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.


THE HARRIET TUBMAN HOUSE MAY BE GONE, BUT ITS LEGACY IS PRESERVED FOREVER THANKS TO NORTHEASTERN’S LIBRARY

by Cody Mello-Klein November 23, 2022

https://news.northeastern.edu/2022/11/23/boston-research-center-local-history/

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.

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 archive.org blog. You can read the article at this URL http://blog.archive.org/2021/12/15/boston-phoenix-rises-again-with-new-online-access/ 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. https://dankennedy.net/2021/12/16/after-a-long-delay-most-of-the-boston-phoenix-print-archives-are-now-online/

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.”

East Boston Historical Society and Museum

I recently joined the Board of the East Boston Historical Society and Museum. I love Eastie history, love working toward impossible tasks, and to top it off, I can see the Donald McKay house from my kitchen window. The Museum was recently featured in Historic Boston, Inc.’s blog, which you can read directly here, but I’ve copied the text below as well.

_____________________________

SEPTEMBER 23, 2021 
MEET THE EAST BOSTON MUSEUM AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY

in Blog by Kathy Kottaridis

Earlier this year, with assistance from the East Boston Community Development Corporation (EBCDC), the East Boston Museum and Historical Society entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the owner of the historic Donald McKay House at 80 White Street in East Boston.

The Museum is devoted to preserving and promoting centuries of East Boston history. It provides regular local history programs for the public and has long hoped to identify an historic building for its headquarters.  When the Donald McKay House became available, they were convinced it was the perfect place for the organization’s home and a museum of East Boston history.

Hey Brian Gannon, I see you!

Debra Cave, the organization’s President, leads an all-volunteer organization with an 11-member board of directors.  “The East Boston Museum is an organization with members from ages 24 to 75,” she said.  “We have so many stories to tell and so much more to discover about our past that can inform the future.”   Cave particularly highlights three themes that are woven through East Boston’s 400-year written history that guides the Museum’s work:  transportation, immigration and advocacy.

Historic Boston is supporting the East Boston CDC and the Museum on a feasibility study for the house’s preservation and transformation into a museum.  The three organizations are actively interviewing architects and consultants to help with planning.

“Most of us who grew up in East Boston have been hearing about Donald McKay all our lives,” said Cave.  “This is a rare opportunity to purchase a building associated with him, and a great chance for the Museum to have the space it needs to store collections, present programs and display exhibits that will tell a bigger and richer history of the neighborhood.  Our members value history, but we also believe in building community by understanding the past and present.  This should be a place where everyone in the community feels welcome.”

“We are often offered donations of papers, books, and such, and haven’t had the space for their storage,” said Cave.  “The McKay House gives us space to plan for acquiring things that residents and visitors can use for research, and that we can use to create exhibits.”

The Donald McKay House was built by McKay (1810-1880) in 1844 near the crest of Eagle Hill.  McKay lived there until he moved to Hamilton Massachusetts in 1869 for the last decade of his life.  McKay emigrated to the US from Nova Scotia, and established his shipyard on the East Boston waterfront, from which he launched dozens of great 19th century sailing vessels, including clipper ships like the Flying Cloud and the Sovereign of the Seas, which was clocked as the fastest sailing ship ever recorded.

The City of Boston CPA has granted the Museum $400,000 toward the McKay House acquisition.  The Museum and the CDC are working on a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to purchase the building.  Over the next several months, East Boston CDC, the Museum and HBI will be working with its chosen architect, engineers and contractors to determine the cost of restoring the historic house and adapting it for public and commercial uses.

According to Debra Cave, the East Boston Museum will plan the new facility with input from a cross section of East Boston community organizations whose work can complement the goals of the McKay House. “Many East Boston groups have cultural programming that we can support, too,” said Cave.  “We’re going into this optimistically and with our eyes wide open.  This will be hard work, but we know it will be a valuable contribution to the present and future of the neighborhood, and we know we have the right partners working alongside us.”

