Students of history become familiar with the vast array of human accomplishments. With that knowledge also comes an understanding of human cruelty and racial violence: a perspective humanity shies away from. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of social depravity was in the Jim Crow-era South, a topic I only knew from textbooks and lectures. Working for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project completely changed my awareness of the subject and opened my eyes to the importance of restorative justice.
The CRRJ (part of the Northeastern University School of Law) spearheads a variety of projects meant to bring justice to the victims of racial crimes. Examples of restorative justice include public apologies, memorials, and reconciliation through education. The efforts of the CRRJ not only provide closure and honorable memory to the families of victims, but also valuable opportunities for law students to advance in their field.
An essential part of the CRRJ’s efforts is the Burnham-Nobles Archive. With an abundance of records (such as police records and death certificates, among many others), the archive serves as the CRRJ’s central hub of information. The latest archive project (set to unveil in 2022) is to transform this data into an interactive and accessible platform that is open to students, researchers, and families. Blending academia, restorative justice, and technology isn’t an easy feat, but it is a relevant and necessary undertaking in today’s society.
I was hired in April of 2021 to work part time assisting the CRRJ’s Burnham-Nobles Archive. I was interested in the position as I recently entered an MA program in Public History and want to work in the archival field. Before working with the project, I was simply passionate about doing archive-related tasks: I didn’t quite realize the breadth of the CRRJ’s project.
It was not until I started doing actual work that I realized the depths of the horror that was the Jim Crow South. It’s one thing to learn about racial violence, but it’s entirely different to work “face to face” with it. One of my first assigned projects was to code cases from Alabama according to the CRRJ’s v1 data dictionary. This seemed straightforward until I began learning about each victim’s story, their age, and their manner of death. Suddenly, the task had taken on a new level of importance: these weren’t faceless victims of race crimes. They were children, parents, siblings, soldiers, students, and workers—human beings senselessly cut down and unprotected by the law. A tragic example is 14-year-old George Stinney (above), a young boy sent to the electric chair on an unfounded accusation of the murder of two white girls.
Today, my outlook on the project is entirely different, and I have learned so much about the history of racial violence in the South, as well as the important connection between archives, history, and social justice. I have worked on a variety of assignments for the CRRJ, including coding work, GeoNames verifications, case abstract extraction/organization, and work on AirTable.
Working for the CRRJ has been essential for my Public History studies because it has given me the “human” element so often missing from the academic world. While I have learned about racial injustice and violence in the past, working for the CRRJ has allowed me to see each incident on an individual level. Additionally, I feel as if I am actually doing something with my work. Rather than just learning about what happened in the Jim Crow era, I feel that my work is helping the CRRJ accomplish its restorative goals to bring justice to the victims.
The CRRJ and the Burnham-Nobles Archives are leaders in the restorative justice movement, and they have given me valuable experience on both a technical level and a deeply human level.
Northeastern University Library’s procedure for digitizing physical materials utilizes a few different workflows for processing print documents, photographs, and analog audio and video recordings. Each step in the digitization workflow, from collection review to scanning to metadata description, is performed with thorough attention to detail, and it can take years to completely process a collection. For example, the approximately 1.6 million photographs in The Boston Globe Library collection held by the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections may take several decades to complete!
What if some of these steps could be improved by using artificial intelligence technologies to complete portions of the work, freeing staff to focus more effort on the workflow elements that require human attention? Read on for a very brief overview of artificial intelligence and three potential options for processing The Boston Globe Library collection and other digital collections held by the Library.
What is artificial intelligence and machine learning? Artificial intelligence (AI) is a broad term used for many different technologies that attempt to emulate human reasoning in some way. Machine learning (ML) is a subset of AI where a program is taught how to learn and reason on its own. The program learns by using an algorithm to process existing data and find patterns. Every pattern prediction is evaluated and scored according to how accurate the prediction may or may not be until the predictions reach an acceptable level of accuracy.
ML may be supervised or unsupervised, depending on the type of result needed. Supervised learning is when instructions are provided to assist the algorithm to learn how to identify patterns expected to the researcher. Unsupervised learning is when the algorithm is fed data and discovers its own patterns that may be unknown to the researcher.
