Rock star interviews, ‘raw, complete and unedited’– The Katz Tapes

Northeastern Global News Magazine recently published an article about one of the coolest collections we have in the archives, The Katz Tapes. The tapes are the result of reporter Larry Katz’ 30+ years of arts and music reporting for Boston-based newspapers such as the Real Paper and the Boston Herald. Larry would record an interview, usually on a cassette, write his article, and then throw the tape in a box. When he retired, he took the tapes home and decided to do something with them.

I started talking with Larry in 2019 about what his goals for the collection were, and we agreed to take a modular, one project at a time, approach to making sense of, and providing access to, the collection. First, Northeastern’s Digital Production Services (DPS) team digitized the tapes, identified the speakers and interview dates, spliced and split the files (sometimes there were two interviews on one tape and sometimes interviews were on Side A and B).

Then, Larry took this massive spreadsheet and added bits of information from his memories about the interviews– where they were held, the tone of the interview, etc.. He also added citations to the resulting articles to the spreadsheet.

Along the way, Archives staff built a portal to the collection, scraped and included blog post content from Larry’s original web site, and even created a Spotify playlist of sample songs referenced in the interviews. It is here:

To get to this point, this project has required thousands of hours of detailed work by DPS, Archives staff, and Larry himself. We met over zoom dozens of times in order to get all of the details right, and to make sure that the project has continued momentum. The DPS department, led by Sarah Sweeney, are the true heroes of this project. Although only alluded to briefly in this article, they deserve all of the praise in the world for making this project happen.

Are we done? Definitely not. Larry kept “tear sheets” of all of the articles he produced. We intend to digitize these articles (and have gotten permission from the Herald to do so). Larry also partially transcribed some of the interviews. We would like to include these transcriptions, but will need to analyze how useful they would be for researchers, if a software/ bot transcription will be more useful, or both!

The article content follows:

Rock star interviews, ‘raw, complete and unedited’

Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono all spoke to Larry Katz during his music journalism career, and all of their interviews are now a part of Northeastern Library’s digital archive known as the Katz Tapes

Jessica Taylor Price – Contributor, Northeastern Global News April 28, 2023

Larry Katz remembers the time he met Prince backstage after a show.

It was March 17, 1981, and the musician had just performed a full set at the Boston Metro, the sixth stop of the second leg of his Dirty Mind Tour. Katz remembers the “mind-boggling guitar solos,” and that, by the end of the show, Prince was wearing next to nothing.

But when Katz met Prince as he lounged in a sound booth after the gig, it was like he was talking to a different person entirely. For one thing, he was wearing a bathrobe (Prince, not Katz); for another, Katz remembers him as “quiet and shy.” In the audio of another recorded interview between Katz and Prince, the singer can barely be heard.

Katz, a newbie music journalist, taped his first interaction with the singer, and wrote an article about the show for the now-defunct alternative newspaper The Real Paper. When he retired 30 years later, he brought the cassette home and put it in a box with nearly a thousand others like it. There it sat, gathering dust.

That is, until Katz decided he needed to do “something” with them before they started to deteriorate.

Now, for the first time, Katz’s interviews with some of the most famous musicians and other cultural figures in history—many of them now deceased—are available for the public to peruse. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono all spoke to Katz during his career, and all of their interviews are now a part of Northeastern University Library’s digital archive of what’s known as the Katz Tapes.

The archive is the result of years of work sorting through hundreds of hours of interviews. According to Giordana Mecagni, Northeastern’s head of special collections, some interviews were split over multiple tapes; sometimes, more than one interview was on one tape. After Katz decided to donate the collection to Northeastern University Library in 2020, she says, the library’s digital production team listened to every second. They identified the speakers, and pieced the interviews together and stored them in a browsable archive.

The result is a raw, complete and unedited archive, something Dan Cohen, dean of libraries at Northeastern, says is incredibly rare. Archives are usually curated in some way, or parts are missing. These tapes, meanwhile, are long—Katz estimates that he used about 25% of the material in his articles for the Herald—and capture everything, from the everyday to the outlandish. Katz catches artists, usually over the phone, in an itinerant state, in the middle of a tour, living out of a suitcase in a hotel room, or, as Cohen puts it, “midstream.”

Indeed, one thing Cohen noticed when listening to the tapes is not the speakers themselves, but the noises they make. A phone rings, a musician coughs or takes a bite off their plate. People walk in and out of the room as Katz chats with Bob Marley. Technological challenges—Katz used an old mechanism for recording phone interviews, with varied results—make some of the recordings staticky. Some are nearly indecipherable.

Katz, for his part, takes pride in his role as someone who was able to create this unfiltered material. “I always looked at myself as a conduit for the people I was talking to,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to insert myself in there; I was looking to convey the truth of what the person had to say.”

But Cohen implies that, actually, he hears a lot of Katz in the tapes. Each tape is a look at the artist, but it also provides a window into a music journalist at work, he says. A former musician himself, Katz did his homework, going to the library and reading on his subjects to prepare for interviews. He worked hard, he says, to develop rapport as a professional whom the artists could trust not to sensationalize them.

Then, of course, there’s his ability to put people at ease, to allow them to open up and maybe even shed some of that rock star persona. “However you can create empathy, you try to do so,” he says. Artists would talk to him, and, Katz says, that means you might hear some Easter eggs.

