On January 27, 2022, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) officially took effect two years after it was ratified with Virginia’s historic vote as the 38th state to support the amendment. The ratification of this version of the ERA, which was introduced to Congress in 1972, took 48 years to complete. The ERA begins:
“Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Initially drafted in 1923 by Crystal Eastman and Alice Paul, the ERA was seen as the next step to take for women’s liberation following the passing of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote and prevented them (on paper) from being disenfranchised. Women’s suffrage movements occupied a great space in the American consciousness throughout the end of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century.
Empowered by this, Bostonian women formed groups to keep advocating for women’s rights, even as the passage of the ERA throughout this period did not look promising. Organizations such as the Reproductive Rights National Network and individuals like Sondra Gayle Stein worked tirelessly to advance gender equality in the legislature and in the streets. The Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (NUASC) is fortunate to maintain the records of many women’s rights organizations that have worked for change throughout the Boston area.
NUASC also holds the Boston Globe Library collection, which contains photographs of life in and around Boston and includes photographs of demonstrations and protests, including those featured in this blog post. More can be found through Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.
Fortunately for the ERA, a sea change within the legislative branch took place in 1970, when more women than ever before were elected to Congress and were persistent in pursuing the ratification of the ERA. The ERA in its final form that we know today was brought before Congress for its next steps in 1972.
NUASC has a wealth of information on women’s organizations in Boston, such as the Women’s Educational Center, The Second Wave: A Magazine of the New Feminism, and the Women’s School, all of which were organizations that existed in the 1970s-1990s to further women’s rights, promote discussion of feminist theory, and organize for women and other marginalized groups in the Boston area. The records of these organizations and many more groups and people are available for research for all Northeastern students, faculty, and staff, and the greater Boston community, at the Archives and Special Collections.
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections is highlighting the work and accomplishments of two East Boston women: Evelyn Morash and Mary Ellen Welch. Their decades of community organizing and advocacy beginning in the 1960s were effective in improving the quality of life for residents in their neighborhoods, from the establishment of parks and greenspaces to improvements in their neighborhood schools, improved access to healthcare, and mitigation around air and noise pollution from the airport.
Meet Evelyn Morash Evelyn Morash grew up in East Boston in the 1930s and ’40s, the daughter of Italian immigrants. As an adult with children in the Boston Public Schools in the 1960s, Evelyn became an outspoken advocate for desegregation and improving education in all the city’s schools. In 1970, she founded the advisory committee Parents and Teachers Who Care, a coalition that grew out of her efforts to ensure school libraries in all of East Boston’s elementary schools. During this same time, Evelyn worked with other community members to establish the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, which opened in 1970 to serve a geographically isolated and largely immigrant and low-income community. She later served on its board in the 1980s.
Recognizing her leadership around issues of education in East Boston, Governor Francis Sargent appointed Evelyn to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1973, where she prioritized making quality vocational education available for women, since secretarial training was women’s only option at the time. Following the 1974 court order to desegregate Boston’s public schools, Judge Arthur Garrity appointed her to serve on the Citywide Coordinating Council, an autonomous oversight committee to monitor the progress of desegregation efforts across the city. Along with her city- and state-level work, Evelyn continued to focus her activism on East Boston, later serving on the planning committee for the construction of the Mario Umana Academy in the 1980s, where she fought for the new building to serve both as a school and community center for the neighborhood.
The Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections maintains oral histories and written records of Evelyn’s organizing efforts and achievements. In 1997, Evelyn was interviewed as part of the East Boston Greenway Council’s Oral History Project, an effort to capture memories of East Boston from before the expansion of Logan Airport in the 1960s and ’70s and to reflect on changes to the neighborhood. In the recorded conversation with fellow East Boston activist Roberta Marchi, Evelyn describes her early life in East Boston, her involvement with the Girl Scouts, her efforts to establish the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and how she got involved in school advocacy. You can listen to both parts of Evelyn’s interview in the Digital Repository Service (DRS) (Part 1 and Part 2).