Ethics As we undertake this work, it is important to be aware that AI technologies are human-made and therefore human biases are embedded directly within the technology itself. Because AI technologies can be employed at such a large scale, the potential for negative impact caused by these biases is greater than with tools that require standard human effort. Although it is tempting to adopt and employ a useful technology as quickly as possible, this is an area of research where it is imperative that we make sure the work aligns with our institutional ethics and privacy practices before it is implemented.
What AI or ML techniques could be used to help process digital collections? OCR: The most widely known and used form of AI in digital collections practices may be recognition of printed text using Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. OCR is the process of analyzing printed text and extracting the text objects, like letters, words, sentences. The results may be embedded directly in the file, like a PDF with OCR’d text, or stored separately, like in a METS-ALTO file, or both.
OCR works rather well for modern text documents, especially those in English, but a particular challenge for OCR is historical documents. For more about this challenge, I recommend A Research Agenda for Historical and Multilingual OCR, a fairly recent report published by NULab.
We can already see the benefit of using OCR in the library’s Digital Repository Service, as files with OCR text embedded in the file have the full text extracted and stored alongside the text file. That text is indexed and improves discoverability of text files by retrieving files that match search terms in the file’s metadata or the full text.
HTR: Handwritten Text Recognition, or HTR, is like OCR, but for handwritten, not typewritten, text. Handwriting is very unique to an individual and poses a difficult challenge for teaching machines to interpret it. HTR relies heavily on having lots of data to train a model (in this case, lots of digitized images of handwriting), so even once a model is accurately trained on one set of handwriting, it may not be useful for accurately interpreting another set. Transkribus is a project attempting to navigate this challenge by creating training sets for batches of handwriting data. Researchers submit at least 100 transcribed images for a particular handwriting set to Transkribus and Transkribus uses that set as training data to create an HTR model to process the remaining corpus of handwritten text. HTR is appealing for the Boston Globe collection, as the backs of the photographs contain handwritten text describing the image, including the photographer name, date the photograph was taken, classification information, and perhaps a description or an address.
Computer Vision: Computer vision refers to AI technologies that allow machines to work with images and video, essentially training a machine to “see”. This type of AI is particularly challenging because it requires the machine to learn how to observe and analyze a picture and understand the content. Algorithms for computer vision are trained to identify patterns of different objects or people and attempt to accurately sort and identify the patterns. In a picture of the Northeastern campus, for example, a computer vision algorithm may be able to identify building objects or people objects or tree objects.
When used in digital collections workflows, the output produced by computer vision tools will need to be evaluated for its usefulness and accuracy. In the above example, the terms returned to describe the image are technically present in the photo (the subjects are wearing shoes and hats and overcoats), but the terms do not adequately capture the spirit of the image (a person being detained at a demonstration).
There are a lot of ethical concerns about using computer vision, especially for recognizing faces and assigning emotions. If we were to employ this particular technology, it may be able to generate keywords or other descriptive metadata for the Boston Globe collection that may not be present on the back of an image, but we would need to be careful to make sure that the process does not embed problematic assessments into the description, like describing an image of a protest as a riot.
Computer vision is already being employed in some digital collection workflows. Carnegie Mellon University Libraries has developed an internal tool called CAMPI to help archivists enhance metadata. An archivist uses the software to tag selected images, then the program returns other images it identifies as visually similar, regardless of its box and folder, allowing the archivist to easily apply the same tags to those visually similar images without having to manually seek them out.
Many other aspects of AI and ML technologies will need to be researched and evaluated before they can be integrated into our digital collections workflows. We will need to evaluate tools and identify the skills that are needed to train staff to perform the work. We will also continue to watch leaders in this space as they dive deep into the world of artificial intelligence for library work.
When Jackson Davidow was looking for information on Boston’s gay community in the 1970s, he knew where to go.
“I’ve long been interested in the relationship between queer politics and queer art, particularly in Boston in the 1970s, a point at which the city was a crucial hub of gay discourse, activism, nightlife, and sex,” said Davidow, a postdoctoral fellow in the “Translating Race” Lab at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. Gay Community News “was grounded in the political, cultural, and social environments of Boston. For that reason, it is an invaluable resource for researchers who study gay and lesbian life and liberation in Boston and beyond.”
Gay Community News (GCN) was started in 1973 by eight Bostonians seeking to create a community voice for gays and lesbians in the Boston area. Originally published as a 2-page mimeographed sheet, the newspaper grew to have a national and international audience by the late 1970s and became one of the longest-running and most progressive national newspapers in the gay community. It was a natural place to start to gather the information Davidow needed. Issues of the GCN and records from its parent organization, the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation were subsequently donated to the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (NUASC).
While today’s researchers can contact many archives by email and receive scans of collections remotely, there was a time when physically visiting an Archives was only possible for those who lived in or could travel to the area. To provide more access to collections in the 1980s and 1990s, some Archives made arrangements to microfilm high use portions of their collections. In recent years those microfilms have been digitized and are offered via subscription to libraries — usually at a high cost — and then made available to the students and faculty affiliated with that university, a practice commonly described as “paywalling.”
Unfortunately, this means that the many of the volunteers who wrote and edited articles, turned the crank on the mimeograph machine, or paid to advertise a queer night at a local club no longer have access to the content they created. It’s a trend that Giordana Mecagni, Head of the NUASC, knows all too well. Troubled, she recently published “Tear Down This (Pay)wall!: Equality, Equity, and Liberation for Archivists” in the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. The piece describes the negative effect paywalled archives have on institutions, archives, and researchers, and focuses on the GCN.
“Having the Gay Community News behind a paywall results in uneven access, where affiliates of universities can access the resource but members of marginalized groups within the queer community may not,” Mecagni wrote.
“Paywalls restrict who has access to archival materials. Many scholars are independent and unattached to academic institutions, or attached to academic institutions that do not have the money to subscribe to special historical resources,” Davidow added.
The NUASC recently completed an effort to made the Gay Community News freely available to anyone by re-scanning the GCN with help from the Boston Public Library’s “Library for the Commonwealth” program. This program provides free scanning services to Massachusetts libraries who have unique materials they want to share widely and freely. Now researchers, students, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, writers, and anyone else can browse through 26 years of the GCN to get a glimpse of the gay community in Boston and around the world.
Researchers like Davidow are thrilled.
“The digitization of GCN helps scholars and community members learn about and revisit these important histories,” he said. “During my research for my recent essay in The Baffler, ‘Against Our Vanishing,’ I talked with many people involved in GCN, and everyone was thrilled to learn that the full run is available online.”
Introduction Part of the digitization process includes the creation of metadata for each record so that people can find an individual item with the sea of documents. Metadata is the identifying information of a record, such as its title, author, creation date, and other components.
Recently, archivists have placed greater emphasis on the subject heading aspect of cataloging records.1 Archivists now recognize that the creation of subjects and descriptions as access points to a record is an inherently biased activity that can influence how one approaches and perceives the record itself and the topics it contains. While these access points are extremely helpful in improving search results, these pathways are created by archivists, i.e. people. Since archivists create metadata, the data reflects our perspectives, thereby making it imperative that we be mindfully aware of our unconscious biases. We must do the necessary self-evaluative work about ourselves, the power dynamics in which we function, and the multifarious impacts of our decisions on various groups.
Records are created within certain settings for certain purposes—whether political or social—and an archivist inserts the meta-narrative layer of collecting and making accessible those records. There is power in that process and traditionally the process has privileged dominant social systems, which then reinforces social inequities. The myth of neutrality in subject cataloging has led to subject headings that can reinforce biases, stereotypes, and offensive representations, as well as misrepresent and alienate marginalized communities. For instance, a reclassification project at GBH recognized the negative false equivalence of police only interacting with criminals in their legacy subject term “Law Enforcement & Crimes,” which they have changed to “Legal System.”2
Recently, many archivists have risen to the challenge of acknowledging the persistency of power dynamics and are actively seeking to infuse their metadata creation with inclusion, diversity, and social justice practices. I myself have recently undertaken the ethical reasoning behind the use of certain subject headings to achieve descriptions that not only increase searchability and accuracy but also are respectful and empowering to subjects previously ignored. It is my hope that by developing cultural competency, the records will be more accessible to the communities reflected in their content, which may be one small step towards actively dismantling oppressive systems.
The Collection and Daniela Saunders As I digitized the Freedom House Inc. Records, I stumbled upon an eye-opening folder about the Police-Community Relations Committee. The records from this folder of items from 1960 to 1966 document a growing awareness in Roxbury of police-community relation issues. At the time, there were community memories of problems and instances a decade prior. Back in 1952, the murder of Rabbi Zuber sparked meetings calling for community action. However, the initial uproar dwindled and while close relations and neighbors continued to fight for change, it was a small endeavor.