“My concern was there might be stuff in the tapes that was off the record or revealed some personal information that maybe the person wouldn’t want out there,” he says.

He has no idea if that’s the case. It was Katz’s policy to turn off the tape recorder when someone wanted to go off the record. “Did I turn off the tape recorder 100% of the time? Maybe not, I don’t remember,” he says. “Who knows what’s in there.” (Singer Jimmy Merchant’s home address, for one.)

Now retired and focused on being a grandfather, Katz is working on adding blog posts to the website to help provide context and personal reflections for the interviews. He hopes the tapes will be of public use. Cohen certainly thinks they will be—as he points out, the tapes provide a window into the history of the music industry, as well as the country as a whole, over the course of a quarter century.

The tapes do something else, too: they bring the ones who have left us back from the dead.

“If you listen to the tape, there they are; they’re alive again,” Katz says. “And that’s kind of a wonderful thing.”

Katz amassed nearly 1,000 tapes of interviews over a 30-year career. The full collection is housed at the Northeastern University Library. Here are some of his favorites:

Paul McCartney moves on from loss
For the first few minutes of his 2002 interview with Paul McCartney, Katz sits in silence. Paul is late.

When the former Beatle finally shows up, he’s in good spirits.

“We’re having a great time,” he says.

It would seem like a strange way for McCartney to start an interview, at least at the time. Just a few months prior, McCartney and his band had watched from their parked plane as the Twin Towers fell; a national mourning period was ongoing.

On top of that, McCartney had just faced two of the biggest personal losses of his life—the death of his wife of 30 years, Linda, to cancer in 1998, and the death of Beatles bandmate George Harrison in November 2001.

McCartney, who was in Boston in the middle of his Driving World Tour, speaks openly about both losses, saying of Linda, “We just expected to carry on and grow old together, but that wasn’t to be.” With regards to Harrison, “I miss him a lot,” McCartney says.

But for the most part, in his interview with Katz, he isn’t raw with grief; instead, he’s hopeful, having emerged from what he describes as a “tunnel of sadness.” “I’ve been able to get over the sadness or some of the sadness of losing Linda,” he says. “I’m entering into a new, much happier period in my life.”

The Driving World Tour would be his first since his wife’s death. That meant he had to dust off his old records, listen to his own music, and relearn how to play songs he had written decades ago. People assume he’d remember how to play his own songs, he says. He doesn’t.

He isn’t one of those musicians who need to keep things fresh, either. He’ll play the old stuff, and he’ll play it as he always has. “I’m a bit of a believer that audiences in the main like to hear things as they know them,” he says. “I change them a little bit occasionally, but not mainly. Mainly I stick to the arrangement.”

The McCartney we hear from in this tape has taken a beating, but he’s come out the other side with new music, some hope, and fresh wisdom.

“I think the only regret in life is you don’t get to know people as much as you want to,” he says. “And that shows up when you lose them.”

Aretha Franklin keeps her cards close to her chest
Katz’s voice takes precedence in his staticky recording of a 1991 interview with Aretha Franklin.

On tape, Franklin is forthright but guarded, answering questions in clipped responses that don’t invite further conversation, something Katz says she was known for.

“She was very self protective with everyone who ever interviewed her it seems, not just me,” he says. “I worked hard to get her to loosen up and she never did,” he wrote in his blog.

At the time of the interview, Franklin was preparing to go on a bus tour to promote her album “What You See is What You Sweat,” which ultimately flopped. Traveling with a 17-piece orchestra, Franklin planned to perform her new material as well as the hits that made her legendary.

But the conversation doesn’t flow. Instead, Katz moves from question to question as if reading from a list. When she finishes a sentence, he sits silently to give her space to say more, but she rarely does. A phone rings in the background, and thunderstorms are raging in Katz’s Boston office.

“Every time it rains, it blows all my TVs out,” says Franklin.

But talking about the weather with Aretha Franklin is still talking with Aretha Franklin. Here, we get snippets of who the singer was behind the scenes: she crocheted, cooked, and golfed, but only on driving ranges. She loved all kinds of music, including the new stuff (“I’m a contemporary lady,” she says). And she loved Detroit.

“We’re very metropolitan,” she says, correcting Katz’s assessment that it isn’t much of a tourist destination. “I think you just have to know the best and finest places to go to.” She calls the Renaissance Center the “ninth wonder of the world.”

She doesn’t seem too disappointed that the Detroit Pistons didn’t make it to the championships that year, though. Instead, she lights up over Michael Jordan. “I really wanted to see Michael Jordan get that ring this year, because the Pistons, they’re great players, they’re great guys, but they already have two rings,” she says. “Michael has worked so hard.”

When Katz asks Franklin to name someone she admires musically, she doesn’t give him anything. She does ask him a favor, though: when he brings up that time she played on TV with Levi Stubbs, she asks him to send her a copy of his tape.

Katz says he’ll get the tape to her through her agent. While his memory is fuzzy, he’s pretty sure he never did.

Stevie Nicks goes it alone
Stevie Nicks was at her house in Los Angeles getting ready to go to rehearsal, her hair done up in braids, when she got a call from Larry Katz.

The year was 1994, and Nicks was about to kick off a tour to promote her solo album “Street Angel.” It wasn’t the first time she would be performing solo, she explains, but it would be the first time she was performing solo after her well-publicized split with Fleetwood Mac.

