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).

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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).

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New Book Chapter: “Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor in Making the Boston Bombing Digital Archive”

Our Marathon

Alicia Peaker and I co-wrote “Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor in Making the Boston Bombing Digital Archive,” a chapter appearing in the new volume, Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community

You can read a preprint PDF version of our chapter here (thanks, Humanities Commons!). Here’s an excerpt:

In 2010 Matt Kirschenbaum wrote “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” for the Association for Departments of English (ADE) bulletin, in which he argued that “digital humanities has accumulated a robust professional apparatus that is probably more rooted in English than any other departmental home” [11]. While there were (and there continue to be) skeptics and vocal opponents of digital humanities methodologies in these institutional spaces, his point was that many English departments had already begun to embrace, cultivate, or otherwise contend with the impact of digital tools and contexts on literary studies. But in the case of Our Marathon, many of the questions we received about the institutional context of our project stemmed less from an aversion to digital humanities work and had more to do with the project’s self-identification as an archival initiative and its investments in the curation and preservation of particular kinds of material culture: items left at public memorials, social media activity, and first-person narratives, all of them related to a national tragedy. Why is an English major behaving like an archivist, a metadata specialist, a project manager? What more could they know about the long histories of curation, preservation, and community engagement, topics that may not be covered in English department coursework? How might English departments anticipate student and community investments in initiatives like Our Marathon and be prepared to support such work?

Thanks to editors Robin Kear and Kate Joranson for their feedback on our contribution to this project. And thanks, of course, to Alicia, for being great: it would be cool to co-write and/or collaborate on something again in the future. I look forward to reading the rest of the volume: if you’re interested, some of our co-authors have been putting links to preprint versions of their work on this Google Doc.

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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.

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New Project: Public Work, a public humanities podcast

A few weeks ago Amelia Golcheski and I launched Public Work, an interview-style public humanities podcast that features lots of voices from Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage . Amelia and I have been working on Public Work since the Fall of 2017, and we’re excited to have an actual podcast out in the world after all that time. You can hear us on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and you can get updates on new and upcoming episodes @PublicWorkPod on Twitter.

Are you thinking about starting a podcast at your institution? What follows is an overview of some of the work that went into this project, with attention paid to some of the resources needed to pull it off and some thoughts on project longevity. There are lots of resources online for folks interested in doing podcasts, so I’m thinking of these reflections as more thoughts that might resonate primarily with people working in academic contexts: students, faculty members, librarians, postdocs, etc.

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“Reappearing Acts”: My Review of Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces for Digital Humanities Quarterly

Head over to Digital Humanities Quarterly to read some new writing from me!

Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From The Digital To The Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press; 2014) was an important book for me during the end of my dissertation-writing work, and I’ve come to use excerpts from the book regularly in courses I’ve taught on Digital Public Humanities and Digital Storytelling here at Brown. I asked if I could review it for Digital Humanities Quarterly so I could share the ways Emerson’s work has made me think differently about digital interfaces: what they promise users, what those promises often do to conceal and limit our imagined uses of technology, and how artists electronic literature have made creative work out of these limitations and conditions.

I had a lot of fun writing this book review, and I look forward to doing more writing in this vein. I’ve struggled for years to develop the “right” voice to use in “academic” writing, and the occasion of a book review for a supportive journal gave me some confidence and imagined leeway to write about popular culture, tell jokes, and reveal my personality a bit. Sometimes I feel like I was a few years too early (or maybe a few departments too removed from American Studies) to feel comfortable while writing stuff like this. I’ve still been doing some writing in more “traditional” academic styles and modes (though some of this work has also been collaborative writing, which has been fun and different in certain ways), but I do prefer this sort of thing. I was appreciative of the kind words people said about my writing on Infinite Jest and ebooks, which is in a similar mode.

Haunted Home Pages #3: Virtual Haunted Houses

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 love looking at early twenty-first century Yahoo pages with undergrads and grad students. The decisions to organize information are super interesting and weird! In my search for Halloween-themed content, I discovered that there once was a “Holidays” sub-section under Yahoo’s “Society and Culture” section. Before we go there to look at some Virtual Haunted Houses (from, of course, the “Virtual Haunted Houses” sub-section of the “Halloween” section!), take a look at these categories:

Yahoo's directory of links for "Society and Culture" (June 2002)
Yahoo’s directory of links for “Society and Culture” (June 2002)

In October of 2002 there were eight options to choose from in the category of “Virtual Haunted Houses.” While many of these houses are inaccessible via The Internet Archive due to their reliance on Flash, the descriptions of these sites give you a sense of some of the activities awaiting digital trick or treaters: virtual pumpkin carving, Ozmo the Oracle, table tennis with skeletons (move over, Warren Zevon!), etc.

Virtual Haunted Houses (October 2002)
Virtual Haunted Houses (October 2002)

Of these options, my favorite forgotten haunt is Jan’s Courtyard, in which the aforementioned Jan apparently created (and definitely starred in!) a series of Photoshopped images alongside The Cryptkeeper, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and lots of other ghouls and ghosts. If I had these kinds of Photoshop skills in 2002, this is exactly how I would have spent my time every October.

Jan's Courtyard (October 2002)
Jan’s Courtyard (October 2002)

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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!

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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.

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DH2017 Poster Roundup: Mapping Violence and Day of Public Humanities

2017 marks my third trip to the biggest DH conference in the game, and for this go-round I wanted to bring the work of some of my awesome collaborators (and some of the collaborators themselves!) at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage to the event.

The work documented in these posters is highly collaborative and it involves undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members in American Studies and Public Humanities. It’s been interesting to think through the relationships between these two fields and DH during my time at Brown; the ASA’s Digital Humanities Caucus has been super helpful in the former, and I wonder if there’s more people interesting in talking about the latter. I was excited to see “public DH” in Amanda Visconti’s paper title, for instance. And while “public humanities” isn’t explicitly named in the titles of any other posters and discussions, there’s clearly a lot of interest in questions of “access” based on the number of presentations here utilizing that keyword. “Access” is this year’s conference theme, but public humanities folks might find the range of uses interesting nonetheless. Additionally, “public humanities” is showing up in several tweets about presentations (like here and here, in tweets referring to a talk by my pal and partner in digital public humanities, Lauren Tilton!), suggesting that attendees invested in the term are recognizing its presence in methodologies and project emphases.

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