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  • For Comfort and Posterity, Digital Archives Gather Crowds

    Chronicle of Higher Education - 11/18/2013

    The pressure-cooker bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last April 15 shattered bodies and lives. But their impact was felt far beyond the blast radius as the shock spread and authorities set out to find the perpetrators. The ensuing manhunt put an already traumatized city on lockdown.

    One of the two suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured on April 19. The other, his brother Tamerlan, was killed.

    Three days later, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon found herself talking about Boston’s ordeal with a group of graduate students at Northeastern University, where she is a professor of English. She is also a co-director of the university’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, a recently created center for digital humanities and computational social science.

    Although her students had not been physically harmed by the bombing, they all felt the shock of it. “One person had been woken up in the middle of the night by the car going by and one of the bombers throwing a bomb out the window,” Ms. Dillon says. “It was striking to me how much this event had affected people’s lives and how much everybody had a story they needed to tell in the aftermath of the event.”

    The answer, Ms. Dillon decided then, was to find a way for anyone to share his or her story. She and her colleagues at the NULab createdOur Marathon, an online community archive, and invited members of the public to contribute first-person accounts, photographs, and videos describing how the bombing had affected them. “No story is too small for Our Marathon,” the site says, in what could be a mantra.

    The Boston effort is the latest in a series of digital community archives that have sprung up in the immediate wake of traumatic events. Prominent examples include the September 11 Digital Archive, devoted to the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, created after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005.