Northeastern library pioneers new methods of Big Data scholarship in effort to digitize history

Photo of Boston by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Dan Cohen has a vision for the future of the Northeastern library.

Cohen, dean of the libraries and vice provost for information collaboration, wants to transform Northeastern’s vast archive of print and photographic data into a standardized digital form that will allow scholars to use modern Big Data techniques to analyze 300-year-old information.

And now, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cohen will have the resources he needs to transform that vision into reality.

“This grant is a vote of confidence for the direction we’re taking to develop new forms of scholarship,” said Cohen. “This is fully in line with President Joseph Aoun’s vision of humanics, where we gain insight into human culture, emotions, and motivation through the use of technology and Big Data.”

The $500,000 grant is intended to “serve as a spark” to additional fundraising from private sources, a campaign that will begin in earnest immediately, Cohen said.  

Much of this money will be used to hire the data experts needed to continue the momentum of the Boston Research Center, a Northeastern-based digital archive that was launched in the spring with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the library’s Digital Scholarship Group.

The library plans to take thousands of Boston maps spanning hundreds of years and overlay them so that scholars can quickly leaf back through the decades to see how roads, the waterfront, housing, and immigration patterns have changed over time, Cohen said.

He said that digitizing vast stores of historical information will help scholars identify major trends in Boston such as neighborhood transformations, economic growth, and environmental changes.

A few of the ongoing digital research projects include:

The Boston Research Center will also continue its work with neighborhoods to preserve stories of the city and digitize the vast archives of several local papers including The Boston Phoenix, the Gay Community News, and the East Boston Community News.

“We will use this funding to support new initiatives and advance new digital forms of scholarship,” said Cohen.