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.
As the broader American public has recently begun seeing the social, economic, and political impact of historical injustices in the United States, one thing has become clear—we don’t all have the same understanding of the events that brought us to this place. All too often, violence has been used to enforce boundaries on where people could live, work, and exercise their right to vote. Bringing that history to light and working toward justice for the victims of violence and their communities is imperative to achieving true equality for all.
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at the Northeastern University School of Law does this work, conducting research and supporting policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the United States and other miscarriages of justice during the period of 1930-1970.
CRRJ has come to serve as a resource for scholars, policymakers, and organizers involved in various initiatives seeking justice for their crimes. Since its founding in 2007, CRRJ has amassed thousands of investigative records about racial violence—death certificates, police reports, and Department of Justice and NAACP files, along with their own interviews and investigative reports. Those records reflect that hidden history, and CRRJ, in partnership with the Northeastern University Library, is taking the next step toward making this historical information available and accessible to victims’ families, researchers, and journalists through the CRRJ Burnham-Nobles Archive (BNA). Containing the records of over 1,100 violent incidents, the BNA is centered on record-keeping as accountability for past racial violence and its ongoing effects today.
The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project Burnham-Nobles Archive consists of two main parts: a collection of the evidentiary records compiled by law clinic investigators, and a database of information captured from those records, both provided to users on a dedicated website.
As you might imagine, such a larger project requires the work of many. I was hired as Project Archivist in February 2020 to help transition CRRJ’s case records from a collection of individual cases to an aggregation of information from which patterns might emerge—about the victims, circumstances of their deaths, and the justice systems which failed to bring alleged perpetrators to account. Based in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections (UASC), I work as the bridge between the legal staff of CRRJ and the staff in the Northeastern University Library. Being part of the UASC allows me to access the expertise of colleagues with experience with other collections and digital processes.
Alongside UASC, many NU library staff are directly involved in bringing the project to life. These include the staffs of Resource and Discovery Services and the Digital Scholarship Group, as well as staff in other departments who have contributed their expertise through consultations.
We began our work by looking backward and forward—what structures and information we have to work with, the collection as it exists in the Digital Repository Service (DRS) and within CRRJ, and what structures of CRRJ’s ongoing work and library structures we can construct which might support the archive in the future.
While we have many tangible successes we can point to, underlying all that we have accomplished is a genuine sense of collaboration and an approach to our work through the lens of CRRJ’s mission of justice and respect for the victims of racially motivated homicide.
The Northeastern University Library is excited to be involved in a partnership with Greenhouse Studios at the University of Connecticut to create Sourcery, a mobile application for sharing scans of archival materials. Greenhouse was recently awarded a $120,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the continued development of Sourcery.
From Greenhouse Studios:
Launched in December 2019 by Greenhouse Studios, Sourcery is an open source, community-based mobile application that expands access to non-digitized archival sources. With the Sourcery app installed on a phone or laptop, a researcher seeking a document can simply type in the citation information, and the app will notify Sourcery-registered researchers currently working in and around the repository where the document sits. One of these remote researchers claims the job, calls the document from the archive, takes a picture of it from within the Sourcery application, and sends it directly to the requesting researcher. A custom, enterprise version of Sourcery, for use by archivists – especially during COVID-19-related library closures – will launch in late-summer 2020.
Funding from The Mellon Foundation will allow the Sourcery team to expand the geographical reach of the app, improve its user interface, and work with partners in libraries and archives to support the development of the enterprise version of the software. As a part of this effort, Northeastern University Library will host a virtual workshop series for institutional stakeholders in the fall of 2020, during which the team will solicit feedback and advice from stakeholders in the library and archives community.