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).

Continue reading “Digital History Is More Than Just Sitting Behind Your Laptop”

On Collaborations with Archivists in Digital Public Humanities

Archival materials in the Providence Public Library Special Collections room.

In the Fall of 2017, I taught a graduate-level course in Digital Public Humanities for the second time here at Brown. The first iteration of this course, which I taught in the Spring of 2016, took a survey approach to digital humanities and DH contexts for Public Humanities. Students were invited to create speculative or “proof of concept” applications of our readings to public humanities contexts they were interested in exploring further. These student projects (which they described on the course’s blog) were extremely innovative and inventive, and they documented the class’ various interests in minimal computing, provenance metadata, augmented reality, and other topics. At the time I was pretty comfortable with both the survey model and an approach to student project development “ that clearly situated itself as the first step in an iterative, still-developing process.” For many students, this was their first DH class or their first time working with and thinking about digital tools and methodologies. It was also my first course in Public Humanities, so I wanted to learn more about student interests and expectations in our program.

For this second iteration of Digital Public Humanities, I was interested in having students work with an external collaborator (something our program actively encourages instructors to consider when developing courses). Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far: as I was beginning to brainstorm, Jordan Goffin, Head Curator of Special Collections at the Providence Public Library, reached out to me (via Twitter: see, Twitter can be useful sometimes!) to see if I’d ever thought about collaborating with the PPL on a digital project. Some readers familiar with Brown’s resources may be surprised to learn that an archives-oriented Digital Public Humanities course here wasn’t collaborating with The John Hay Library, The John Carter Brown Library, The Haffenreffer Museum, or other more “local” resources on campus. These organizations are all thinking a lot about digital contexts for their materials, and they have in the past collaborated or consulted with our students and faculty on these (and other) topics. But beyond the fact that the PPL reached out to me, I was also ignorant about what materials it held in its Special Collections and curious to find out more. What I quickly learned was that the Providence Public Library had been thinking a LOT about digital spaces. More specifically, they were really interested in how these digital spaces informed and encouraged use of materials by local communities in Providence, as well as how digital contexts for archival materials might reflect the value of these materials by the communities represented in these collections.

Continue reading “On Collaborations with Archivists in Digital Public Humanities”

Haunted Home Pages #2: The Garment District

Garment District Halloween ad on The B Line (Green Line), October 2017.
Garment District Halloween ad on Boston’s C Line (Green Line), October 2017.

Welcome to Haunted Home Pages, a semi-regular series of blog posts in which Jim McGrath spends October 2017 communicating with the internet’s afterlife via The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine . For all the posts in this series, click here.

Boston has changed a lot since I moved here in 2003, but one thing has stayed fairly consistent: The Garment District in Cambridge has been a go-to source for Halloween costumes, and the ads it blankets the T with each year promoting its wares (and wears) are always instant time capsules for the year’s pop cultural touchstones, memes, and monsters. I thought it would be fun to take a tour through the shop’s home page over the years to see what we might learn from the ghosts and garments of Halloween Past!

Continue reading “Haunted Home Pages #2: The Garment District”

Haunted Home Pages (#1): Stephen King

The Official Stephen King Web Presence (2000)
The Official Stephen King Web Presence (March 2000)

Welcome to Haunted Home Pages, a semi-regular series of blog posts in which Jim McGrath spends October 2017 communicating with the internet’s afterlife via The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine . For all the posts in this series, click here.

I wanted to kick off Haunted Home Pages with a look back at The Master of Horror, Stephen King. I went through a huge King phase back in junior high and high school, and I will provide an embarrassing image of myself from this period to prove just how into King I was back then!

Jim McGrath, Stephen King fan (Christmas 1996)

The Wayback Machine has entries for stephenking.com stretching back to November of 1998, but this March 2000 cached page is the first one I found to provide a clear vision of the author’s “web presence.” We’re greeted with a static home page that visualizes the site’s architecture as a large circle with a smaller one devoted to “Links” orbiting it (half of the larger home planet of All Things King is dedicated to a timeline, while the other half covers a range of topics about the author).

The section dedicated to “rumors” is disappointing to gossip hounds (like me) since it’s primarily about fan correspondence and autograph policies, though there is a question about an alleged haunted house run by King on Halloween (“this is not true and never has happened.”). “the man” is a biography of King (co-authored by Tabitha King, his wife) spread across a number of individual pages: each page has about a paragraph of text on it and includes a link to a printer-friendly version. There’s also a brief note about a 1999 appearance by King on Dateline that apparently led to fan concerns that the author was “unable to write”: this note isn’t clearly dated on the home page, which seems to aspire to the “endless present” of static home pages then and now.  King’s site in this incarnation was “designed, maintained, and hosted” by i-forge Design Factory, a company whose own home page from this period is sadly hidden from the Wayback Machine by robots.txt.

THE PLANT, an unfinished serial narrative King began selling on his personal web site in 2000.
THE PLANT, an unfinished serial narrative King began selling on his personal web site in 2000.

The next major transformation of King’s personal web site comes in 2000, when the author decided to add a “downloads” section in order to sell The Plant, “an epistolary novel set in the 1980s (before email, in other words, and when even the fax was a fringe technology).” As the  project’s Wikipedia article notes, King would never complete the novel, but it was a fascinating experiment in self-publishing via electronic means, especially given the author’s stature and his commitment to transparency. You can read what was completed on The Plant, as well as commentary from King during and after this publishing experiment, on the current “live” version of the author’s site, free of charge.

Continue reading “Haunted Home Pages (#1): Stephen King”

“Our City”: Images of Home in Our Marathon, The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

Source: Our Marathon
Source: Our Marathon

Note: The following post is adapted from remarks I gave at the 2016 American Studies Association Conference on a panel titled “Home Screens: Digitizing Belonging and Place in American Studies.” Thanks to my fellow presenters and attendees for their participation, to Alicia Peaker and the rest of the Our Marathon project team, and to Carrie Johnston for organizing the panel.

In his remarks at an interfaith prayer service in Boston on April 18th, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama noted more than once to his audience that “Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.” In the hours, days, and weeks following the events of April 15th, 2013, many people used social media to document how “at home” they feel or once felt in Boston.

I’m interested in ideas of home and digital spaces in the context of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Our Marathon, a community project hosted by Northeastern University, is a crowdsourced digital archive of close to ten thousand stories, photos, and social media about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I started working on it as a graduate student research assistant in May of 2013, became Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker, now at Bryn Mawr) in the fall of that year, and I continue to work on it as we preserve our digital assets and make them more accessible in the short and long-term via Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.

Slide by Jim McGrath
Slide by Jim McGrath

I’m particularly interested in discussing Our Marathon and what it might tell us about home and digital regionalismhome and digital archives, and home and digital public humanities.

Continue reading ““Our City”: Images of Home in Our Marathon, The Boston Bombing Digital Archive”