With the speed at which information travels today, there has been a shift in how we engage with news: we are more likely to hear about an event as it unfolds as opposed to hearing about it after it ends. As we (literally) see in our social media feeds, in the wake of a tragedy, memorialization happens rapidly both at the physical site of the event and in digital contexts. To capture such ephemera, there has been an uptick in digital archives that use crowdsourcing in order to populate these spaces. As various libraries continue to encourage instructors to engage with their digital collections (for examples see Duke, Vanderbilt, and The Newberry), it is important to pause and understand the unique aspects of creating a digital archive in real time that seeks to both historicize and memorialize an event. I offer the portmanteau “historialize” to acknowledge the ways these collections remain distinct from traditional archives in terms of their scope, rationale, and methods of collection.
In this article, I draw upon my experience working with a team to create a digital archive after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. First, I present some context, a brief exploration of the term archive(s), and a discussion of some ways the Boston Marathon archive departs from traditional archives. I then unpack the term “historial archive” as a name for digital repositories that aim to both historicize and memorialize an event. Next, to further expand upon how one might use a historial framework, I draw from primary research conducted with community members who shared their written accounts with the archive (NU-IRB Protocol # 15-04-09). I conclude by sharing one rhetorically rich arena that came about from my study. By offering samples of the kind of follow-up possible with the historial archive—in my case, surveys and interviews with contributors—my goal is to inspire instructors to compel their students to examine such archives based upon their own disciplinary backgrounds and to see what questions—and perhaps answers—they come up with.
More than just an annual race, the Boston Marathon is an important community event: it brings together runners from around the world—both elite and amateur—and the Hopkinton-to-Boston course is a source of pride and tradition for spectators as well. On April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure-cooker bombs were detonated near the marathon’s finish line. The blasts killed three people and injured over 260 others. The days that followed this act of terror included an unprecedented shelter-in-place order that kept residents inside their homes as a manhunt for the two suspects took to the streets. In the end, the death toll reached five, including an MIT police officer and one of the suspects; the other suspect, eventually found hiding nearby, was arrested and charged for the crimes. This horrific week in Boston’s history touched people from all over as evidenced from the artifacts left at local makeshift memorials, the thousands received by the Mayor’s office, and the surge of #BostonStrong social media posts.
From mourning the victims to celebrating the first responders, many community members connected with one another and processed their emotions by sharing stories of their personal experiences both digitally and in person. Noting the historical importance of such communications, a group of professors and graduate students from the English and History departments at Northeastern University came together to create a digital repository of these materials. Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive defines itself as a community project that consists of pictures, videos, and stories related to the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath (McGrath et al 2018). The archive was crowdsourced, which meant that anyone with an Internet connection could have potentially participated in populating the archive. The spirit of the archive involved gathering as many artifacts as possible in order to capture an important moment in Boston’s history.
Understanding Our Marathon as an Archive
Outside of academia, rarely do we hear people talking about archiving—save for clearing up email inboxes—but even in academia, people in different disciplines don’t necessarily align. For example, Marlene Manoff (2004) explores the way the word “archives” has been taken up by scholars other than librarians and archivists and explains how this word can refer to anything from the general contents of a museum to specific repositories of documents and objects; moreover, when discussing digital archives, the term can range from anything found in a digital format to a more select collection of related digital documents (10). Despite the various qualifiers certain disciplines have developed—social archive, raw archive, postcolonial archive—scholars from the social sciences and humanities understand that archives have important scholarly and political functions especially for those interested in the recovery work that accompanies actions like rewriting women and minorities back into historical records.
Digital archives add another layer of complexity to the conversation. In her article “Archives in Context and as Context” archivist Kate Theimer (2012) explains her hesitations with the field of Digital Humanities co-opting the word archives in a fairly expansive way. Theimer endorses the Society of American Archivists’ definition of archives: “Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control” (Pearce-Moses 2005). Theimer discusses how there is a long history with specific values and practices when working with/in “archives.” Though she is appreciative of how words and meanings change, she is concerned with “the potential for a loss of understanding and appreciation of the historical context that archives preserve in their collections, and the unique role that archives play as custodians of materials in this context” (Theimer 2012).
To understand Theimer’s hesitations, it is useful to consider how a more traditional, physical archive functions differently from a digital archive like Our Marathon. For example when The Boston Globe started in 1872, photography was still a very expensive craft and the technology for mass printing photos was still to come. As technology progressed, and as the newspaper continued to grow, one might imagine that a system of curating their images became important. Thus, the artifacts themselves necessitated an archive, and the staff could create a system that made most sense for their anticipated work. On the other hand, some archives are less calculated. For example, Mary Hemingway donated crates of her deceased husband’s papers to the Kennedys upon suggestion of a mutual friend. Now housed at the JFK Memorial Library in Boston, The Ernest Hemingway Collection contains the initially donated drafts of his manuscripts and personal letters, but it has also collected other related materials such as newspaper clippings and audio recordings of the author. The archivists in charge of this collection have curated the materials in ways that make sense for potential researchers and have also created finding aids.
