New Project: A New Digital Home for Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

On Friday April 15th 2018, Northeastern University launched the new version of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Why a new site? Given that materials were being added to Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service for long-term preservation and that the five year anniversary seemed like an ideal deadline for that migration work, I recommended that the library’s Digital Scholarship Group create a new project landing site that was more engaging and had a curatorial hand reminiscent of our original project site. My role involved doing final passes on metadata (that was fun), inventory work during the migration, consulting on site design and layout, and creating and updating narrative and curatorial text. The bulk of the migration and redesign work was done by a fantastic team of librarians and graduate students: many thanks to Amanda Rust, Sarah Sweeney, Caroline Kilbanoff, Lauren Bergnes Sell, Megan Barney, and David Heilbrun. In addition to the many individuals documented and thanked on our About page (a section whose length and detail reflect our investments in what Sharon Leon notes is important contextual info for audiences as well as fellow practitioners invested in similar efforts), I’d also like to thank Julia Flanders and Dan Cohen for their continued support and attention to this project, as well as Northeastern’s College for Social Sciences and Humanities and NULab for their investment in its legacy.

On April 23rd (the day of the 2018 Boston Marathon!), I was a guest on PRI’s The World, a daily national broadcast that airs locally in Boston on WGBH. You can listen to the segment on Our Marathon below (or here).

Here are some other places where I’ve discussed my work on this project (the Additional Resources section of the site has further reading from some of our collaborators and contributors).

Our Marathon, five years later: Reflections on the Work of Digital Public Humanities” (National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog, April 2018)

“Digital History is More Than Just Sitting Behind Your Laptop” (Salem State College, 2018)

Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor in Making the Boston Bombing Digital Archive” (chapter in Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships, 2018)

“Our City: Images of Home in Our Marathon (ASA Annual Conference, 2016)

Facebook and Responses to the Boston Marathon bombings (2014)

Obviously there were many people whose lives were more directly and irrevocably transformed by the week of April 15th. From my much more removed vantage point, it’s been hard to revisit these materials five years later, and I’m appreciative of recent stories that are interested in the effects this work has on the individuals who are collecting and archiving records related to traumatic events. I’ve spoken to a few journalists this week and have found it difficult to embrace a perspective on this work that places it neatly in the past, that imagines a great distance between myself in 2018 and the person doing this work in 2013 and 2014, that divides the experience of living in Boston before these events, during them, and now as distinct epochs, that assures people you’re comfortable and OK after taking on this kind of work. As I told one reporter, “you had your historian hat on, but you’re still a resident of Boston.”

In August of 2013, I had to go to the Apple Store on Boylston Street because I needed something for my laptop, and I realized that I hadn’t been on Boylston since the bombings. Talking to some colleagues who were working on Our Marathon at the time, some of us realized that we were also steering clear of parts of the city it was almost impossible to avoid in our daily lives, and that we hadn’t even realized we were avoiding these spaces and places. We spent our days reviewing images, hearing stories, and geolocating materials about a specific place a few blocks away, a space that felt hard to return to outside of work.

When I first joined the Our Marathon team, I was a research assistant who was particularly interested in the digital spaces where these events was being documented, remembered, and discussed: Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, the comments sections of news articles, text messages between friends. Hyperlocal histories of contemporary life inevitably ask us to consider the ways we digitally document our experiences of space, place, and history, or how we navigate the images and narratives circulating online. But the project that I ended up working on and eventually Co-Directing more often than not encouraged us (if not expected us) to get off Twitter, get up from behind our laptops, leave our offices on campus.

In my current role as a postdoc in Digital Public Humanities at Brown, I’m often asked for advice on projects with digital components or publication interests, and while these conversations often lead us to particular digital tools, platforms, programming languages, or applications, I prefer the work where discussions of audience and community collaboration involve visits to partner sites and neighborhoods, event and exhibit planning, outreach and deliberation. For example, I recently attended the opening of Providence’s Chinatown, a tour and exhibition led by Public Humanities graduate students Angela Feng and Julieanne Fontana. I was briefly involved in conversations about digital contexts and archival dimensions related to this work, and we discussed the mechanics of crowdsourcing on digital projects, the creation of metadata, ideal platforms, the usual stuff.  But from the start, the priorities for this project were creating spaces where the history of this “modern Chinese diaspora” could be productively engaged with by city residents and by the people whose lives reflect that diaspora. A large and accessible digital archive may be an extension of this project down the line, but it was important for this project to raise awareness about this history through physically marking the presence of this history in Providence via a physical exhibit and walking tour.

Five years later, one of the most memorable events in the city’s response to tragedy was the creation of temporary memorials, specifically the one that materialized in Copley Square. The items collected here become variously described as relics, documentation, history, evidence. Evidence of what? What do we learn from the records left by those of us who were there, who searched for connections, who made their presence known, who documented the experience of their proximity and the weight of having come so close to something charged with significance? What does it mean to invite others to bear witness, to reflect, to build a monument, to save and record something like this? What do we learn about our ideas of community, healing, mourning, from these actions, these offerings, this language, this silence?

When I was around five years old, my mother was hit by a car around the corner from our house. My two brothers and I were with her, and she threw us all out of harm’s way. It is a miracle that she survived, a miracle that the Brooklyn trauma ward she was taken to happened to be one of the best in the country. It is an event that seemed to come from nowhere, a hit-and-run through a red light, an agent of violence whose motives and awareness were never documented, a world whose architect never provided an explanation to its new inhabitants. This event remains one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever experienced, its aftershocks still surprisingly visible and felt all these years later, its suddenness and violence having transformed myself and how I view the world in irreparable and innumerable ways. I’ve been thinking a lot about that afternoon this week, in part because I know that five years is a long time but also no time at all, in part because I know a little bit about what it can be like to live in a world that offers pain and little in the way of explanation. I also know what it can be like to heal from talking about this pain, from reflecting on its real and continued presence, from looking at history, if not for answers, then for avenues of empathy, signs of life. I hope that our work on Our Marathon offers present and future audiences some signs of life, an inevitably incomplete record, but one that hopefully reveals something to us about community, identity, and healing, in Boston and beyond.

Questions, comments? Feel Free to email me at james_mcgrath[at]brown[dot]edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.