service officer on temporary duty in Tehran when the students stormed the embassy. Among the items in his file is a copy of the Christmas card, dated “December 27, 1979, 54th Day,” that he sent to his wife a month and a half after later. There is also a letter he sent to Sen. John Warner.
Ode, who died in 1995, had compiled a calendar of significant events, such as his captors’ return of his wedding ring on December 16, the forty-third day of his captivity. His wife gave copies of the calendar and Ode’s 114-page diary to Bowden.
Bowden dedicates a great deal of attention to timelines, to figuring out who was where, when, and with whom. On the outside of Bill Belk’s file, Bowden has jotted out a brief outline of Belk’s movements around the embassy complex while in captivity, tracing his path from the staff cottages to the ambassador’s residence, to the “Mushroom Inn,” a warehouse basement (where he was kept with fellow hostage Malcolm Kalp), to solitary confinement after an attempted escape, to the chancery basement (he was held with Donald Hohman), to an upper floor of the chancery. In many of the folders are loose typed sheets, copies of Wells’s original interview transcripts, often with notes and follow-up questions scrawled in the margins in Bowden’s handwriting.
After Bowden’s visit to the RBMSCL, he contacted Wells, who is now the editor of the Washington, DC Bar Association’s Washington Lawyer magazine, to make sure that there were no copyright issues involved in the use of his transcripts. “I worried that since I was using his work in a sense, that he might feel some sense of ownership,” Bowden says. “He could not have been more generous about it. It was something he’d done a long time ago, and he’d moved on. If it could be of use to me, it was great.”
- Tim Wells. 444 Days: The Hostages Remember. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Also by Tim Wells:
- Drug Wars: An Oral History from the Trenches. New York: W. Morrow, 1992.
- Mark Bowden. Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.
Also by Mark Bowden:
- The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.
- Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.
- Bringing the Heat. New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1994.
- Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire. New York: Warner Books, 1987.
- Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.
- Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001.
Explore the Collections:
- Tim Wells Papers, 1982-1986. Papers comprise 546 audiocassette tapes, including masters, sub-masters, and use copies; 83 tape transcripts; signed release waivers and consent forms; magazine clippings; manuscript of 444 Days: The Hostages Remember.
- Mark Bowden Papers, circa 1979-2002. Transcripts of interviews with American hostages, Iranian hostage takers, and members of the military who were involved in the 1980 rescue attempt; bound news clippings
- Stephen Kinzer. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
- Kinzer, Stephen. “Inside Iran’s Fury.” Smithsonian, October 2008, 60.
- PBS’s “Jimmy Carter: American Experience” at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/
Internet Sites Selected for the Readers of Duke University Libraries
Your Disease Risk
This useful site, created by the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention and now hosted by the Washington University School of Medicine, allows users to determine their potential risks for various cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, and strokes by answering a few questions. Another section of the site lists eight ways to prevent disease and answers such commonly-asked questions as “What is prevention?” and “What is a screening test?” A “Community Action” link offers helpful ideas on supporting healthy lifestyles within a community, such as supporting nutrition programs in the local schools and supporting or starting a community garden.
For those who are puzzled by proposed reforms to the U.S. health care system, this website is a great resource. The RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution that tackles tough policy problems across a broad spectrum, has created this website to provide factual information about this important and complex issue. The link “U.S. Health Care Today” covers nine topics—consumer financial risk, patient experience, waste, reliability, and coverage—that are crucial to understanding the current state of the health care system. Another link, “Policy Options,” leads to information about the consequences of potential changes to insurance coverage, payment rules, and delivery of health services.
Health care policy proposals have been developed by Congress, governors, and state lawmakers as well as private organizations and coalitions. These proposals and their current status are found under the “Proposals” link. Click the “Analysis of Options” link to see a unique chart called the Policy Options Dashboard that outlines the effects various policy changes would have on the topics listed in the “U.S. Health Care Today” link.
MayoClinic.com: First Aid
As part of its mission to serve as a reliable source of health information, the Mayo Clinic has created an extensive website containing information about diseases, conditions, and healthy lifestyles. Included is a basic guide to first aid that provides free and medically sound advice. The guide covers over thirty subjects, including the proper care for dislocations, burns, bruises, frostbite, animal bites, heart attacks, sunburn, toothache, and trauma. The section for each subject gives a description of the symptoms and clear directions for treatment.
Thanks to the Internet Scout Project (Copyright Internet Scout Project, 1994-2009. http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/) for identifying these sites. If you would like to recommend a Web site for inclusion in a future issue of Duke University Libraries, contact Joline Ezzell at firstname.lastname@example.org.