These two examples illustrate key terms for analyzing archives: purpose, audience, location and preservation, and overall access. In what follows, I use the example of Our Marathon to discuss how the digital impacts these terms.
Purpose: How does the digital affect the purpose of Our Marathon?
With the Photo Archive, the purpose is very clear: should a news story relate to something that happened in the past, the reporter can search for the appropriate photograph. With the Hemingway Collection, there are multiple purposes: to preserve an iconic author’s writing process, to educate people about this particular person and his life, and so on. With Our Marathon, collecting stories for historical purposes made a lot of sense, but the vision of the archive was not just for history: the archive was created as an instrument of healing and a place for all community members to feel free to add their voices and share their parts of the story.
Audience: How does the digital affect the audience(s) for Our Marathon?
Although there are intended and imagined audiences, public digital archives can be viewed by anyone, as the archive itself is not located in the dusty basement of a building, like The Boston Globe photo collection was in 2013, nor does it take much effort to access, like the Hemingway Collection, which necessitates “proof” that you have business there. When Our Marathon was built, there were two main audiences in mind who would be accessing the digital archive through their devices: community members (who possibly needed a space for healing) and future researchers. We quickly found that these two audiences would both complement and complicate each other: for example, while researchers would want to know about community members’ experiences, the nature of a public digital archive might dissuade certain people from participating. Because the creators intended for the archive to be mostly crowdsourced, the overall design of the archive needed to be clean and user-friendly. From the choice of words to the colors we used, there were many discussions on how our intended audiences would engage with the digital archive.
Location and Preservation: How does the digital affect senses of location and issues of preservation with Our Marathon?
With physical archives there is always the chance of an unavoidable disaster decimating a collection, but for the things archivists can control, there are plenty of best practices for handling archival material, such as temperature-controlled rooms that are under lock and key, and protocols for handling old paper so that the oils from one’s fingers do not affect the text. When it comes to digital archives we understand that technology is not infallible and digitized and born-digital artifacts are in no less danger than their physical counterparts.
In April 2018, Northeastern University moved the archive from its open-source content management system (Omeka) to a permanent home on its server space; however, Northeastern will need to be committed to updating the site as technology changes. In her article “Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries,” Margaret Hedstrom (1998) reminds us that digital forms are vulnerable to technological obsolescence: “Digital works which are created using new or emerging software applications are especially vulnerable to software obsolescence because standards for encoding, representation, retrieval, and other functions take time to develop” (191). Digital preservation remains challenging because one is not usually aware that a change will impact digital artifacts until it actually happens.
Access: How does the digital affect access to Our Marathon?
As discussed in terms of audience, Our Marathon was accessible should one have access to the Internet, but contributors also needed to have a certain level of digital fluency to engage with the archive and to follow the archive’s prompts for sharing stories. Contributors could submit a story, image, email, video, text message, audio recording, or website. The Our Marathon team also created guides for capturing/uploading social media updates, but at the time there was not a simple way to grab one’s own updates. Upon clicking a “Share” button on the website’s homepage, a potential contributor would be guided through a series of steps to submit an item. For the purposes of this article, I focus on how people submitted their stories and note that the linear model used was based on the same design style as Tumblr, a popular blogging platform at the time.
After writing the title and story (or copying and pasting the text into the box) and having the option to upload a photo with the story, the arrows guide the participant through the next steps, which includes selecting where the story took place, when the story took place, details about the contributor, and the final stages of sharing.
Referring to Our Marathon as an “archive” establishes it as a certain type of repository and highlights a scholarly interest; however, the fact that this archive relied so heavily on crowdsourcing makes it different from the digital archives Theimer questions in her article, such as those which brought together the works of prominent cultural figures like William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Our Marathon was interested in collecting materials from any person who experienced the events.
This type of archiving is not without challenges. Our Marathon came from a line of relatively new crowdsourced archives that aim to both historicize and memorialize recent traumatic histories, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th (2001) and the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005). As previously discussed, some librarians and archivists would resist naming such repositories archives. While other historical archives may bring together artifacts into one useable venue through specific curatorial practices, these “historial” archives aim to collect material in real time and focus on the ephemera of an event rather than on more authoritative, mediated artifacts.
Crowdsourcing, particularly in the case of Our Marathon, relies on individuals taking agency over their participation: there were no conventional expectations for public writing of this nature. Unlike a traditional archive where already-written stories might be pulled together into an historical repository, most of these stories were specifically written for the digital archive. In fact, most of the stories in Our Marathon would not exist in their current state if the archive staff had not prompted participants to share their stories. In line with its focus on collecting real-time stories specifically for the archive, the historial function gives power to those who participate. The memorial aspect invites participation that complements the philosophical approach to history the archive enacts, and the archive becomes a co-constructed space which, rather than see power remaining mostly with the archivist, grants agency through sharing personal accounts and documents.