Now on her own, the guilt of having to split her time between the two endeavors was gone, she tells Katz. And, she had the opportunity to move forward with her life.

“This is the first time that I’ve ever gotten to completely concentrate on my show,” she says, “and really put my whole heart into it. It is kind of like when you get a divorce, and the divorce is final, then you have to go on with your life. You have to. And going on with your life is really good, it’s amazing. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Nicks was a seminal talent as one of the lead singers of Fleetwood Mac. It started, she says, when she got a guitar on her 16th birthday. Before she was ready, she was in a band with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham opening for acts like Janis Joplin at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds in front of 75,000 people.

“I didn’t have any preparation for that,” she says. “It was the most frightening moment of my entire life.”

It did prepare her for the superstardom that came with headlining one of the biggest bands of the 70s, and the attention that she refers to as “that whole machinery.” Unfortunately, that meant giving up parts of herself for the sake of the band. Having children, for one thing, was set aside, something she regrets.

“It was just never the right time,” she says. “It was never that I didn’t want to have them. It was that everybody else around me, [their] life would be completely screwed up.”

She tells Katz all this as if she’s talking to an old friend, or, perhaps, as someone who’s used to keeping parts of herself secret. On stage, “There is this kind of being that I turn into,” she says, someone ethereal, mystical. There’s another part of her, she says, who’s down to earth.

“Somewhere between the two, I guess, is me. The real me.”

David Bowie chooses chaos
“Good morning, it’s David Bowie calling.”

When David Bowie called Larry Katz, he was sitting in a hotel room in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the early hours of Sept. 14, 1995, and the glam rock star was about to embark on a 99-show, three-leg, worldwide tour to promote his latest album, “Outside.”

Katz catches Bowie, then, in the calm just before the storm.

If Bowie is anxious about what’s to come, he certainly doesn’t show it. Instead, he speaks clearly and carefully, telling Katz how much he likes the art museum in Hartford, how he’s creating a series of paintings of everyone on tour with him, and how extreme performance art came to inspire his latest album, for which he collaborated with Brian Eno.

Bowie’s calmness, his sheer normalcy when talking to Katz, can be seen as irrational as the potential for a disastrous tour looms. Bowie won’t play his old hits on the new tour, saying “they’re too worn for me,” but will start touring before “Outside” is even released. And as Katz notes, Bowie is touring with Nine Inch Nails, a strange choice considering their contrasting musical styles. At the time, Katz notes, some were saying that concert goers would walk out once Nine Inch Nails finished their set and Bowie made his appearance.

“That’s extremely likely, isn’t it?” Bowie replies. He embraces the opportunity to perform with Trent Reznor, he says, with whom he would share the stage for about 20 minutes. In fact, Bowie had personally asked Reznor to join him on the tour. “At one point we have both bands playing.”

Bowie doesn’t need certainty, he says, and actually, he thrives on chaos. “It’s what I have to do to maintain my momentum as an artist,” he says. “I have to put myself in rather adventurous or hazardous situations.” He says letting go of others’ expectations is essential for creativity.

Becoming comfortable with chaos transcends the art world; he calls absolutism “almost an anachronism in this particular era,” and something that breeds intolerance. “I think the idea of becoming comfortable with the idea of chaos is how we are progressing,” he says, “that life and the universe is extremely untidy.”

In short, Bowie knows he’s taking a risk on this tour. He just doesn’t seem to care.

“I don’t really want a safety net,” he says. “That produces nothing.”

Bob Marley nears the end
When Katz interviewed Bob Marley, it was at the beginning of his career.

Sadly, it was at the end of Marley’s. Just days after Katz interviewed the reggae legend in advance of his performance at Hynes Auditorium in Boston in September 1980, Marley would collapse in New York due to melanoma that had spread to his brain.

But when Katz talked to Marley, he would have no way of knowing he was speaking to a dying man. In fact, what stuck with Katz most following the interview was Marley’s laugh, which Katz described as “high-pitched and boyish, the innocent laugh of a child who knows only happiness.”

Katz did understand the privilege he had been given. Katz had only been writing for nine months, and was enraptured by Marley, whom he calls “one of my heroes.” As Marley lounged in a hotel room chair, other journalists gathered and sat on the floor around him like a kindergarten class.

What they heard was a disjointed and at times nonsensical conversation. Katz jumps from topic to topic, and the self-assured Marley abides. He jokes that he has “a few” children (he had at least 10). He says he isn’t interested in playing solo (“It’s good to have community. It’s the greatest feeling,” Marley says). He says he had only taken up guitar eight years prior, and played soccer to build up stamina for shows. He doesn’t support anyone in the upcoming Jamaican election, because none of the candidates are Rasta.

When asked what kind of music he likes, Marley says he listens to everything. “You see, the ears is never tired of hearing nor the eyes tired of seeing,” he says.

As cameras click in the background, Katz asks one of the more mundane questions of the interview: do Marley’s children go to school?

Of course, Marley says. “School is important,” for teaching children things like math and history. At the same time, “They know the truth already,” he says. “There’s only one thing can corrupt them—when you don’t know God.”

Marley died in May 1981 at age 36.

