Boston Phoenix 1974! Zooniverse Project

In July 2020, I launched a ‘citizen science’ crowdsourcing project that aimed to create an index to one year of the Boston Phoenix. TL;DR, so far, 2400+ volunteers have typed 115,000 index cards from 1974 all the way to 1987. To say it has exceeded my expectations is an understatment. The following is the text of a post I wrote for the University Library’s blog when we first launched the project. If after reading it you are interested in learning the nuts and bolts of how this project was created and the status as of today, here is a link to a presentation I made at Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group open office hours. Please note: all of this is a work in progress– and includes the appropriate amount of problems and typos and unknowns– but goes over the details of my unexpectedly popular COVID project.

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Archives and Special Collections Teams with Zooniverse to Crowdsource Boston Phoenix Index

by Giordana Mecagni, July 28, 2020

For nearly 50 years, The Boston Phoenix was Boston’s alternative newspaper of record, the first word on social justice, politics, and the arts and music scene. Its intrepid journalists tackled issues from safe sex and AIDS awareness to gay rights, marriage equality, and the legalization of marijuana. Ads for roommates, romantic mates, and band mates—one could find all these and more in the newspaper’s probing, irreverent, entertaining pages. It ceased publication in March 2013, but in 2015 was preserved for posterity thanks to owner Stephen Mindich’s decision in September to donate the paper’s archives to the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (NUASC).

Screenshot of the Boston Phoenix 1974! Zooniverse Project page

Today, NUASC launches Boston Phoenix, 1974!, a new project that aims to make The Boston Phoenix’s content more accessible to researchers. Using Zooniverse, Boston Phoenix 1974! (left) will recruit an army of volunteers to create an index to The Boston Phoenix. Participants will be re-typing a large set of index cards that once helped Phoenix reporters find past articles. Volunteers will have the opportunity to take a deep dive into the arts, culture, politics, and topics of vital importance to Bostonians in 1974 by encountering articles such as “The Winning Ways of Mike Dukakis,” “Kissinger: Financing the Death of a Government,” “Lifestyles: Conversing with Lesbian Mothers,” “Changes ahead for Cambridge Rent Control,” or “Garrity on Busing: No Delaying Tactics.” The nonprofit Zooniverse offers this platform to connect professional researchers with 1 million+ volunteers in order to enable research that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise.

Index card from a 1974 issue of the Boston Phoenix

For any researcher visiting NUASC to research Boston’s political, cultural, and social history between the 1970s through the early 2000s, The Boston Phoenix is always recommended as a primary resource, and it is widely used both for research and teaching. Pre-COVID, NUASC staff had previously digitized January-June 1974 of The Boston Phoenix for preservation purposes (right). These issues are now available, and provide a prime opportunity for revisiting this year—one filled with civil unrest, racial violence, and ubiquitous activism.

NUASC is offering this free (and fun!) activity for use in homes and classrooms across greater Boston (and nationally through the Zooniverse’s already-established volunteer network) in order to build a community of support—people who will be inspired to read articles they have transcribed and write about them on their favorite social media platform. When complete, the index will become a way for researchers to quickly pinpoint articles without having to browse whole issues. Ultimately, NUASC hopes to raise $250,000 to digitize the entire collection.

For information about the complete contents of NUASC’s collection of the Phoenix and some brief background information, please go to our portal page.

The Boston Phoenix masthead

Logs and Lists during COVID-19

This is the rough outline of a presentation I gave at a recent staff meeting, lightly edited and linked. I am in awe of how quickly my team was able to identify and prepare these projects, and how our part-time staff have just plugged away at these logs and lists for so many months. My team are a hard-working, resilient, and brilliant bunch.

FayFoto2We have a full complement of activities in the University Archives and Special Collections.  Hopefully you’ve all seen the teaching with archives Molly, Regina, and other R+I colleagues have been putting together, and have been highlighted in the last CATLR newsletter as “something they are currently reading”. We continue to provide reference services, work on blogs, oral history transcription editing projects, remote classes, webinars, and upgrading our CERES sites.  

But today I’d like to highlight some of the back-end work that COVID has given us the opportunity to work on:

Lists and Logs. 

Most very very large collections need to have some kind of list, log, or indexing system to make them usable to the originating organization.  Our 3 outsized collections, FayFoto, The Globe, and the Phoenix are no exception (although the quality of them vary widely). We are spending our work from home time developing strategies to upgrade those logs.