Globe article about METCO– B.E.A.T.

March 13, 2021 Boston Globe

In March, I got an email from the director of communications at METCO that said:

A bit more than a year ago, you played a crucial part in METCO’s pilot youth leadership program, B.E.A.T. You helped to shape the curriculum, you hosted a few high schoolers as they spelunked into your institutions’ treasures, and you met the students to share your stories and wisdom (in person or via Zoom).

The project that resulted has just been celebrated in the Sunday Boston Globe, and I wanted to make sure you saw it. You were a crucial part of their journey, which is now reaching a wider audience.

METCO (the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity), is a uniquely Boston institution. It started as a desegregation program in the 1960s whose aim was to invite predominantly white suburban schools to host Boston’s children of color– voluntarily. 55 years later, METCO’s programs still vibrant, largely because the 1974 decision only desegregated Boston _proper_, not the region, a fact often lamented by Boston’s education activists.

We love supporting youth programs including METCO and their aim to empower teens by promoting a better understanding of our City’s past.

The Katz Tapes

Photograph depicting audiotapes of interviews with Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Allen Toussaint, Tom Petty, Seal, Ike Turner, Nancy Wilson

One of the more fun projects I have been working on is a collection of audiotaped interviews of local and national musicians recorded by Real Paper and Boston Herald reporter Larry Katz.

We have been working with Larry, Tom Blake and co. at the Boston Public Library, expert audio reformatting studio George Blood Audio LP, the Internet Archive and various Library teams to make these tapes available to the public. Our short-term goal is to upload the files to our digital repository and apply accurate metadata to each record. Our medium-term goal is to transcribe the interviews (crowdsourcing this may be an option), so as to provide deep access to the collection and its contents. Loftier goals may include using Wikidata to interoperate with with the Arthur Freedman collection at Harvard and the other private (David Bieber Archives) and institutional collectors interesting in celebrating Boston’s music and arts history. This lofty goal makes my 1990s and 2000s-era music nerd heart sing.

Larry and his collection was recently featured in a Boston Globe article. You can click on the image above to read a .pdf of the article which includes a couple of quotes from me, one of which is what my former Lexicographer better half calls a “colorful colloquialism.” Those who know me IRL know that this isn’t an unusual occurence, it’s just odd to see one appear in a national newspaper.

Larry was also interviewed by Dan Cohen for his “What’s New” podcast. It’s a great listen.

Black Lives Matter

News at Northeatern ArticleNews at Northeastern profiled our work in the University Archives and Special Collections.  The following is the text of the article, but you can always read it directly here: https://news.northeastern.edu/2020/08/06/you-see-how-activism-is-done/


How did the Black Lives Matter movement get to where it is today?

The Northeastern archives renew stories that have been forgotten to history—including many that resonate today.

In 1970, Frank Lynch, a 24-year-old singer, was a patient at Boston City Hospital when he and another man in his room, Edward Crowley, were shot and killed by a white police officer. In spite of protests in Boston and an investigation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the officer did not face charges.

The Lower Roxbury Black History Project blends compelling narratives with everyday efforts that were made by many people to bring justice to American society on the local level.

“You see how activism is done—the meetings of nonprofit community groups, the pamphlets, the internal conversations, the letters that they wrote to other civic institutions in the city,” Cohen says. “This kind of history shows that community efforts, and individual people brought together in a collaborative spirit, have made changes to American society.”

A secret to building upon the current momentum of Black Lives Matter can be found in these records, says Molly Brown, a reference and outreach archivist at Northeastern.

“It starts with meetings,” Brown says. “It continues with conversations. And it asks us to look at all of the institutions that we participate in.”

The Lower Roxbury Black History Project was funded in 2006 by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, based on a suggestion by Reverend Michael E. Haynes, a local leader who died in 2019. Haynes’s interview is a featured treasure among the archives.