New Ruggles Station exhibit features work of pioneering Black architects who helped shape Northeastern’s footprint

One of the collections that doesn’t get very much attention in the Archives is Stull and Lee, the Boston-based and Black-owned architectural firm. This is largely because the collection is huge (~500 cubic feet), and completely unprocessed. We have recently added processing capacity to our department (Hi, Irene!), so hopefully collections like these will no longer linger without description.

Nevertheless. this didn’t deter a group of Northeastern faculty from using the collection to mount an exhibition on in the history of Ruggles station this week.

Stull and Lee had an oversized impact on what the city looks like today. Although Donald Stull passed away in 2020, David Lee and his associates are still going strong. And I am so thankful that these faculty have done so much to draw attention to their impact and their collection.

The text of an article in Northeastern Global News follows, the article lives here:

New Ruggles Station exhibit features work of pioneering Black architects who helped shape Northeastern’s footprint

by Cynthia McCormick Hibbert April 6, 2023,Northeastern Global News

Thousands of commuters visit the Ruggles train station every day without realizing how the transportation hub, designed by pioneering Black architects, united Boston’s neighborhoods and helped Northeastern University grow into its current footprint.

A new public exhibit at Northeastern’s School of Architecture in Ryder Hall explains all that and more, says Amanda Reeser Lawrence, an architectural historian and associate professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

The hope is that “Ruggles In Dialogue” inspires the next generations of architects to see how community activism can literally transform neighborhoods. The exhibit opened Friday, April 7, and runs through the fall.

“In this exhibition you learn about how the design of the Ruggles station was shaped by  anti-highway activism, community participation, government and redlining,” Lawrence says.

diagram of historic Ruggles Station
Northeastern Archives and Special Collections

“The station is a conversation starter to talk about a lot of things,” says Mary Hale, an associate teaching professor in the School of Architecture and lead exhibit curator with Lawrence and associate professor Lucy M. Maulsby.

The exhibit features reproductions of architectural drawings by architects M. David Lee and the late Donald L. Stull, whose original papers are held by Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections

Because the exhibit is in a public gallery space at Ryder Hall, the curators decided to use reproductions rather than the actual archival materials of the pioneering Black architects.

The architectural firm, Stull and Lee, designed not only the Ruggles station, but also Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, Roxbury Community College and the Boston police headquarters at Roxbury Crossing.

They were also lead architects for the Southwest Corridor Park that abuts Northeastern’s campus. 

“They have projects all over the city,” Hale says.

She says when Stull, who died in 2020, founded the firm in 1966, it was a time when “there were only a handful of Black-owned architecture firms in the country.”

“They were very concerned with elevating minorities and women in their practice, which was unique among architecture firms at the time,” Hale says.

The vaulted concourse of the Ruggles Station, inspired in part by grand European rail stations of the 19th century, serves commuters passing through the elevated station that links Roxbury with Northeastern, as well as downtown, Huntington Avenue and the Fenway, Lawrence says.

When it opened in 1987, Ruggles aimed to unite neighborhoods that had been separated by embankments and rail lines. 

“It’s a bridge in both directions across an embankment that had historically divided communities,” Maulsby says.

With Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority subways, commuter rail and buses using Ruggles Station, it is more than a bridge—it is a connection to Boston and beyond, she says.

“It’s about who has claims to the city, who is participating in the life of the city,” Maulsby says.

Ruggles Station was the fruition of an anti-highway movement that directed resources originally intended for the construction of a 12-lane highway to mass transit, community development and a public park, the professors say.

Stull and Lee used the momentum created by the anti-highway movement to engage neighborhood members and community activists in generating a vision for Ruggles Station, they say.

“Stull and Lee helped to realize a project that had many, many voices,” Maulsby says. 

“They were part of a process that was really decades in the making” that included Gov. Francis W. Sargent’s 1970 moratorium on highway construction within Route 128. 

“Stull and Lee really built on that work, harnessed the ideas that came out of the process and drew together a wide range of professionals, not just architects and engineers, but also landscape architects and graphic designers to really think about this project as a coordinated system,” Maulsby says.

One of the results was the creation of the Southwest Corridor Park that stretches 4.1 miles alongside the Orange Line route from Back Bay to Forest Hills. 

The linear park was created out of land already cleared for the failed highway project and includes green spaces, garden plots, tennis courts, and walking and bicycle paths among city spaces.

Maulsby called it a contemporary response to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace.

“It truly was a community process where they gathered feedback from community members and folded it into the design of the park,” Hale says. 

“It wasn’t like the original highway plan, which was very top down, imposing something on the community.”

The Ruggles exhibit features not only architectural drawings but also documentary footage, aerial photos of the Northeastern campus and pamphlets from and photos of community meetings and anti-highway protests, Lawrence says.

“We have a fun interactive piece at the end” that asks people what they think of Ruggles Station and how they interact with the Southwest Corridor Park, she says.

Hale calls Ruggles “the physical embodiment of an absolutely incredible story.”

“It’s not a campus building, but we use it a lot,” she says.

The Boston Research Center

One of the projects I’ve been working on in various iterations and forms for several years is the Boston Research Center. Our website describes it this way:

“The Boston Research Center (BRC), based in the Northeastern University Library, is a digital community history and archives lab. The mission of the BRC is to help bring Boston’s deep neighborhood and community histories to light through the creation and use of new technologies. Through these technologies, Boston residents can share the underrepresented stories from their community’s past, as well as a deeper understanding of how this past shapes our present.”

