It takes a village to raise a library!

Last week, a group of parents from my kids’ school, along with some dedicated kid helpers, raised a library.  The Dante Alighieri Montessori School is a tiny little K-6 public elementary school in East Boston, both part of the (giant) Boston Public School system and the only Montessori school within it. We love this school for so many different reasons, but near the top of the pile is the amazing, committed parent council, who grapple with issues of welcoming, equity, multi-lingualism, multi-culturalism, kindness, and peace, right along with our kids and their teachers.

JoAnn Cox, Elsa Wiehe and I were unofficial co-chairs of the library build committee, and with help from what feels like a cast of thousands, we completed phase 1 of the library build.  Here are some excerpts from the thank you letter written by JoAnn:

Yesterday, at 3pm, we left the school with a transformed “library”/conference
space/special ed room, housed in the room named La Ceiba.   I’m hopeful all will enjoy this repository of knowledge, source of education, destination for curiosity, space for exploration, and locusfor rumination.

What started as an idea and a conversation with Giordana in the spring
of 2016 while Ethan raced Lucy in the school play area is now closer
to a vision developed over the years with Elsa joining as one of the
leaders to find funding.

Hundreds of hours from volunteer efforts as well as some fundraising
dollars went into this project, one we wanted to see happen at the
school–and all of you helped make it happen.  All of the efforts deserve an award:  planningmeetings and funding research; conversations with Kate Scheid and support from the school staff; the guidance and support of community members Sharon Gentges (architect), Margaret Kelly (East Boston branch library), and Deborah Froggatt (BPS librarian); the generous funding
from Brown Rudnick; and  additional support from funds raised for the
school. A large team of volunteers–you!–with assistance of the 5th & 6th years, family members, and students–transformed an awkward and crowded space in three days; La Ceiba stands ready to embrace all activities, taking advantage of the light and airy qualities of the room.

We are truly in phase 1 of the project– next phases include cataloging the books (Dewey Decimal System rears its ugly head!), weeding, fundraising for additional titles to include, integrating with in-classroom libraries. However, we can’t be more happy with the way things have turned out thus far.



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.”

Our Home: An Eastie Community Archiving Project

I love Archives, and I love the neighborhoood I’ve lived in for the past 14 years, East Boston.  At the moment, I’m working on a project that marries them– Our Home: An Eastie Community Archiving Project.

Our Home, a collaboration between East Boston residents, the ICA, Artist Anthony Romero, Northeastern’s NULawLab, and area nonprofits, aims to activate East Boston’s activist past by hosting history capturing and storytelling events for residents and making the material available for research as part of Northeastern University’s University Archives and Special Collections.

Here is some information from some of the working documents the collaborators and I have put together.  As you can see, it’s a loosely-knit collaboration focused on experimentation, community building and care, and includes (in my mind) a hefty dose of Punk/DIY “let’s just try and see what happens” idealism.  I’ll have more to say about this project later, but thought I would introduce it here, partway through the project.


Early history of East Boston:

Long a fishing site for the native peoples of the area, the five islands that make up East Boston (Bird, Noddle’s, Apple, Governor’s, and Hog) were first settled by Europeans in 1633.  After a notable shipbuilding period in the 1800s, the area later welcomed wave after wave of immigrants to the immigration station located in the neighborhood, often referred to as Boston’s “Ellis Island.” Many recent arrivals stayed and made their homes in the neighborhood– mingling with already established groups with different languages, religions and cultures.  Because immigration and integration are challenging processes, East Boston has developed a longstanding tradition of welcoming and supporting recent immigrants. This history started in the 1880s with the establishment of settlement houses, the predecessors of today’s East Boston Social Centers.  

More on East Boston Immigration: 

History of Activism in East Boston:

Along with the history of welcoming newcomers, East Boston also has a long history of standing up for the rights of its residents.  When “Jeffery Field” opened in 1923, no one could have imagined that the subsequently named Logan International Airport would serve 40 Million passengers in 2018.  Along the way, Olmstead-designed parks, historic buildings, and entire neighborhoods have been bulldozed to make room for runways and airport-related buildings and parking lots.  The proximity to Logan has also brought fuel tank farms, cargo/transportation businesses, to dot and highways to criss-cross the historically working-class neighborhood. East Boston activists have worked for clean air and water, lobbied for green space, bike paths and parks in the shadow of the ever-expanding airport and the Commonwealth’s ever-growing transportation needs. The neighborhood constantly fights, and occasionally wins battles between what the state needs and the neighborhood wants.  