In practice, as we were building the archive and crowdsourcing material, we were not sure what we were collecting that might be of interest to future scholars. Elizabeth Maddock-Dillon (2014), Professor of English and project co-founder, reflects, “Realizing that the archive could provide resources for multiple kinds of research was really exciting. It’s not just this is a historical record, but this gives us a whole body of material that people might use for research purposes that we haven’t even thought of yet. Nonetheless, it’s a way to create an archive/data set that will have real historical and research value.” In a way, this archive would be contributing to, if not controlling, the future historical record and public memory; however, who knows what scholars will be interested in learning from these artifacts 20, 50, or 100 years from now? For example, Dan Cohen, one of the leaders on the September 11th Digital Archive, has mentioned to us that linguists have been drawn to that archive’s collections because 2001 was about the time that “text speak”—internet shorthand like “OMG”—started to come about. At the time of collection, the archivists would not have been aware that they were capturing this linguistic moment.
At its heart, Our Marathon collects history through stories. Given the complex nature of storytelling within the discipline of history, it is helpful to think of the linguistic turn of the 1970s and 1980s marked by the work of scholars Louis Mink and Hayden White who both contend with narrative as a focus of history. Rather than relying on examples from the natural sciences to represent historical knowledge, these historians theorized that disciplinary artifacts like works of literature were also important links to historical understanding (Little 2016). Scholars like Mink and White emphasize historical narrative rather than historical causation and champion subjectivity and various interpretations over objectivity and singular truths. This falls directly in line with archives intending to capture the larger picture of something as it unfolds.
In this philosophical approach to historicizing a moment, subjectivity and its malleability are key; however, to memorialize something means to create an object that serves as a focus for the memory of an event or person(s) in a more static fashion. Memorialization becomes a shared space that necessitates more rigidity: “Memorial sites, by their very existence, create communal spaces. Although it is possible to describe an individual’s encounter with a site, it is almost always part of a collective experience” (Blair 1999, 48). Although Carol Blair (1999) writes about physical memorial sites, her attention to communal space and collective experience resonates with those who contributed their stories to Our Marathon.
Take, for example, the following story, titled “Laundry Mat” (story reprinted here with permission from the author; original contribution and photograph can be accessed in the online repository):
Following the Boston Marathon bombings, the hotel where my family and I were staying was evacuated. We passed time by grabbing a bite to eat and wandering around the surrounding neighborhoods, but as time went on, my sisters, who finished the marathon about 30 minutes before the bombs went off and were still wrapped in their foil blankets, started to get cold and all of our phones were dead or quickly running out of battery. We came across a small, underground laundry mat on Columbus Ave. called Five Star Laundry and asked the owners if we could sit inside to keep warm and use their outlets to charge our phones. The owners did not speak much English, but their little kids did, and they translated our explanation of what had happened and our request to the owners who immediately welcomed us in. The kids became increasingly curious about my sisters and the rest my family, and before we knew it, they were chatting up a storm with us, putting on my sisters’ medals, and even sitting on their laps. As a gesture of gratitude, my husband went to the convenience store down the road and came back with candy for the children. This picture shows my sisters with the children, candy in hand. During such a dark time, it was reassuring and comforting to experience the hospitality and friendliness of the people at Five Star Laundry (Katz 2013).
“Laundry Mat” represents a key moment for Our Marathon: submitted on May 22, 2013—less than a month after the archive was even conceptualized— it was the first publicly submitted artifact. More importantly, “Laundry Mat” represents a story that might be lost without an appropriate venue for safekeeping; it is part of a supplementary historical narrative about how members of a community experienced the Boston Marathon bombings. On its own, “Laundry Mat” offers one artifact of memorialization—the kindness of strangers following the events—but when also archived as part of the historical narrative of the Boston Marathon bombings, in the future this artifact may end up recontextualized among other temporally-based narratives where the focus could shift to any number of topics such as race, gender, or linguistics. As in traditional archives, in the historial archive, the meaning of such stories will shift as time moves on; however, much research can be done soon after these archives come into fruition, which means that students may be able to directly follow up with creators, builders, and contributors of such sites.
During my graduate work, I became interested in a seemingly simple question that I imagine any interested advanced undergraduate student could take up: why did people participate? In the anonymous survey data that I collected from 48 participants who contributed their stories, there were five main responses to the more specific question: “Why did you choose to share your story with Our Marathon?” In the table below I map out those five reasons—from most prevalent to least prevalent—and highlight representative responses.