My colleague Amanda Rust designed the research and community engagement component to this work. It flips the traditional “Reseach Inquiry” model and instead uses academic resources to explore a topic that originates in one of Boston’s communities. Amanda and our colleague Dory Klein from the BPL hosted focus groups to identify topics, and then worked with community members to co-create a tool/portal/analysis that moves toward a deeper understanding of that topic. Since Amanda’s departure to greener pastures this summer, I’ve taken on a bigger role with the project, and have been able to dig deep into the nitty-gritty of their work. It’s been wonderful to learn more and to watch people interact with what we’ve created in feedback sessions at the Branch Libraries.

News (at) Northeastern recently wrote an article about our work, and I think it’s pretty good. Article text and a direct link to the article follows.


by Cody Mello-Klein November 23, 2022

The Harriet Tubman House may be gone, but its legacy is preserved forever thanks to Northeastern’s library

The corner of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues used to be something more than a flattened lot. It used to be more than just another in a long line of mixed-use development sites with condos in Boston.

For the residents of the South End neighborhood, it was the Harriet Tubman House. Founded in the early 20th century as an autonomous space for and by Black women on Holyoke Street, in 1975, it became a community center run by United South End Settlements until it was sold in 2019 to help keep the organization afloat. Ultimately, it was demolished.

The house was a fixture of Boston’s Black community, but its century-spanning history–the kind that doesn’t get told in museums or textbooks–was in danger of getting lost with the demolition too. Fortunately, the building’s history and the community’s memories were saved through the hard work of residents who banded together under the I Am Harriet coalition, USES itself and the resources and ingenuity of the Boston Research Center.

young students posing in a computer lab
Students pose for the camera during an after school computer class at the Harriett Tubman House, a community center in the South End that has since been demolished. United South End Settlements records (M126), Northeastern University Library, Archives and Special Collections

Through a unique collaboration between the Northeastern University Library, Boston Public Library and community organizers and leaders, the BRC created the Harriet Tubman House Memory Project to help digitally preserve and tell the history of not only the site but the community that existed around it. And the South End is not the only community in Boston that has been able to work with the BRC to tell its story. The BRC has collaborated with community groups in East Boston and Chinatown to create hubs for innovative archival projects on local history.

“The records of the rich and powerful, institutional records, places with resources and power, tend to get preserved–that’s how it’s been forever,” says Dan Cohen, dean of libraries and vice provost for information collaboration at Northeastern. “For the first time, we are able to rectify the gaps, the truly unfortunate gaps, that happen in historical preservation and access because we have a better view of what is important to save. … And we have new ways of ensuring that we can help to widen access to the world so that everyone can gain access to those materials.”

The project started as a collaboration between Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections and Digital Scholarship Group and the BPL. Dory Klein, BPL’s community history and digitization specialist, says this kind of public-private library partnership isn’t abnormal, “but it doesn’t happen with as much frequency as it ought to.” 

For Northeastern, the partnership amplifies the reach of the university’s archives, which focus on the history of Boston’s under-represented communities, through the BPL’s more than two dozen branch libraries. For the BPL, it is an opportunity to build web-based projects that would have been impossible without Northeastern’s digital expertise and infrastructure.

In 2018, the project secured an initial $200,000 Mellon Foundation grant to kickstart the project and have since received a $650,000 implementation grant and, most recently, a $505,000 grant to “regularize” the process, Cohen says.

The BRC has launched four projects so far, including the Tubman House project, an interactive public art map/database, the Chinatown Collections Survey Project and Our Home, an online East Boston history portal. The BRC is also working with staff in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities on the Reckonings Project, a local history platform that designed for community activists. Each BRC project begins with conversations with community partners, who each identified a research question or history capture project. The resulting projects are each different because the needs of each community are different. But each requires building deep connections with the communities in Boston, something both Northeastern library and the BPL had a head start with.

Since 1998, the university’s Archives and Special Collections department has been collecting, digitizing and making accessible the history of Boston’s under-represented groups, establishing and maintaining relationships with community-based organizations, local activists and social justice-focused nonprofits in the process. The BRC is built on that foundation.

“In 1998, very little history of Boston’s social movements was accessible to researchers,” says Giordana Mecagni, head of Archives and Special Collections and head of community engagement for the BRC. “Now that a lot of this history is stored safely in the archives, we want to make the history even more accessible, to bring it back into the community by using digital tools and services like the BRC.”

Members of the BRC team from Northeastern along with Klein will sit down with community members and lay out the full suite of options that BRC can provide, from oral histories to Wikidata-based maps. Those conversations always come back to a simple question: What sounds interesting to you?

“We ask them, ‘How do you want to interact with the material? What’s the story you want to tell?’ says Patrick Yott, associate dean for digital infrastructure. “It may not be the same story if we asked a historian of 18th century Boston what they want to tell.”

In the case of the Harriet Tubman House project, a member of I Am Harriet reached out to the BPL, asking if someone could put together an archival memory project. Northeastern already housed the USES’ archives, so it made perfect sense to turn the project into a BRC initiative. The project includes digitized materials from Northeastern’s USES collection, photos of the building taken by the BPL before it was demolished and oral and narrative histories.

Now in its third phase, the BRC is focused on making this infrastructure and process into a regular part of Northeastern and the BPL’s work.