Goal 1: History Capture

Our Home hopes to bring together the various pieces of this historical puzzle and members of the community that hold this history into conversation.  The goal is to provide a space and time for folks busy with their lives and families and volunteer work to share the knowledge of the community they hold with others in the neighborhood.  Additionally, a goal is to capture these objects and stories and make them available publicly for community understanding as part of the growing body of East Boston history collections housed and curated in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

The history-capture events will consist of:

  • [AUGUST 25, 11-2, ICA WATERSHED] An afternoon of ‘community scanning and sharing’ at the ICA’s Watershed.  Hosted by Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, this is a free public event where residents are invited to bring family photos to be scanned and included in a permanent digital archive of East Boston History, creating an educational resource of primary sources for future generations.  
  • [SEPTEMBER 26, 6-8 PM, GRACE CHURCH FEDERATED]  Evening event capturing the records and stories resulting from No Eastie Casino– a volunteer group who fought to prevent a casino from being built at Suffolk Downs.
  • [September 29, 2-5, ZUMIX ] Eastie History Fest Community storytelling at  Zumix. A Sunday afternoon Mass Memories Road Show-style event. University Archives staff will work with a local planning team to organize a free public event where residents are invited to bring family photos to be scanned and included in this digital archive. 

Goal 2: ICA Boston/Romero Project integration:

These stories and objects will be featured in Anthony Romero’s contribution to the ICA Boston’s upcoming exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” which focuses on the subject of contemporary migration, immigration, and the displacement of peoples across the world.  This inclusion is particularly profound as the ICA’s waterfront view features the Jeffries Point neighborhood of East Boston; the historic buildings recently almost completely obscured by newly-built apartment buildings along the waterfront.

Goal 3: NULawLab collaboration

Through Northeastern Law School Laboratory Seminar in Applied Design and Legal Empowerment, a six week legal seminar starting June 10th, students and East Boston residents will co-create a series of legal empowerment tools that respond to the following question:  What might we learn from the rich history of successful East Boston activism that can be deployed to empower current residents to assert their legal rights in proactive defense against displacement by redevelopment?

Students will spend  time researching organizing and activism strategies through the East Boston-related archives in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.  They will distill those learnings into discrete actionable takeaways that can be applied to East Boston’s current housing and displacement crisis. They will research legal rights and strategies for the neighborhood, and distill these learnings into a series of tools/toolkits/materials/tangible things that manifest the East Boston approach in response. They will test those ideas/tangible things with East Boston organizers, activists, and residents, and then present the final product as a tool to distributed this fall as part of Anthony’s exhibit at the ICA/Watershed.

People Before Highways event at the State House

On January 25th 2019 Karilyn Crockett, author of People before Highways, led a group of the original activists from across the region to the Massachusetts State House to commemorate the 50thanniversary of the pivotal 1969 fight to stop I-95 and the Inner Belt.  Chris Lisinski captured the populist legacy of the anti-highway movement organizers in the following article for the State House News Service. 

The event had everything:  it brought history out of the Archives/off the pages and into the State House, included activists sharing lessons learned and anecdotes, elected officials took the time to learn and understand, linked Boston’s public transit/traffic woes to past struggles and successes, and was wrapped with elements of art/music (drumming and trees and laundry lines full of wishes.)  So happy to have played a tiny supporting role in this event.



DLF 2018 panel: What Would the Community think?

community-zine.jpgIn October, I went to Las Vegas to attend the Digital Library Federation’s 2018 meeting to be a panel participant on What would the “community” think?: Three grant-funded teams reflect on defining community and models of engagement.” It featured projects working across organizations to implement change and find common solutions often engage relevant communities. Questions asked: How do we define communities and design these engagements? Do these approaches work? What can we learn from other fields? Resources 1. and links to slides here:

I participated as a “Design for Diversity” advisory board member.  The following is a lightly edited version of my talk, along with a link to the minizine I put together for the panel. Big thanks to Kelly Wooten and my Radical Empathy sister-archivists, much of whose work is collected on the “Radical Empathy in Archival Practice” tumblr and who continue to awe and inspire.

  1. Download and print my minizine here.
  2. Learn how to fold it here.

My name is Giordana Mecagni, and I have lived in Boston for most of my life. I am white, and like many people from Massachusetts, am the product of poverty-based European immigration, and am Italian, Irish, and Scottish. Most of my family, largely Catholics, includes a couple dozen first and second cousins who also live in the Boston area. They are also Italian, Irish, Scottish, but additionally, African-American, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Mexican, Scandanavian, Dominican, German, Haitian, Spanish, English, etc.

