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Northeastern is collecting the hidden history of Boston

Over the course of the coming year, researchers at the center—a digital community history lab based in the Northeastern Library that is dedicated to the study of the City’s past, present, and future—will travel to neighborhoods throughout Boston to collect hard-to-find historical artifacts and share the digital history of the city with its residents. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Imagine the attic in your oldest relative’s house. Is it filled with family photos? Old letters and documents? Warbled records that play songs of a bygone era?

Those photos, letters, and records, tucked away in the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods in Boston, all tell the story of a changing city. And researchers at the Boston Research Center at Northeastern are working to find them. 

Over the course of the next two years, researchers at the center—a digital community history lab based in the Northeastern Library that is dedicated to the study of the City’s past, present, and future—will travel to neighborhoods throughout Boston to collect hard-to-find historical artifacts and share the digital history of the city with its residents. 

The work is supported by a $650,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest funder of the humanities in the United States. Collaboration among the Boston Research Center, the Boston Public Library, and the Massachusetts Historical Society is also supported by the Mellon Foundation funding.

A sample of articles and photographs from The Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix and the East Boston Community News located in Northeastern’s archive at Snell Library. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Launched last year with the support of the Mellon Foundation, the Boston Research Center leverages Northeastern’s expertise at the cross-section of data-driven disciplines, including journalism, network science, and the digital humanities, and will draw on unique archival resources and data sets.

Researchers will host community meetings at various branches of the Boston Public Library, including the branches in East Boston, Chinatown, and Roxbury, to achieve three goals: to spread the word about the digital archive the center is building, to seek input on what it should build next, and to cast a wide net for items of historical significance that might be hidden in attics and cellars. 

“No historical record, no single archive has everything,” said Dan Cohen, dean of libraries and vice provost for information collaboration at Northeastern. “From the start, the Boston Research Center was meant to be not just Northeastern, but to include organizations such as the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and community groups.”

Researchers at the center have already begun building a digital archive that has been used by scholars and other researchers around the world to investigate the city’s history. Since last year, they’ve worked with their colleagues in Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks and the Boston Area Research Initiative to create prototypes of an interactive map of Boston from the 17th century, study the city’s use of data (such as the data collected from the Boston Police Department’s 911 system), and examine changes in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood.

Now researchers want to make these tools available to everyone who is curious about the history of Boston, Cohen said. 

“We are thrilled to take our relationship with Northeastern to a whole new level and collaborate on preserving and extending the reach of local neighborhood history and culture across Boston,” said David Leonard, president of the Boston Public Library.

The Boston Research Center will work with members of Boston neighborhoods to track down old civic meeting notes, photographs, written histories of community groups, and other items from the past that enrich the historical record of the City of Boston, Cohen said. 

Researchers don’t know exactly what they’ll find, but, Cohen said, “There’s a deeper history [of Boston] that isn’t held in any of the archives or libraries in the city. We need the help of the community to surface some of this important material.”

Meeting the residents of Boston neighborhoods will also enable researchers to raise awareness of their work at the Boston Research Center, and help them decide what sort of tools they should build next, Cohen said. 

For example: If a resident of East Boston wants to learn about why Logan International Airport is located in her neighborhood, researchers at the center can build a program through which she’ll be able to search for meeting notes from the 1920s, when the airport was built, or look up early photos that might currently be in someone’s family photo album, Cohen said.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Mellon Foundation, we’ll be able to fill in the historical and cultural gaps in our research, so that the Boston Research Center will be even stronger,” he said.

During the first phase phase of the project, researchers built prototypes of the interactive maps and neighborhood histories.

The information researchers gather will join a growing collection of valuable archives housed within Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections. The archives include a collection of Boston-based resources, such as the complete archives of The Boston Phoenix, the Gay Community News, and the East Boston Community News. The Northeastern Library also houses a robust digital repository of more than 100,000 documents, files, and photos that has been used by news outlets including The New York Times and WBUR, among others.  

“By working with the community, we can bring all these assets together in one place,” Cohen said. 

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at m.sartoretto@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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