“I think what that means is that we focus on existing archival collections that have already been digitized and described and focus on the toolkit of components and workflows that we’ve developed—and we use those and improve them in small ways so we don’t have to keep investing entirely new systems,” says Julia Flanders, director of Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group.

By creating a replicable model of local history preservation, Cohen hopes the BRC’s work can go beyond Boston and connect the libraries and communities around Northeastern’s other global campuses. 

“When you don’t have a complete record, people have a very poor sense of what the actual history of their neighborhood is,” Cohen says. “I think it’s important to surprise and challenge people with the very complex past of their immediate environment. And you can only do that when you really save and provide access to the full spectrum of human experience and expression that has happened in those neighborhoods.”

‘Tombstone Tour’ of Bennington Street Cemetery

Around this time last year I joined the board of the East Boston Museum and Historical Society. Last weekend the group put on a ‘tombstone tour’ of the Bennington Street Cemetery– a neighborhood asset that I’ve passed thousands of times but have never visited because it’s always locked. Tour guide Steven Gingras and lead researcher Jeanne Belmonte (both EBMHS board members) wowed the crowd with their interesting, entertaining, and informative tour, and the weather cooperated nicely. An article from the East Boston Times with a great description of the event follows.

Tour Guide Steven Gingras wows the crowd.
Photo by Jeanne Belmonte

Although I understand that locking this cemetery is the safest option for the preservation of the stones and grounds, events like this always remind me of all of the various neighborhood histories and assets that are hidden or inaccessible. I have lived in East Boston since 2005, am fascinated by history, and this was the first time I’ve ever been invited inside. Although not as spectacular as Mount Auburn, Steven and Jeanne’s research showed that Bennington Street Cemetery once functioned as a garden cemetery and hosted picnics and hundreds of visitors. Is there a middle ground we could consider for access that exists between ‘locked forever’ and ‘so open that a band of thieves could have their secret hideout there.’ (This was one of the anecdotes from the tour– how cool is that!) Thank you for granting us access to this slice of Eastie history, EBMHS!

East Boston Museum Hosts ‘Tombstone Tour’ of Bennington Street Cemetery

by East Boston Times Staff • November 2, 2022 •

The East Boston Museum and Historical Society hosted a walking tour of the historic Bennington Street Cemetery on Saturday, Oct. 29. Timed to coincide with neighborhood celebrations of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the tour was envisioned as a way to teach attendees about the history of the cemetery and the legacy of East Boston’s early immigrants and industry as told through the stories of those buried within.

Bennington Street Cemetery. Photo by Jeanne Belmonte

Saturday’s tour attracted approx. 150 participants, mainly residents of East Boston. While some residents have had the opportunity to visit Bennington Street Cemetery in previous years, the majority were getting to visit the space for the first time, with the cemetery gates usually locked year-round, except on request. Visitors ranged from longtime residents to new arrivals, as well as several kids, many in costume. The tour was arranged and presented by Steven Gingras of the East Boston Museum, with board member Jeanne Belmonte contributing research on burials and their backgrounds.

Founded in 1838, Bennington Street Cemetery was the first cemetery created for the newly established neighborhood of East Boston, as well as the second-most modern cemetery in the city’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative. Active from 1838 through the late 1940s, the cemetery is the final resting place of thousands of Bostonians, and residents of the East Boston community particularly. Notably buried in the cemetery are many of the early immigrants who arrived in East Boston in the mid- to late-19th century, hailing from places such as Ireland, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Maritime Canada, and working as laborers in the neighborhood’s burgeoning manufacturing and maritime industries. The cemetery and the headstones within record these origins, for instance with 11 of the currently legible headstones being written in German.

The tour also touched upon several notable events at the cemetery itself, such as its use as a park,  ghostly sightings, and its use as a criminal hideout during the Great Depression.

BPS kids learning about Eastie history. Hi J!
Photo by Jeanne Belmonte

The East Boston Museum and Historical Society seeks to honor and preserve the rich and diverse history of East Boston for current and future generations. A volunteer-run initiative, the Museum holds regular events educating members of the public on East Boston history. The Museum is also in the process of updating its virtual presence, and organizing physical exhibitions for the public to visit.

Online, the tour has attracted significant attention from residents, including from those who weren’t able to attend. The East Boston Museum is thrilled at the huge turnout, and high levels of interest from the public in the cemetery’s history. While no firm plans have been decided, residents can be assured that the East Boston Museum is looking into organizing more events and resources connecting residents with Bennington Street Cemetery in the near future.

1,000 Racial Homicides Investigated in Unprecedented Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

Screen capture from Northeastern School of Law website Sept 27, 2022

In 2016, I had a meeting with Rose Zoltek-Jick from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at the Northeastern School of Law. Paraphrased and simplified*, she said “I just heard that Northeastern had an archive. We’re building an archive. We need you!”

6 years and a cast of thousands lending their skills to its creation later, today CRRJ launched the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive. It’s been one of the most meaningful and impactful projects I’ve ever worked on, and I’m so happy that Rose reached out that day.

I’m also so proud of the team in the Library who worked so hard and carefully to make this all happen (see credits for the full list), but most importantly Project Archivist Gina Nortonsmith, who held us all together and moving forward with grace and humor.

Check it out:

And come to the launch event October 7 2022

*law scholars have a tendency to be a little verbose.

