Digital History Is More Than Just Sitting Behind Your Laptop

Slide from my talk at Salem State, outlining major questions for consideration.
Slide from my talk at Salem State, outlining major questions for consideration.

Note: On March 26th, 2018, I had the privilege of giving a talk titled “Digital Humanities, Hyperlocal Histories, and Community Archives” at Salem State College. Thanks to Roopika Risam, Susan Edwards, and Salem State’s Digital Humanities Working Group for inviting me to campus. In my talk, I discussed recent collaborative work with graduate students in Brown’s Public Humanities program and community partners like the Providence Public Library Special Collections department: you can read about those efforts here. I also talked a bit about lessons learned from my work on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. I’ve circulated that portion of the talk below.

For more information about Our Marathon, check out this recent publication (co-authored with Alicia Peaker), and this talk I gave at the American Studies Association conference a few years ago. If you’re in the Boston area, come to Northeastern on Monday, April 23 to “Storytelling, Archives, and Resilience,” a panel commemorating the five-year anniversary of the bombings (and announcing a relaunched Our Marathon project site).

On April 15th, 2013, I watched the Boston Marathon in Coolidge Corner with my brother Brian, who had recently moved to Boston. It was interesting to experience something that had become familiar through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. We cheered on runners heading into their final mile, laughed at the costumed participants and goofy spectator signs, enjoyed the beautiful spring weather. We got back to Allston a little before three o’clock in the afternoon, not realizing what had happened until our youngest brother in New Jersey called to check in on us. We went into the bar we had been walking towards and told them to turn on the news.

Northeastern University English Department faculty member Elizabeth Maddock Dillon had the idea that a team at the school should collect stories, memories, and photos related to the bombings and their aftermath, and she and Ryan Cordell quickly received internal funding to begin Our Marathon. Elizabeth has said that the idea for the project came from hearing the broad range of stories from the graduate students in the English Department, and the realization that there would likely be many varied records and reflections that could potentially be lost or difficult to relocate from their original sites of distribution and online publication without a place for those interested to submit, share, and preserve them. The project’s slogan, “No Story Too Small,” was inspired by this initial impulse. Our Marathon was one of the first major public-facing digital humanities initiatives at Northeastern: in fact, it pre-dates the creation of the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group, one of the college’s major hubs and support systems for DH work.

I joined the Our Marathon project as part of its initial team of graduate research assistants in the summer of 2013, in large part because I was interested in taking a closer look at social media related to these events: the use of Twitter to break news and document regional pride through #BostonStrong and other hashtags, the use of memes to comment and critique and crudely mock, the impact of amateur detectives on Reddit on IRL investigations, the complicated dynamics at work when invited to grieve and snark and like and share in a public digital space. Beyond knowing that the Library of Congress had, at the time, begun to archive tweets, I didn’t know the first thing about archival approaches to born-digital materials. I probably wouldn’t have used a phrase like “born-digital materials.”

Our Marathon's Contribution plugin
Our Marathon’s Contribution plugin

I still am interested in social media and archival contexts for social media, and I particularly admire the efforts of the Documenting The Now initiative to provide contexts and tools and perspectives on this work. But for me, broader questions related to the value of sharing stories online, where they end up, and what happens to them were more pressing. Our Marathon made use of the content management system Omeka to announce its intentions, share and curate its digital collections, and encourage additional contributions. The “out of the box” Contribution plugin that was available for use with Omeka resembled the interface of a digital comments card, the kind of thing many of us might only use if we had some particularly infuriating grievance to air with a company or digital storefront. One of the first projects completed during the initial summer of Our Marathon work was the creation of a customized contribution plugin, one that used more conversational language and revised interface to encourage users to add context to their materials.

At the time, we were happy with the results and proud of our solution. But I’d argue that we took the wrong approach, asked the wrong questions here. We focused on our archival desire for ordered metadata, for solutions to the challenges of working within the limitations of our chosen digital context, instead of paying more attention to the questions at the core of this archival initiative. What does “No Story Too Small” mean? What do I gain from adding stories or materials to a project run by an academic institution? What is digital humanities, and what does it have to do with this?