“Today we can’t talk to Rev. Haynes in person, but we can go to his interview and keep learning from his wisdom,” says Giordana Mecagni, who heads the archives and special collections at Northeastern. “He was involved in almost every Black activist cause in Boston for many years.”

“People think about the civil rights movement as being exemplified by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks,” says Mecagni, who also notes renowned Boston-based activists like Melnea Cass, Muriel Snowden, and Ruth Batson. “But it was also millions of individual people with jobs and families doing their part to make sure that there was change happening. We want the people out in the streets right now to understand that there were people like them in Boston whose efforts sparked real change.”The project includes references to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the 1965 civil rights march to the Boston Common from the William E. Carter Playground a decade after he had attended Boston University. His presence in the archives gives power to the actions that have been taken by people who weren’t so well known.

Another trove of perspective can be discovered at the Beyond Busing: Boston Public School Desegregation project, which provides thousands of digitized resources on desegregation, starting with Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court ruling that found the segregation of public schools in Topeka, Kansas, to be unconstitutional.

In 1974, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued a U.S. District Court ruling in Massachusetts that called for busing to desegregate Boston’s public schools, which set off a series of protests and riots.

“What was missing from this public narrative was the 40 years of Black activism in Boston that predated the Garrity decision,” Mecagni says. “There was a reason why the court had to intervene. It was because for years Black activists were saying, ‘Schools are not equal. This is not fair.’ And finally, Boston was forced to do something about it. But this didn’t happen in a vacuum. It took a lot of mostly unpaid volunteer work.”

“Boston’s civil rights movement is mostly remembered as being education-focused. But  Boston’s activists weren’t just looking at Boston schools,” Brown says. “They are protesting racial imbalance. They’re looking at housing. They’re looking at the ways that our political constructions affect and enact white supremacy.”

The Archives and Special Collections staff is also building the archives of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which was founded by Margaret Burnham, a lifelong civil rights activist and university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. The justice project’s staff of Northeastern students investigates acts of racially motivated crimes that took place in the Jim Crow South from 1930 to 1970.

“What happened to George Floyd tragically happened to thousands of other African Americans,” Cohen says of Burnham’s efforts to tell those stories. “And so this goes back a long way and that makes it even more infuriating that it’s still going on in 2020. But it also shows the broader historical context of some of the economic, social, and cultural problems that have persisted in American society.”

Additionally, the library’s Teaching with Archives Program offers an array of opportunities for experiential learning with archival records, such as documents, photographs, local newspapers, and architectural plans related to the history of Boston’s social justice organizing as well as Northeastern’s history.  The program encourages reflection about the participants’ own role in history, and how their neighborhood, school, and beyond are part of the story of Boston’s past and present. Teachers may access a variety of digitized community collections, including:

Northeastern’s archivists have used the Boston Public School Desegregation collection to teach hundreds of Boston Public School students about the education history of their city.

The library’s archives are an important resource for understanding racial injustice during this polarized time, says Cohen. Northeastern’s library is home to the Boston Research Center, a digital community history and archive lab that aims to bring Boston’s deep neighborhood and community histories to light through the creation and use of new technologies.

“The key service that we provide is knitting all of this together,” Cohen says. “Obviously, there are people who are interested in history. There are researchers who work with maps and data. There are social justice activists; there are community historical societies.

“The library is the institution that can synthesize the wide variety of materials that are created by human beings in a city like Boston, and present that in a coherent way so that audiences can come to understand their world better.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu

New Boston Research Center Grant!

The Boston Research Center got a new grant!  After a successful prototyping phase of faculty-led data projects, this phase (led by the incredible Amanda Rust), will look at neighborhood histories and archives and figure out ways in which data and technical infrastructure can support a community’s understanding of itself. I’m truly excited about this grant, and think it reflects current thinking in the field– ethical community partnerships combined with real-world pedagogical research opportunities, undergirded by sustainable tech.  My official role is “BRC Community Liaison,” and I’ll be spending some (undetermined, but probably too much) time working on this project.

My hands
My new career as a hand model starts today

Info follows from the Library’s blog:

The Library is pleased to announce that it has received a $650,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement the next phase of the Boston Research Center (BRC). The Boston Research Center is based in the Northeastern University Library and is dedicated to the study of Boston, enabling researchers from around the world to shed light on the city’s past, present, and future. The BRC serves as a place for students and scholars, Boston residents, and anyone interested in the history and culture of Boston to work together to combine special collections and contemporary data in an effort to better understand the past and envision the future.

This next phase of the BRC’s growth will, through partnerships with Boston community organizations, focus on the development of new digital collections and technological systems to empower these organizations to tell the story of their work and their neighborhoods. This builds on the strengths of the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, a frequent partner with organizations in Boston and a trusted steward of local community archives, and will allow the BRC to serve as a digital community history lab where the creation of new collections and technology is driven by the needs of the people whose histories are represented in those collections. It also serves as a further iteration of the Library’s work to build inclusive information systems for cultural heritage.

The BRC is also now entering into a new partnership with the Boston Public Library. The Boston Public Library will play a key role in community outreach and technology development by drawing upon its extensive history of technological innovation and active partnerships with neighborhood communities served by its library branches. David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library, said, “We are thrilled to take our relationship with Northeastern to a whole new level and collaborate on preserving and extending the reach of local neighborhood history and culture across Boston.”

“We deeply appreciate The Mellon Foundation’s generous support for this critical next phase of the Boston Research Center and how it forges strong connections with communities around Boston and with the Boston Public Library,” said Dan Cohen, the Dean of the Library at Northeastern. “And we look forward to helping to reveal new insights about our city through the BRC’s network of individuals and institutions.”

Radical Empathy in New England Archivists Newsletter

NEAART_Spring2018_Meeting_graphicFINAL-full

Sam Strain interviewed me about Radical Empathy for an article in New England Archivists Newsletter 45:2, Spring 2018. She did a great job making me sound smart!

This is the text of the article.

____________

At the Spring 2018 NEA / A.R.T. Joint Meeting in New Haven, one session focused on exploring personal and professional responses to Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor’s foundational text “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives.” As a member of Inclusion & Diversity Committee, I met with panelist Giordana Mecagni of Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections to unpack some of the session’s content. We discussed radical empathy and its role in providing framework to center affective responsibilities in our work, and to help bring new voices to the table.

Sam Strain : How would you define radical empathy to someone unfamiliar with the concept?
Giordana Mecagni: Caswell and Cifor explain four affective responsibilities:

  • Archivist to the creator
  • Archivist to the subject of records
  • Archivist to the user
  • Archivist to the community

We came up with this fifth affective responsibility, archivist to archivist – a focus on accountability and mutual support of our colleagues.

Radical empathy means a shift in thinking from a legalistic, rights-based framework to an approach more aligned with feminist ethics of care and an understanding of the web of mutual affective responsibility. [It means] shifting from ‘what are we legally allowed to do with these records?’ to ‘we care for these records, these records affect us, and our work affects those who are their subject or creators.’

Radical empathy provides a framework to look at power dynamics, rather than relying on ad hoc experiences and ‘gut feelings.’ Panels like this provide a space to talk about how radical empathy can be enacted in many diverse real-world archival settings.

SS: What impact does the concept of radical empathy have on your day to day archival work? Does it have any ramifications for specific workflows, such as description and access, acquisitions and collections management, or supervisory techniques?

GM: In a way, it’s easy for me to think about radical empathy in my daily work, coming from an archive where we collect and make available the history of underrepresented communities. [I operate in] a context in which all of my work – from acquisition to community outreach – are based on continued relationships. [For example], even if this set of records was collected twenty years ago, we are still beholden as the keepers of those records, and the history of that community. With that comes a large amount of responsibility.