I mention this for two reasons– one, is that it explains my perspective and positionality. I am white. I am a lifelong Bostonian. My family is extra-ordinarily fertile. Understanding and examining this perspective fully in light of what I do for work is incredibly important.

Secondly, it is an example of a community, in this case my family, who have mostly lived in one geographic place for multiple generations. This community is one that is always changing, constantly being influenced by and changed by, and producing babies by the other people who occupy that same space. But those babies often have very, very different perspectives than I do. One of my favorite cousins, is a black union plumber apprentice, with a Haitian-Canadian family living in Montreal.  I love him, he’s a relative, we spend lots of time together, but I don’t presume to think I understand his perspective.

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler (from the parable series) says “ “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” And I highly encourage you to add adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy to your GoodReads list immediately. Citation is on the back page of the zine. She weaves together afro-futurism, the natural world, and stories from effective activists into a guide for making a better world. It’s incredible.

I am Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Northeastern University in Boston. A community archive based in a large R1 University, we collect, preserve, organize, describe, provide access to, digitize, and make anniversary exhibits for Boston’s under-documented communities, with a particular focus on Asian American, Latinx, Queer, and African American communities.

I should mention here that I am part of none of these communities, apart from the Boston one. And I don’t believe I have met anyone who claims all of those identities. Although it’s not out of the question that that person exists, I haven’t met them. But I do spend a lot of time listening, appreciating, and amplifying Boston’s marginalized voices. I have spent a lot of time working on city-wide race and resilience efforts. I have developed a trust network within those communities– folks who are completely willing to call me on my own bullshit. And those folks also have relationships and trust networks that aren’t confined to their own identietis or positionalities.

And then Amanda and Julia asked me to be part of the advisory committee of the Design for Diversity project. My first question was, “I am clearly not very diverse, how about I cede my position to someone else more qualified?” But then Amanda explained that they were targeting mainly folks who make ethical tools and projects to help others make ethical tools and projects. So I said yes, and started to think about what I bring to the table– the skills and tools I have built that might prove helpful to this other community that I am a part of– GLAMers and DHers and technologists and Wikipedians etc.

And I thought to myself– what is the pinch point, always, in my work? And top on the very long list was folks doing academic projects ON, but not with community. Because of what I do, academics regularly reach out to me to ask me about a project they want to do on diverse communities. Sometimes, I am happy to do this– I only have to reach out to someone in my trust network, make sure they are amenable, and make an introduction. But more often than I would care to admit, the project they have proposed is completely inappropriate.

For example, a white woman came to me and said, “I would like to do an oral history project to collect the stories of people affected by gun violence in the inner city”. Um, #1, no. #2. there already is a community project that exists, and #3. Just no. The key point was, why are these people talking to me about these projects? Why didn’t they approach someone in those communities? And if they don’t know someone in those communities, maybe they should choose a different project?

So, back to Design for Diversity (D4D). I wanted to create a tool that helped circumvent those difficult conversations. A how-to guide for community engagement. So I went to the library literature. Nothing. The archival literature I knew had some really great critical theory and Radical Empathy stuff by Michelle Caswell, RIcky Punzalan, etc. but no how-to. The D4D zotero was amazingly helpful for theory. But there was nothing concrete. So I tracked down some campus partners, all of whom said “everybody writes about this stuff!!. My Cherokee language scholar partner pointed me to a huge bulk of indigenous studies literature. My service-learning partner pointed me to an entire field of it. My black feminist studies colleague gave me some amazing resources. So I took a deep dive, and this is what I have come up with. This zine I produced for this conference, distills lots of smart people’s work into 8 tiny pages. But page 1 is the bibliography, the list of resources I found most helpful, and hopefully you will, too.

Thank you.


Investigating Northeastern’s Only Medieval Manuscript


Northeastern students are continuing on with their work on the “Dragon Prayerbook” project.  Really interesting work, using sceince to unlock the secrets of our little Medieval Dominican prayerbook.

What inspired you to take a closer look at Dragon Prayer Book?

We were inspired by the mystery of the manuscript; very little was known about it before we began our research. The Dragon Prayer Book is beautiful and intriguing, and so multi-dimensional in terms of the questions we can ask of it, e.g. sociological, literary, religious, material, etc. As Northeastern’s only medieval manuscript, the book is an original object which has become a hub of interdisciplinary research. The book has provided a sort of bridge between departments, and each new experiment or test proves this connection to be stronger. With each new discovery we make the book reveals more of itself to us, and with each revelation come new surprises and twists in terms of our research path. While much is known about the book, there is still plenty that can be discovered, or even already known information that can be confirmed. <snip>


Whole blog post here:

Investigating Northeastern’s Only Medieval Manuscript

Radical Empathy in New England Archivists Newsletter


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.