Sign advertising an Our Marathon "Share Your Story" event at the Northeastern University Library in October 2013
Sign advertising an Our Marathon “Share Your Story” event at the Northeastern University Library in October 2013

When Alicia Peaker and I became Project Co-Directors of Our Marathon in the fall of 2013, we began to think more about these lingering questions and the way they could (and should) impact our approach to a digital public humanities initiative (although we didn’t call it a “digital public humanities initiative” at the time). In October, to mark the six-month anniversary of the bombings and to introduce our project to the Northeastern community, we set up what would become our first “Share Your Story” event on the university library’s main floor. The result was a kind of crash course in user testing and project development. For many visitors, most of whom were undergraduates at the university, the project’s aims and invitations for participation were not as legible and engaging as we had hoped. Design choices that seemed like vast improvements to us after months of staring at Omeka were not as clear or intuitive to site visitors who were seeing the project without that context in mind.

Shortly after our six-month anniversary event, a group organized by independent museum curator Rainey Tisdale convened at the Boston Public Library’s main branch to discuss how local cultural institutions and universities were thinking about the impact of the bombings on their various communities. This meeting led to the creation of Boston Better, an informal collective that acknowledged the fact that different communities and organizations had different needs, interests, and approaches. We were linked by two shared values: a desire to act on the sense that our communities were looking for responses from us, and a belief that a singular, monolithic response might ignore or minimize the specific relationships and audiences tied to our individual nodes within this cultural network. We were interested in sharing perspectives on the challenges of doing our work after April 15th, in promoting events and exhibitions held by our peers, in making connections that took some of us out of traditional or conventional contexts and methodologies. For cultural institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, that meant organizing programming around materials and events that extended beyond their collections and modes of event planning. For collaborators like us, that meant spending more time with communities off campus.

It also meant that we had to know what our digital project was, and why it mattered to people, especially people who weren’t students or academics (though also those people, as we discovered at our event at Northeastern). At the initial Boston Better meeting, I became tasked with pitching our project to the assembled network, an assignment which, in retrospect, should have terrified me more than it did. But the presentation went well, in large part because members of our network were convinced of the value of our approach. After this meeting and further conversations, Alicia and I developed an itinerary of “Share Your Story” events that began in January 2014 at the Watertown Free Public Library. Staff at public libraries and university libraries were invaluable collaborators. They described what they saw and heard from their patrons in the wake of the bombings, helped us develop programming that would resonate with their perspectives, provided us with physical space and information on digital contexts at their institutions.

Attendees at an Our Marathon "Share Your Story" event hosted by the Watertown Free Public Library
Attendees at an Our Marathon “Share Your Story” event hosted by the Watertown Free Public Library

It was at these events where Alicia, myself, and our team of staff members and volunteers learned to talk about ideas of digital archives devoted to local histories, to discuss what “No Story Too Small” meant to the project, to help users with a wide range of experiences with digital tools and interfaces navigate our site’s structure and design. We also learned that conversations about the project, its intentions, and its archival dimensions were often more important than the acquisition of new digital assets, and that creating a physical space devoted to reading about and reflecting on and talking about the bombings was often what many attendees were looking for from us. We were very nervous about our reception in Watertown, given the violence and disruption this community experienced in the days after the bombings. And what we found, as you can see from this picture, was that some members of the community used our event to have conversations about what they were feeling and dealing with over six months later. I like the image above (take at our Watertown “Share Your Story” event) because none of the people in it are looking at the computer screens: they’re looking at each other.

We’re coming up on the five-year anniversary of the marathon bombings next month. To mark this occasion, I’ve been working with members of the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group to redesign Our Marathon. We’re not reopening the archive to crowdsourced contributions, in part because most of the core project team has moved on to different institutions or graduated. But I also think it’s because the project members who remain at Northeastern know the amount of work it took to introduce this project to various communities off campus.

There were many things I’d do differently with Our Marathon in retrospect, and many of these changes involve taking more time, allocating more resources, having alternate forms of collaboration, communication, and outreach with a wider range of project members and participants on and off campus. But we were also punching far above our weight class on this project, which was run by two graduate students on a shoestring budget. And I think we got a number of things right on Our Marathon. The most important lesson, which we learned on the job, was that doing digital history is more than just sitting behind your laptop, writing Twitter threads, searching digital archives. It can and should involve meeting audiences where they are online and offline, in locating local interests, highlighting regional dimensions, creating spaces for small stories, embracing the changing, varied, multifaceted ways in which history is experienced and lived on a daily basis.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me (james_mcgrath@brown.edu) or find me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *