“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.

While digital spaces and contexts will be discussed, I also want to highlight the ways these conversations inevitably must attend to contexts beyond explicitly digital spaces. I’m going to frontload this discussion with some questions and observations and then quickly call our attention to a few items from the digital archive.

Slide by Jim McGrath
Slide by Jim McGrath

Affiliations with particular regional identities and images are of course informed by pre-digital and non-digital narratives and images, and digital rhetoric is frequently remediated in the world beyond our screens, as we see most explicitly in the popularity of #BostonStrong hashtag online and the ways this phrase circulates on apparel. But the routes from Twitter to t-shirt are not neatly mapped or traceable; the conditions of augmented reality (wherein most of us are inhabiting various digital and physical spaces, often simultaneously), the distortions of time and space generated by our ties to a global network of digital communications networks, and the speed with which material objects are created, remediated, appropriated, and remixed all variously impact and complicate the ways we inhabit and represent our “home” in times of calm as well as crisis.

Slide by Jim McGrath
Slide by Jim McGrath

Digital archival initiatives draw heavily on metadata standards and other organizational and institutional methodologies favored by archives of non-digital physical materials, and concerns about the representational and political dimensions of the latter remain when considering the former. Digital crowdsourcing initiatives may aim to expand the scope and range of voices absent, obscured, or muted by other archival spaces, but we must not ignore the continued presence of implicit and explicit forms of archival erasure in Our Marathon and other spaces, the accessibility issues surrounding digitized and undigitized archival materials, and the reservations many communities within and beyond our institutional contexts have about navigating and participating in archival projects.   

Our Marathon Project Co-Director Alicia Peaker discusses the digital archive with a student at a "Share Your Story" event held at Northeastern University (Fall 2013).
Our Marathon Project Co-Director Alicia Peaker discusses the digital archive with a student at a “Share Your Story” event held at Northeastern University (Fall 2013).

Who is “at home” on the web? More specifically, who is comfortable telling stories about themselves in particular digital spaces and who is not? Where are they comfortable? Where do they form coteries and networks of private, semi-private, encoded, or public digital lines of discussion?  What can digital archives tell us about how ideas of home circulate online (and/or are informed by digital contexts and patterns of behavior)?

What kind of intellectual and emotional labor is the word “home” doing in an archival context? Why is an institutional space like Northeastern University a good home for archival materials about recent history? How do grant applications, tenure review guidelines, academic labor conditions, and pedagogical emphases transform well-intentioned efforts at community outreach into projects our potential collaborators outside the university have every right to question? These questions are not meant to dismiss or reject efforts at public engagement in digital contexts or otherwise, and many of these points of emphasis emerged from working on one such project.

"Run Sarah Run" sign and other race material abandoned after the Boston Marathon bombing (Source: Our Marathon)
“Run Sarah Run” sign and other race material abandoned after the Boston Marathon bombing
(Source: Our Marathon)

Our Marathon was driven by three primary aims: we wanted to tell a wide range of stories, build a lasting community memorial, and preserve the historical record. We subscribed to the principle that “No Story Is Too Small,” a phrase we used in web content, conversations, and promotional materials to encourage potential contributors with concerns about the value of their reflections and materials to the project’s audiences.

Screenshot of Our Marathon's home page.
Screenshot of Our Marathon’s home page.

We created a public-facing digital space on Northeastern’s library servers using Omeka, a content management system that allowed us to solicit and publish contributions from visitors, to curate and make content discoverable via exhibit-building tools, and to attend to the status of submissions simultaneously as “stories” and as archival materials to be inventoried, organized, and contextualized via the creation and display of metadata records.

Oral historian Jayne Guberman records an oral history with Bruce Mendelsohn (Source: Our Marathon).
Oral historian Jayne Guberman records an oral history with Bruce Mendelsohn (Source: Our Marathon).

We worked with oral historians to record interviews with individuals who were directly impacted by the bombings and their aftermath: survivors, friends and colleagues of victims, medical professionals, runners, witnesses to the violence at the finish line, in Watertown, and on the campus of MIT.

Sign for a "Share Your Story" event hosted at Northeastern University in Fall of 2013 (Source: Our Marathon).
Sign for a “Share Your Story” event hosted at Northeastern University in Fall of 2013 (Source: Our Marathon).

We also organized “Share Your Story” events with community partners at public libraries and universities (within and just outside of Boston) to describe the project and its aims to various communities and to reach out to potential contributors who may not have found the site through digital promotion or felt compelled or welcome to contribute to the project.

"One Boston" banner from the Boston Marathon memorial at Copley Square (Source: Our Marathon).
“One Boston” banner from the Boston Marathon memorial at Copley Square (Source: Our Marathon).

We did a lot of work on Our Marathon that I’m proud of, but I also think we can do better. In addition to the project team, the “we” here is a pretty wide range of people who might be in the room: digital humanities practitioners, scholars of public history and public humanities, skeptics of digital and public humanities, supporters and critics who too casually conflate the terms “public” and “digital” by suggesting that a digital project is inherently accessible to the public and demonstrably serving the interests of general audiences and the world beyond our institutional spaces.

Given the emphasis on home at ASA this year, I wanted to highlight some parts of the archive — both its digital assets and its structure and design — that call our attention to the emotions, arguments, and images tied to this term:

GIF of "One Boston," a digital exhibit created in Neatline (Source: Our Marathon).
GIF of “One Boston,” a digital exhibit created in Neatline (Source: Our Marathon).

One of the clearest documents of various investments in home came via the handwritten messages left on  physical materials at Copley Square and other makeshift memorial spaces in Boston and surrounding areas. In “One Boston,” a digital exhibit created using Omeka’s Neatline plugin, we were able to use digital tools of curation let us help site visitors think about what compels visitors to these memorial spaces to write where they’re from, reference Biblical passages, or simply write some variation of “Boston Strong.” What does the act of documenting one’s presence at a memorial space do for the individual, the community, the historical record of witnessing created from the preservation of these materials? 

Selection of internet memes featuring various responses to the Boston Marathon bombings (Source: Our Marathon).
Selection of internet memes featuring various responses to the Boston Marathon bombings (Source: Our Marathon).

It’s now common to see image macros and other internet memes circulating in various digital spaces after national tragedies. I think the investments in creating or circulating these memes, the reliance on particular images and forms of humor in critiquing or processing or ridiculing responses to the bombings, highlight ways social media networks connect and defamiliarize us from each other in various ways. What meme tropes, personas, or characters (“Success Kid,” “Bad Luck Brian,” “The World’s Most Interesting Man,” “Keep Calm And ___“) circulate and where? Why are images and language spoken by particular individuals like “Uncle Ruslan” more likely to be appropriated and remixed than others? How do social media spaces we feel comfortable or “at home” in become troubled by ways that proximity or distance informs a user’s comfort in circulating certain images or jokes? 

Various responses to Rolling Stone's decision to put an image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover in July 2013 (Source: Our Marathon).
Various responses to Rolling Stone’s decision to put an image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover in July 2013 (Source: Our Marathon).

In the negative responses to Rolling Stone’s decision to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of a July 2013 issue, we see more immediately the ways investments in particular kinds of regional or national identity reassert themselves in physical and digital spaces. Several storefronts and chains in Boston and New England refused to display or sell this particular issue, and many businesses and consumers took to social media to circulate criticism, document the destruction of the physical issue, or “remix” the cover in various ways via image editing.


Screenshot of Our Marathon's Contribution Plugin (Source: Our Marathon).
Screenshot of Our Marathon’s Contribution Plugin (Source: Our Marathon).

In Our Marathon’s redesign of Omeka’s Contribution plugin mechanism, one can (hopefully) see an an attempt to balance an archival investment in metadata with desires for transparency and direct engagement when considering what sort of information might be particularly useful to include in crowdsourced reflections. When constructing participatory spaces and mechanisms, we tried to consider the following questions: What is the interface making visible and concealing? How is it in conversation with other digital spaces online? How do its mechanisms and design reveal the hands shaping these spaces and their professional / institutional / regional and other investments? 

Many of the team members who worked on Our Marathon continue to consider such concerns in our present and future digital humanities work. For example, I remain interested in what is present and absent when the “official” mechanisms of the archive are deployed and performed, and when the space of an archive is named and labeled as such. When is an archive not an archive, and why is it not an archive? What tools and spaces might we use to encourage a wider range of voices and forms of expressing our affinities for home online and offline?

Questions, comments? Feel Free to email me (james_mcgrath[at]brown[dot]edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath. I continue to work on Our Marathon, albeit in a more limited capacity now that I’m no longer employed by Northeastern. I’m also happy to talk about the project, digital archives, or other issues raised in this post with interested students, faculty, librarians, archivists, and other digital humanities scholars who are doing or looking to do similar work.