Two decades later in 2018, Evelyn was interviewed by Greta de Jong about her role in parent organizations during school desegregation in the 1970s and other efforts around school reform. You can listen to the interview and view accompanying materials in the DRS here.
Meet Mary Ellen Welch Mary Ellen Welch was an indefatigable activist and teacher at the Hugh R. O’Donnell Elementary School in East Boston, who advocated for civil rights and affordable housing, and against the impacts of airport expansion felt by many East Boston residents, such as noise and air pollution. Throughout her decades of activism, Mary Ellen was active across numerous causes and groups, including the East Boston Neighborhood Council, the East Boston Area Planning Action Council, and Airport Impact Relief.
In the mid-1980s, Mary Ellen, as a member of the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council, joined a newly formed housing committee to address the many issues facing East Boston housing, including absentee owners, rising rents, and lack of aid for the new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. The committee soon incorporated as its own entity in 1986 under the name NOAH, East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, with Mary Ellen as its first president. Anna DeFronzo, Lucy and William Ferullo, Evelyn Morash, and other prominent East Boston activists participated in establishing the community development corporation.
While the legacy of her neighborhood improvement activism is visible throughout East Boston, it is no better appreciated than along the collection of parks joined by a walking and biking path called the Greenway. In the late 1990s, Mary Ellen helped found the East Boston Greenway Council, a community group that worked with the Boston Natural Areas Fund to identify areas in the neighborhood to transform into recreational greenspace, including the old Conrail railroad yard, now the location of Bremen Street Park. Construction on the East Boston Greenway broke ground in 1997 and opened its first completed section in 2007. Following her death in 2019, the East Boston Greenway was renamed the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway in her honor.
The Mary Ellen Welch papers include personal papers, event flyers, newspaper clippings, reports, letters from O’Donnell Elementary School children to Massport, and other correspondence, the bulk of which relate to Mary Ellen’s anti-airport activism. The collection is available for viewing and research at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.
Further Reading Evelyn Morash and Mary Ellen Welch participated in a large network of activists and community organizers in East Boston, including Anna DeFronzo, Edith DeAngelis, Roberta Marchi, and the staff at the East Boston Community News. For more archival materials and biographies about these and other East Boston community figures, be sure to check out the following resources:
The Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections is fortunate to have the records of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC), founded in 1982. BGMC is a 200-voice community ensemble that sings popular and classical music and works to “inspire change, build community, and celebrate difference.”
Some chorus recordings are already available in Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service (DRS) but there are many more in the Archives that haven’t been digitized yet. Recently, members of BGMC working on a documentary requested the digitization of recordings on 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape and Digital Audio Tape (DAT) from the 1980s and 1990s. These recordings included holiday performances, Pride concerts, and a collaboration with the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus.
We’re always happy to help make the collections accessible, but the digitization of older audiovisual formats presents challenges. DAT cassettes were released in 1987 and used throughout the 1990s. They encode digital information onto magnetic media and allow for high quality recordings. However, Sony stopped producing DAT cassette decks in 2005 and few people know how to maintain the equipment needed to digitize them. In addition, use of an out-of-repair machine might damage the tape. You can read more about the preservation issues with DAT in archival collections here and here. Luckily, we were able to work with National Boston to digitize these DATs with no issues.
The reel-to-reel or open reel format using magnetic tapes was popular from the 1940s through the 1980s. We also sent our reel-to-reel tapes to National Boston but due to the age and condition of the materials, an extra step was required. Many of the tapes had sticky shed syndrome. This preservation issue is common and affects magnetic media. The tape has three layers: the magnetic portion which contains the information; the base layer; and the binding agent. Sticky shed syndrome causes the binder to degrade, leading the tape to shed bits of itself while being played. Since this causes irreversible loss of information, tapes with sticky shed should be baked before playback. This involves putting them in an oven at a low heat to rebind the layers. You can read more about baking tapes at the Library of Congress here.
Luckily, these gorgeous vocal performances are now preserved in our repository and available here. Thanks to my colleagues in the Archives, especially Molly Brown, and to my colleagues in Digital Metadata, especially Anna Ryerson, for their work coordinating the request and cataloging the recordings.
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.