[NB. Embarrassingly, I did neglect to call out the work Gina Nortonsmith is doing with her massive Civil Rights and Restorative Justice spreadsheet work, but she will be given another time to shine in a staff meeting] 

FayFoto1FayFoto:

Information about the collection and acquisition is here:

https://librarynews.northeastern.edu/?p=274573

  • 80 years of commercial photography business
  • 7.5 million negatives
  • Index is contained in 29 log books, from 1968-1999, 310 pages each, mostly handwritten

Example of a log book:

https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/files/neu:cj82rg717

Part-time staff are hand-transcribing these logs, which will ultimately become an index to the ‘who, what, where’ of what was going on in Boston over those years.

Boston Globe box list

The Globe collection did come in with a subject log, one that is easily follow-able.  

And when packing the collection, Daniel developed a list of the boxes that make them much more easily retrievable.  And created this wonderful finding aid: https://archivesspace.library.northeastern.edu/repositories/2/resources/984

However, we only know what folder sits at the beginning of the box and at the end. After retrieving the same 25 Kennedy boxes a few times, we started box listing all of the Globe clippings boxes we retrieve. 

In addition to the folder list, staff included disambiguation based on the subjects of the clippings file, determining which John Buchannan is an Escaped convict, a lynn machinist, or a professor at Penn.

102 boxes later, we have a list, but it needs some editing before we are able to load it into archivesspace. 

Phoenix crowdsourced pilot

The Phoenix is one of our more heavily  used teaching collections.  But apart from browsing, there really isn’t a way to easily delve into the articles of the phoenix unless you knew what you were looking for. 

However, the Phoenix did produce two typed card file indices to its paper. These indices have been scanned, OCRed and made available online here:

18 Author Indexes, 1973- 1990 

13 Index Subjects, 1974-1986, (bulk 1974-1982)

Filed by year, each author index usually includes >1000 cards. 

Because we are so busy working on FayFoto, we have started exploring the idea of a crowdsourced project.  Let me know if you’d like to be a volunteer tester of the zooniverse instance we have started to put together.

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.”

Boston, Race, and Resilience

Mel King, Harry Dow, Jean McGuire, Tent City

For the past nearly two years, I have been a member of the Race Equity Working Group of the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Race Equity. The MORRE Office’s primary mission is to help build resilience for all Bostonians by addressing and and challenging social and racial inequities.  The Racial Equity working group (an advisory group for the office) consisted of incredible warriors– smart, experienced, passionate people who do battle every day but still are able to laugh, breathe, and do it all over again the next day.  Although I felt like I really belonged at the #kidstable instead of in this group, it was a brain-expanding experience and I am thankful I was able to participate.

The Chief Resilience Officer leading the charge to create Boston’s Resiliency Plan, Atyia Martin, and her staff allowed me to assist the effort by convening a group of historians and archivists  (‘history holders’ she called us) and Race Equity Working Group members to strategize how we could showcase the lesser known/understood aspects of Boston’s history across race and ethnicity, including immigrants, from a personal and policy perspective. As Donna Bivens and co. write in the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project’s 7 Lessons “Access to a more complete picture of this history is access to knowledge about how power works to enable and limit us. That access allows us to focus our individual and collective efforts to make real social change.”

One of the results of this convening was POLICY, PLACE, and POWER in an evolving city: BOSTON’S RACIAL EQUITY HISTORY PROJECT, a map and timeline that describes flashpoints, battlegrounds, and structures of inequity in the City of Boston. You can view that timeline at http://socialjustice.library.northeastern.edu/

From the website:

History is everywhere in Boston. Every neighborhood, street corner, and building embodies the people, communities that have occupied those spaces previously. The history of Boston’s systemic racism and communities’ acts of community building, activism and resistance are baked into both our understanding of our city, as well as its physical geography.

This timeline represents policies, events, and projects to the map and timeline that describe flashpoints, battlegrounds, and structures of inequity in the City of Boston.

  • BATTLEGROUNDS: Places where communities and institutions collide over resources, spaces, and neighborhood visions. ie. Tent City, The Southwest Corridor, Villa Victoria, The West End.
  • FLASHPOINTS: Trigger events that exposes inequity and leads the city to a better understanding of itself. ie. School Desegregation, the Henry
    Louis Gates arrest, the Charles Stuart Case.
  • STRUCTURES OF INEQUITY: Government and private sector policies and practices that are racially biased. ie. Chinese Exclusion Act, Redlining, Urban Renewal.

PROJECT GOALS

  • Our goal is to illustrate. To identify histories of racial injustice and celebrate communities’ acts of social resilience through community involvement and activism that moved spaces and institutions and policies toward justice and equity.
  • Our goal is also to learn. The combination of policies and citizen actions over time define our city and our current state equity/inequality. What are the key elements in each campaign or event that have made forward momentum toward racial equity successful?
  • Our goal is also to apply. What are the equity projects you are involved in that define Boston’s current social resilience? Are there elements missing in your current constellation of support? Help create a foundation for new insight as we assess current and future projects.