[In recent years], we’ve been shifting into the model of a community archive, emphasizing [community] partnerships. That started with simple things, like not charging partners a fee for scans. If it’s their history [we’re collecting], then we should be able to provide access to that history, for free. We’ve also streamlined entry into the building, and focused on providing ready-reference services; simple things to do in a feminist ethics of care. There’s also a need to understand power dynamics, and to start having conversations about how specifically we can help racial justice and equity happen in Boston. According to community partners, there’s a giant gap between what general folks in the community understand about Boston’s history and the way it’s talked about. Archives are meant to problematize by providing nuance and varying perspectives.

There are things we can do tangibly, practically, and immediately, to shift the conversation towards celebrating people of color and activists who have done amazing work in the past – voices [which] are oftentimes erased. [We can also] work to provide activists, people who are on the ground and in the community right now, with the kind of tools that can actually help them.

SS : What does archival work based on a feminist ethics of care look like our field now? Who’s doing that kind of work?

GM : It’s interesting – there’s what’s going on now, and there’s all the work that started this idea. [People like] my predecessor, Joan Krizack – who got the diversity award from SAA – was doing radical work. People who were doing new documentation strategies back in the day built these wonderful collections of the people’s history. They may not have been talking about radical empathy, but they were talking about relationships, they were talking about community, they were talking about not cherry-picking, they were talking about looking at a community from all aspects. Those folks are acknowledged by Caswell and Cifor as laying the groundwork for this kind of work.

SS : Do you think there’s any stigma on this kind of approach to archival work? Do you think centering a more empathetic and care-focused ethic in our work will meet push-back in our profession?

GM : I don’t think anyone is against empathy. [However],I think when we shift [the conversation] from ‘we’re all going to be nice to each other’ and move on to looking at interactions between people as being professionally problematic, that’s where the push-back is going to be. There’s so much of our field that needs to be looked at hyper-critically. Through this lens, it’s easy to start seeing all of the places where our field is really complacent, in allowing racial stereotypes to continue, and in [perpetuating] white supremacy.

We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion, but the way we value collections needs to be looked at critically. The way some large institutions value archival collections both monetarily and in prestige – really does favor the overrepresented. If you’re not reflected in the archives, that’s problematic. The idea of neutrality has been a giant flash-bang in our profession; if you’re dealing with people, there is no neutral. Archives are people.

SS : How do you feel understanding of radical empathy can be integrated into graduate level archival education?

GM : [As a graduate student], I don’t remember learning anything about donor relations, or even how to acquire, which was a challenge [in the workplace]. I never, ever got a lesson [that taught me] what to do when the widow of the person whose papers you’re collecting starts crying, and that happens all the time. These are people, people with lives – and that’s something we don’t address in library school; the people aspect of things.

Thinking about graduate education, what does a change in the field look like? What would it take to center people in the equation? I think that most neoliberal institutions – including universities – see the ability to maintain and develop relationships to care for the community as valuable skills. I think that’s what it would take – to see those sorts of skills valued [in graduate archival education], rather than the ability to do nice, pretty EAD encoding.

Closing:
Having recently graduated with an MLIS from Simmons College, I am hopeful that our field can continue to grow and change, and that frameworks like Caswell and Cifor’s can be used to open new dialogues in archival education, while interrogating traditional methods. I look to the work of my classmates – especially student presenters and organizers of the DERAIL Forum – as an example of the potential to shift paradigms in our profession as we enter the field.

As a member of the Inclusion & Diversity Committee, I feel that it’s necessary to continue to make space to have professional conversations about our affective obligations to the creators, subjects, and users of records, as well as our wider communities. In our ongoing work to make NEA a more inclusive and welcoming organization, I hope that we can help strengthen mutually supportive archivist to archivist relationships among our members.

For further reading:
Brown, M. (2017). Confronting the Curriculum: Incorporating Radical Empathy into Archival Training. Presented at the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) Forum.
Caswell, M., & Cifor, M. (2016). From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives. Archivaria, 82 , 23-43.
Jimerson, R. C. (2007). Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice. The
American Archivist, 70 (2), 252-281.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.