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.

BPS Desegregation Project history, collaboration and growth (part 4)

bps_deseg_proj(This is part 4: part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here)

Parners presented on the project (DPLA Fest and NEA, spring 2016, and will again at OAH presentation April 2018).  Word was spreading about the collection and about our willingness and eagerness to add additional partners.  The National Archives in Waltham joined the project in fall of 2017.

With our widget complete, we decided to officially announce the project.  We wrote a press release and agreed to announce the collection on Feb 1, 2018.  We worked hard to bring this information into non-archival spaces– working with the City of Boston and Boston Public Schools to have the collection announced using their communication channels.

Along the way, other opportunities to embed archives into racial equity and social justice work presented themselves.  The first was an opportunity for me to serve on the Race Equity Working Group of the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Race Equity  with Chief Resilience Officer, Atyia Martin.  I wrote about my experiences in the blog post Boston Race and Resiliency

The Mass Cultural Council also sponsored serveral neighborhood reading circles on Desegregation called “The Harvest.”  Several educators in my neighborhood worked together to sponsor one of these readings– it was held in October 2017.  The flier we put togethe is here. 

BPS School Desegregation Project history, Widget and a Website (part 3)


(This is part 3: part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 4 is here)

Scanning projects largely wrapped up in 2016.  Slowly but surely, (thanks largely to the tenacity of Jessica Sedgwick, then the BLC metadata consultant) our repositories began to implement a technical connector that allowed our individual repositories to connect with Digital Commonwealth/DPLA.


Although Northeastern was coordinating the construction of this collection, we tried to follow a distributed ownership model, starting with our first piece of digital infrastructure, our blog.  We posted each entry on “What’s New,” Snell Library’s blog, but there was an understanding that content belonged to the community and could be repurpused by partners on their own institutional blogs.

With the digital collection coming together, the group started to talk about portals, connectors, and how we can make this a true collection, not just several thousand contributed items to Digital Commonwealth/DPLA.  We discussed purchasing and owning separate digital infrastructure collaboratively, but as the project was designed as a “lightweight, nimble project that attempts to lay the technical and descriptive groundwork for cross-institutional collaboration through the technical infrastructure of the DPLA and Digital Commonwealth” , we decided against it.  Separate digitial infrastructure was neither lightweight nor nimble.  In the end, we decided to create a widget that could live on multiple websites and use Northeastern’s already existing web tools to create a portal to the collection.


To maintain the distributed ownership model, the group decided to create a tool that could search the collection directly from any website– essentially bring the collection into the organization’s own website rather than partners pointing to an external resource.

We  looked at a widget created by Dean Farrell and Josh Wilson that allows a user to easily install a DPLA-branded search box on any website.  When you type a word or phrase into the box, the widget goes to the DPLA and automatically populates a search. After clicking ‘search,’ the next screen that opens is a DPLA page with the results.  Could this widget be modified to automatically populate desegregation search terms in addition to what has been typed in the box? At DPLAFest in 2016 (presenting on the Deseg project), I met Audrey Altman from DPLA, who played with the code.  By using the search term ‘cat’, she determined that it was, in fact, possible.   In 2017, Northeastern’s technical team (Eli Zoller, Ernesto Valencia) forked the github code, modified it, and created a working widget for the project. 


We then needed to determine the search terms that would bring up desegregation material from DPLA.  Instead of solely using our common search string, we decided to riff on the model that uses a set of individual words to search for items rather than an LCSH subject heading.  The group first constructed a boolean search (school* OR educat*) AND Boston AND (desegregation OR segregation OR integration) that we thought would retrieve most items, including those from our collections.  In testing, we found a glitch– we recieved an expected number of results using Digital Commonwealth’s search tool and an unexpected result from DPLA, either a higher or lower number depending on which set of terms was listed first.

We reached out to Mark Breedlove at DPLA, who confirmed our suspicions– the search tool DPLA uses, (Elasticsearch, and Lucene) doesn’t honor “AND” and “OR” and “( parentheses )” so our boolean markers weren’t being observed. Although not ideal, we modified our search string to [ school* + integration + Boston ] 

Mark suggested that we use an API instead of using the DPLA search box– it would allow us to use a more robust search string including fielded data (DPLA doesn’t have an “Advanced” search function, just API availability.  His suggested search to start was:

curl -X GET \   ‘[YOUR API KEY] &q=integration%20OR%20desegregation&sourceResource.spatial=boston&sourceResource.subject=school%20OR%20schools&fields=id%2CsourceResource.title%2CsourceResource.description&page_size=50′

The use of an API does allow robust searching and would allow us to retrieve much more specific results.  Unfortuantely, it requires the results of that search to be embedded into an owned website, which was not part of the initial scope.