Content of the press release follows:

09.27.22 — Today, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law released the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, one of the most comprehensive digital archives of racial homicides collected to date. The Archive brings together evidence demonstrating the extensive scale and scope of killings between 1930 and 1954 in the Jim Crow South. Many of the 1,000 cases of anti-Black killings were mishandled by local police and prosecutors or went unreported until investigated by Northeastern students in law and journalism and their faculty. Built on open-source architecture, the Archive offers users the opportunity to learn about how violence affected people’s lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics during the Jim Crow era. The Archive can be found at

“I think I am joined by the hundreds of people who worked on this project in hoping it will deepen our understanding of the function and impact of anti-Black violence in our country’s history, and concomitantly, the character of the resistance movements that fought against it. This Archive is not a closed file drawer. We hope it will invite further scholarship and academic discourse, and, importantly, provide communities with the resources they need to create memory, acknowledge trauma, and support demands for a more just future,” said Professor Margaret Burnham, founder and director of CRRJ. She is also the author of the related, highly acclaimed new book, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners.

Over the past 15 years, more than 400 students in Northeastern Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic have scoured historical newspapers, archival collections, federal records and genealogical databases. Joined by scholars in history, political science, sociology and media studies, and by pro bono attorneys, these students have carefully preserved and logged 20,000 pieces of evidence for 1,000 cases of anti-Black killings in 11 former Confederate states from 1930 to 1954. Over time, they have amassed records for each case such as death certificates, press clippings, federal, state and local law enforcement files, reports from civil rights groups, state and federal courts, images and recorded personal stories.

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive puts the underlying, hidden narratives from this era on display, and brings justice to families and communities so that they may better understand their context and begin to repair intergenerational damage. CRRJ fosters opportunities for public dialogue between representatives of the state entities that committed the wrongs and representatives of the wronged. In many of these cases, CRRJ has worked with families and communities to find restorative justice responses, such as public community acknowledgments, markers and street re-namings in memory of victims, and museum exhibits documenting the murders. CRRJ has also brought cases to court, including a landmark settlement with Franklin County, Mississippi. CRRJ also serves as a resource for scholars, policymakers and organizers involved in various initiatives examining these crimes.

Thanks to generous support from the Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation, CRRJ partnered with the Northeastern University Library’s Archives and Special Collections, Digital Production Services and Digital Scholarship Group to review the collection, organize it, describe it and make it available to the public.

About Northeastern University School of Law

The nation’s leader in experiential legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law offers the longest-running, most extensive experience-based legal education program in the country. Northeastern guarantees its students unparalleled practical legal work experiences through its signature Cooperative Legal Education Program. More than 1,000 employers worldwide in a wide range of legal, government, nonprofit and business organizations participate in the program. With a focus on social justice and innovation, Northeastern University School of Law blends theory and practice, providing students with a unique set of skills and experiences to successfully practice law.

Boston Globe coverage of our Latinx community portal

Rarely seen snapshots of Latino Boston

Boston Globe article Sept 15, 2022

By Omar Vega Globe Staff, Updated September 15, 2022, 3:00 a.m.

Whether they are family photo albums or institutional records, photographic archives bring alive moments in time — individuals, families, and communities captured in joy, fellowship, daily life. Many of these repositories represent people at risk of being erased from history or inaccurately portrayed. Where the collective memory falters, photographs remind us.

That’s one of the pleasures of Boston’s Latinx Community History online archive. It contains more than 41,000 digital images that Northeastern University has made freely available as a resource to the community, students, and scholars. The items were drawn from two local organizations that donated their records to Northeastern, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción and La Alianza Hispana.

I wanted to look into the history of Latino and Hispanic photographers in Boston after reading “Latinx Photography in the United States — A Visual History,” a 2021 book by Elizabeth Ferrer. That book explores the civil rights struggles and daily life in the Chicano communities of Los Angeles and the Nuyorican and Boricua communities of New York City and Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s. Most of the photos in Ferrer’s book had not appeared in histories of photography in the United States.

A lot of the images were published in Spanish-language newspapers coming up at that time — especially in social justice papers such as La Raza and Palante. The Latino community of Boston was not as sizable as those in LA and New York, but still I wondered: Was something comparable happening in Boston back then?

I spent hours at the Boston Public Library straining my eyes, looking through poorly scanned microfilm of La Semana and El Planeta, Spanish-language newspapers in Boston that got their start in the 1970s, but not much came from it.When I made some more inquiries at the library and the Museum of Fine Arts, though, I heard about the Northeastern archives.

At first I was mostly focused on finding the names of photographers active in Hispanic communities in Boston during the ’60s and ’70s. But as I looked at the photos themselves, I started to see parts of the city coming to life. It was a visual diary of Christmas pageants, Puerto Rican festivals, and community outreach programs — including a successful grassroots effort to help save a Puerto Rican South End community from gentrification.

I’m not from this city, but in these images of strangers from decades ago I imagined my teenage mom with friends on a trip to the lake, a sassy glance at the camera that recalled my dear friend Natalie, and a babe in arms who could have been my cousin Dre. I saw myself in these photos too.

After more than eight years living here, I looked at these photographs and truly felt like a Bostonian.