Some larger efforts did persist, including a Police-Community Relations Institute Conference held in 1960 that connected with religious organizations to discuss the relations between mass media, social work agencies, the judicial court system, civil rights, legislation, and the police. However, the improvements called for in the decade of discussions did not become sweeping real-world improvements. As a result, over the course of a year between the summers of 1962 and 1963, there were a number of stranglings of women in the greater Boston area.3
On January 5, 1963, 16-year-old Daniela Saunders was murdered in an alleyway between Warren Street and Elm Hill Park, just a few blocks from her home. The next day, 500 members of her community met with Otto P. Snowden and Freedom House to discuss what underlying social problems led to the tragedy. Initiated by a small group of mothers voicing the need to prevent such violence, the meeting expanded to the 500-person turnout. Many individuals voiced their perspectives on the issue:
Dewey Duckett outlined the general disinterest of the Boston Police Department Division 9 towards the community it was supposed to protect. He talked about how “the local police had clearly evidenced an incapacity to understand or respect either the local citizens themselves or their simple desire for minimal adequate protection.”4
Attorney Benjamin Johnson called for the creation of a 100-person auxiliary police of community members.
Mrs. Leona Tynes cited the practical issue of poor lighting facilities.
Mrs. Oswald Jordan recalled the aftermath of Rabbi Zuber’s murder and described the emotional toll of these types of meetings over the last decade since they had not led to any actual change.
At the end of the meeting, the goal was set to create a committee to meet with city officials, namely Commissioner Edmund L. McNamara, Captain Paul Sullivan, and Sergeant Kelly of Division 9. The other four main suggestions were to add foot patrolmen; ensure that police answered complaints with courtesy instead of their current lack of sensitivity; increase the effort to improve problem areas; and fire police that demonstrated bias towards the black community.
Another meeting held January 8, 1962, at the Jeremiah E. Burke School further expanded the four main issues. About 1,500 citizens gathered to demand change. Kenneth Guscott, representing the NAACP, called for a Villante Committee similar to what the Peace Corps created in Harlem. Police Commissioner McNamara personally attended this meeting, although he was met with objections when he attempted to downplay his former neglect by referring to his personal connection with a black member of the police force.
The various efforts aimed to “promote a better understanding between the protected and the protector.”5 The end goal was a positive coordinated action program formulated and carried out by neighborhood associations in affiliation with the local police. Along with Mayor John F. Collins and Commissioner McNamara’s immediate pledges to increase training in criminal investigation and compulsory attendance of courses at Northwest University and the FBI National Academy, the events led to long-term communication between the Roxbury community, city officials, and the police. The Freedom House Inc. Records reflect and display these sustained efforts.
Daniela Saunders’ Impact The events of Daniela Saunders’ murder and the aftermath from Roxbury’s community response are integral components to the larger historic narrative of the police-community relations documented in the Freedom House Inc. Records. Her story may be limited to a folder in this vast collection but her impact disseminates through many boxes. So many activities were initiated by her tragic demise.
However, most metadata elements do not provide space for Daniela. She wasn’t the author or creator of the records, she was not included in the title of the records, and her name was often eliminated in the documents themselves. Within the records of Folder 1015, Daniela was more of a ghost, a whisper, trickled throughout the newspaper articles, letters, meeting minutes, and reports. She may have been the impetus for change, but she didn’t have agency in these metadata components.
Additionally, in the larger historic narrative, Daniela has been forgotten. She is currently not listed as one of the Boston Strangler’s 13 victims despite the connection to the “Phantom Strangler” made in 1963.6
When making the metadata for items in Folder 1015, I wanted to allow Daniela to regain her own agency in being remembered. The power of remembering is enormous—it becomes public memory and informs current events. Therefore, archival records provide an opportunity to bear witness to an event when it has been lost to time. I knew I needed a way to provide a pathway to Daniela and link her to these records. I produced these conditions by making Daniela a Name Subject Heading, a practice that we are not often implementing in the Freedom House Inc. digitization project. Due to the large scope of the collection and the logistical issues of maintaining authorized subject headings over 83 containers, Name Subject Headings for individuals are a rare occurrence.