For all of its wonderful aggregating power, DPLA and Digital Commonwealth are not set up for full-text searching OCRed collections, something that our own Digital Repository is capable of.  We decided to make use of the tools, infrastructure built by Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group (CERES) to make a Northeastern portal to the collections.

Although a Northeastern-specific portal was the primary reason for to be built, it started to serve as the collaborative collection portal, and later partners agreed to use it also as the WWW place for information about the collection to live.  Currently, the website is where information about the widget lives, and serves as a gathering place for a growing set of descriptive, information, and pedagogical tools.

(This is part 3: part 1 is here, part 2 is here)

BPS School Desegregation Project history– Planning and Building (part 2)

(This is part 2: part 1 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here)

bps_deseg_projWith BLC funding secured and a search for a techical consultant underway, BLC archival partners (University Archives and Special Collections at UMass Boston, the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, The State Library of Massachusetts’ Special Collections, and Boston College’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections) met and started formulating the project in January 2015.  The group determined that we would employ a ‘big tent’ approach to collection building, and invited non-BLC institutions to join as non-fiscal partners. The Moakley Archive and Institute at Suffolk University, the Boston City Archives, and WGBH) were added later that spring.  We announced the project, including our arguments for collection creation in a Blog Post. 


A full list of collections that were contributed to the collection is here, including partners added later in the project.  My initial idea for the project was to start in 1954 and end in 1974 when the court order was implemented.  This is what we intended to focus on at Northeastern.  The group agreed to stretch that date range into the 1980s and 1990s for two main reasons.  Pragmatically, many institutions had strengths in that time period.  Philosophically, students and teachers doing the day-to-day work of integration was equally as challenging as getting to an integration decision.  Once the project was scoped, we determined that each institution would have the ability and freedom to contribute the most relevant items based on their collection strengths.


The group determined that metadata would be the glue that would bind our collections together in Digital Commonwealth/DPLA. More on the decisions on this topic are reflected in this Blog Post written by Jessica Sedgwick.  We considered a non-LCSH option that could mark records that were part of a BLC-specific project, but ultimately decided to use the single subject heading “Segregation in education — Massachusetts — Boston — History” as a determinant of participation.   Our reasoning was twofold; one subject heading is a very low bar for participation, and it would also allow the collection to grow easily if other additional collections decided to participate.  This “everyone can participate” decision risks significant duplication and will most certainly invite unevenness and irrelevant items– a DPLA participant might tag something with ‘our’ subject heading that we might not consider ‘significant’ or even relevant or even deployed mistakenly.  A counter argument is that if we wanted to create a static, even, balanced collection we could have followed the blueprints of the many self-contained e-collections on varying subjects.  DPLA describes searching in its collections as like “drinking from the fire hose,” overwhelming, but offering the kind of varied perspectives and collection strengths that a curated collection can’t.


The group shared internal scanning policies and procedures.  Some institutions provided folder-level metadata, others item-level.  Participants used several different metadata standards, including Dublin Core and METS.   Scanning standards (dpi, color/greyscale, sizing) varied.  As this variety is also reflected in Digital Commonwealth/DPLA, we determined that we would also apply a low bar/high participation policy to our scanning and metadata standards. Thus, we did not require or suggest any kind of standard metadata, scanning standards or levels of description.

In May of 2015 Northeastern hired Sociology PhD candidate Meghan Doran (formerly of BBDP) and UMass Boston Public History MA student Corrinne Bermon (who worked on UMB’s Omeka site) to work on selecting, scanning, and providing basic metadata for items.   Corrinne describes going through the collection in this Blog Post. 

The group also talked about putting together an external personography that collated non-LCNAF name authorities in list form.  However, recent scholarship has described and problematized library and archival technical structure structure (and LCNAF) for its inability to understand relationships between people, organizations, and families.  A new standard has been emerging to address that, EAC-CPF.  In the summer/fall of 2016, graduate student Elizabeth (Betts) Coup initiated a pilot instance instance for our collections as an internship.  Eventually the goal is to incorporate that information into our Northeastern and our partners’ descriptive practices.  Betts’ blog post about her project is here. 

(This is part 2: part 1 is here, part 3 is here)