Centering Communities in Digital Collections

Digital Commonwealth Conference Logo

I’ve been asked to speak at the Digital Commonwealth annual conference on June 14, 2022. I’m on a panel entitled “Harnessing the Power of Academic Institutions for Change” with Kate McNally (Brandeis) and Emily Pfotenhauer (Wisconsin Library Services). I’ll be speaking about a whitepaper Rebecca Riccio, Becca Berkey and I just recently published in Northeastern’s Digital Repository, Principles of Anti-Oppressive Community Engagement for University Educators and Researchers.

Becca, Rebecca and I have been thinking about a set of best practices for community engagement that eventually became these Principles for a number of years now, and it feels really good to have them out in the world. Early ideas and thoughts I had about this topic include:

  • A (fake) certification program for DH projects that follow a set of guidelines or principles called LEEDh (2017)
  • “What Would the Community Think?” a conference presentation at DLF where I talked about how I went looking for a ‘ethical community engagement for dummiess’ resource and couldn’t locate one in the archives/library literature (2018)
  • My newly published article about how Paywalls are bad for under-represented communities (2022) (2022)
  • Other conferences and publications about Radical Empathy, which is (of course) related, but the Principles only speak to a tiny piece of the RE puzzle.

I’m really excited about this presentation (and a few more I’m scheduling this spring/summer) becase it’s the first time I’ll have a publication (apart from a zine) that attempts to guide us toward a better future. It’s one thing to poke at our field and say “this thing is terrible” and completely another thing to gather a set of ideas and write them down in an attempt to help make things better.

Please come! The conference is a full day, is only $20 max, and the keynote is Dr. Tonia Sutherland (#swoons in Archives)

If you’d like to see the presentation, go here:

Edits 8/19/22: removed registration link and added link to presentation.

Phoenix story on WBZ Radio

I talked to Matt Shearer, a reporter for WBZ Radio Boston this week for a story on how Northeastern Archives worked to put the Boston Phoenix free online this week. I missed listening to them live, but Matt sent me .mp3s. You can listen to them at the links below.

The first segment is on how people used to read the Phoenix while riding the T (Boston’s public transit system), and what it’s like for students to read the papers now:

The second is on the Phoenix classifieds section. It includes me talking about how I found many of my 1990s era roomates there:*

Enjoy! I think they’re cute.

*Shout out to 5 Malbert, the $303/month (which included toilet paper, but not utilities) 7 bedroom apartment I lived in for 4 years– It always had a band playing in the basement, someone sleeping on the couch, and a cockroach skeleton in the silverware drawer. Memories.

Boston Phoenix issues now available freely online

In 2015, Stephen Mindich donated the archives of the Boston Phoenix to the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections. Now, a scanned copy of many of the issues are available for free in the Internet Archive.

How we got from A. to B. is the subject of a blog post by Caralee Adams on the blog. You can read the article at this URL but I’ve also pasted the content below. Thank you Caralee and team!

Some exciting things have happened along the way:

1. I met Brewster Kahle (well, zoom, but still…)

2. Dan Kennedy wrote a really complementary article on his blog Media Nation, which made me blush the color of the Hancock tower’s beacon when it rains. Thank you, Dan.

Boston Phoenix Rises Again With New Online Access

Posted on  by Caralee Adams

For more than 40 years, The Boston Phoenix was the city’s largest alternative weekly in covering local politics, arts, and culture.

The Boston Phoenix, Volume 2, Issue 44 – October 30, 1973

“It was really a pretty legendary paper. The style of the writing and the quality of writers were nationally known,” said Carly Carioli, who started at the newspaper as an intern in 1993 and became its last editor-in-chief.

With the advent of online advertising, it struggled like many independent newspapers to compete. In 2013, the Phoenix folded.

After the publication shut down, owner Stephen Mindich wanted the public to be able to access back issues of the Phoenix. The complete run of the newspaper from 1973 to 2013 was donated to Northeastern University’s special collections. The family signed copyright over the university. 

Librarians led a crowdsourcing project to create a digital index of all the articles and authors, which was helpful for historians and others in their research, said Giordana Mecagni, head of special collections and university archivist. Northeastern had inquired about digitizing the collection, but it was cost prohibitive. 

As it turns out, the Internet Archive owned the master microfilm for the Phoenix and it put the full collection online in a separate collection: The Boston Phoenix 1973-2013. Initially, the back issues were only available for one patron to check out at a time through Controlled Digital Lending. Once Northeastern learned about the digitized collection, it extended rights to the Archive to allow the Phoenix to be downloaded without controls.

Read The Boston Phoenix at the Internet Archive

“All of a sudden it was free to the public. It was wonderful,” Mecagni said. “We get tons and tons of research requests for various  aspects of the Phoenix, so having it available online for free for people to download is a huge help for us.” 

Inquiries range from someone trying to track down a classified ad through which they met their spouse, or an individual looking up an article about a band. The paper was a leader in writing groundbreaking stories about the LGBTQ community, the AIDS crisis, race and the Vietnam War—often issues not covered in the mainstream press. “Making that coverage public is adding an immense amount to the historical record that would not be there otherwise,” said Carioli. He said he appreciates the preservation and easy access to back issues, as do other journalists, researchers and academics.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Carioli of the Internet Archive’s digitization of the newspaper. “The Phoenix was invaluable in its own time, and I think it will be invaluable for a new generation who are just discovering it now. It was a labor of love then and the fact that it’s online now is huge for Boston, but also for anyone who’s interested in independent media and culture.”