However, with the addition of this metadata component, Daniela’s story becomes accessible to the public. She is no longer a passive victim, marginalized and obscured, but is now an active agent at the forefront of police-community relations in 1963 Roxbury. People can now find the records related to Daniela and they can situate her contribution within the larger Freedom House and Roxbury narratives.
Additionally, the records can give the public a resource for holding historical agents accountable. The 1960s were fraught with many issues between communities of color and the police nationwide. The events of 1963 in Roxbury become a part of that larger context.
Finally, by recognizing Daniela and the events of 1963, I hope that the records and their metadata have an enduring impact on our current society. Police brutality, racism, abuse, systematic oppression, and unnecessary force are all topics that we see in the news every day. Past calls for better training and systematic changes to the police force are similar to present-day news stories. We are constantly exposed to the reality of this violence and our nation collectively feels an emotional toll possibly similar to the one described by Mrs. Oswald Jordan in January 1963. Maybe these historic records can help inform our present discourse. By knowing what happened in the past, maybe we can make more informed decisions, and ultimately, be the change we strive to see.
1A non-comprehensive list of recent literature includes, Jillian Ewalt, “Toward Inclusive Description: Reparations through Community-Driven Metadata,” NEA Newsletter 46, no. 2 (April 2019): 4-7; Rosale de Mattos, “The Representation of Archival Information in Controlled Vocabularies: The Context of the Archival Institutions in Rio de Janeiro,” Knowledge Organization 47, no. 7 (2019): 548-557; Samuel J. Edge, “A Subject “Queer”-y: A Literature Review on Subject Access to LGBTIQ Materials,” Serials Librarian 75, no. 1-4 (Jul-Dec 2018): 81-90; Gracen Brilmyer, “Archival assemblages: applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description,” Archival Science 18, no. 2 (Jun 2018): 95-118. 2Miranda Villesvik and Raananah Sarid-Segal, “Making Metadata Inclusive to Marginalized Voices” (presentation, Archives for a Changing World, NEA Spring Conference, Virtual, March 27, 2021). 3The Boston Strangler continued to murder young women in the Boston area until 1964. For more information, see Ronald Lettieri, “Boston Strangler.” Salem Press Encyclopedia (2019); Jess Bidgood, “50 Years Later, a Break in a Boston Strangler Case,” New York Times, July 11, 2013; Paul Hoblin, Boston Strangler (Unsolved Mysteries). Abdo Publishing, 2012; Susan Kelly, The Boston Stranglers: The Public Conviction of Albert DeSalvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group, 1995. 4“Report from special community meeting about police issues, Daniela Saunders and Rabbi Zuber murders, and race relations held January 6, 1096.” January 6, 1963. Freedom House Inc. Records (M16). Northeastern University Library. Archives and Special Collections Department. Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts. Box 30, Folder 1015. 5“Outline on various phases of police activities.” April 28, 1964. UASC identifier: M16_B030_F1015_005. Freedom House Inc. Series 3: Programs. Sub-Series B: Urban Renewal. Neighborhood Associations. Police-Community Relations Committee, 1960-1966. 6Jack Thomas, “Victims of the Boston Strangler,” The Boston Globe, July 11, 2013. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/07/11/victims-boston-strangler/CwbsZlSNcfwmhSetpqNlhL/story.html
Take 2 library professionals. Add 25 high school students. Mix in a specially curated collection of archival materials. And let simmer over a 90-minute class period.
This is the recipe Reference and Outreach Librarian Molly Brown and Arts, Humanities, and Experiential Learning Library Regina Pagani have perfected while working with students and teachers from the Boston Public Schools over the past few years and it is now included in The Teaching with Primary Sources Cookbook, a collection of first-hand accounts from librarians, archivists, and other educators who use primary sources to teach information literacy skills to various audiences.
Brown and Pagani’s project is detailed in chapter 28 and titled “A Potluck of Expertise: Inviting Boston Public Schools’ Juniors to Use Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections’ Pantry to Build Their Recipes.” They detail an ongoing project they have developed with BPS educators Chris Madsen and Katherine Petta where students work in groups to write a biography of an activist who advocated for racial equality in Boston’s public schools, using primary sources from the Archives’ vast social justice collections.
To learn more about the different ways Brown, Pagani and other Northeastern University Library staff members have utilized the Archives’ unique collections to teach primary source research to students at Northeastern and at the Boston Public Schools, visit the Teaching with Archives page.