Throughout the summer and fall of 2016, I am working with Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections and more specifically their portion of the materials that have been scanned for the Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project, creating EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context – Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families) records. I am doing this work as part of an independent study for the Simmons College Library and Information Science master’s program, culminating more than two years of practical and intellectual study with this project, which is supervised by Katherine Wisser, Chair of the Society of American Archivists EAC Working Group.
Coming into the program at Simmons, I had a master’s from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in art and architectural history and several years as a sports journalist, thus an interest in written analysis and description was long engrained. Discovering archival standards for description and encoding description only furthered this focus, and the relationship between entities (who might also be creators) and archival materials or records struck me from the moment I heard of it. In the ensuing years of coursework and as an early professional processing collections at the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, and at the Center for the History of Medicine, where I am presently a processing assistant, this interest only expanded. How do we think about the records we arrange and describe? How do we make the choices for describing them? And then, on the other hand, how do we describe the entities that are related to the record—but also might be related to one another? How does describing entities and relationships between them improve access to archival materials? It is these final questions that I am exploring with my ongoing project.
In fall 2015, I met with Giordana Mecagni, the Head of Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections, for a project that was part of my regular coursework in the Simmons College Library and Information Sciences master’s program. During our conversation, she told me about the Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project, which immediately struck me for multiple reasons, one of which was that it might be just the project for which encoded description specific to creators, rather than materials, might be extremely useful. It is a significantly sized online collection not just from Northeastern’s archives, but also across multiple local and regional archives, and with a range of creators that spans from national and regional political figures to lesser known activists and neighborhood organizations. Thinking about describing the relationships between these creators—or entities—as well as providing users with access to additional description not of materials, but of entities, became the impetus for this project.
The project began this past summer, when I began working with Giordana Mecagni, Michelle Romero, and Daniel Jergovic to create an EAC-CPF template that could be used not only for entities related to this project, but also for all entities related to Northeastern collections. Furthermore, I established a list of all primary entities associated with the BPS Desegregation Project materials at Northeastern, and then met with Giordana and Michelle to prioritize a group for which records would be created first. The ways to think about prioritizing came from two directions: the importance of the entities within the historical context of BPS Desegregation and relevance to Northeastern’s archival holdings. Considering these concepts, we came to a list of some thirty-two entities, which range from members of government and national social justice organizations to neighborhood groups and local activists, and I stepped into the biographical research portion of the project.
Simultaneously, we began the process of reviewing the EAC-CPF template I created, based on examples from other locations exploring the standard, such as “Connecting the Dots,” a Yale-Harvard collaboration relating to describing lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his circle, and those who collected their materials, as well as the Field Book Project at the Smithsonian Institute Archives. I also looked at the more open and flexible templates being created at present for institution-wide usage at Harvard Libraries, including the Center for the History of Medicine, which is in the process of creating a template and defining guidelines at the present. With these in mind, I created a sample entry, which has then been adapted and edited through email exchanges and meeting with Northeastern staff and Kathy Wisser. We hope to have that template solidified in the coming weeks, so that I can begin producing records for those priority entities.
Perhaps the most challenging (and interesting) consideration throughout the research and template creation stages is the concept that EAC does not in fact describe archival materials, but the entities themselves. For these reasons, LCSH subject headings make less sense to describe the entities than, say, occupations authorities. When writing biographical or historical notes, the note is not exactly what one might create for a finding aid; it is not related to the materials in the collection but to the entities’ entire biography or history. What we as archivists write for finding aids might be just one chapter of what should appear in an EAC-CPF record. Still, the hope is that EAC records provide better access not just to the entity, but to archival materials, both created by this entity and by entities that might be related to this individual or corporate body, also described in EAC-CPF records. In a blogpost describing the Field Book Project at the Smithsonian, Tammy Peters wrote, “EAC-CPF helps outline an historical social network. Not only can a researcher find links to materials from that one person for whom they started their search, but they can also find resources concerning the organizations and people associated with that person.” Thus, though one is describing an entity—a person, corporate body, or family—one is doing so within the context of archival description.
The challenge, of course, with using a new standard, is to make it work specifically for an institution and its needs, and to understand how best to do that. Within the project, I am working closely with Northeastern staff and Kathy Wisser to ensure that we not only create useful records that provide improved user access to archival materials, but also create best practice guidelines and a template which archivists, student workers and interns can all use going forward. Thus, the project is not just one that lasts a bit longer than a semester, but instead creates practice that will move into the future with Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections.
 Peters, Tammy, “Historical Context and Connections,” http://nmnh.typepad.com/fieldbooks/2012/09/historical-context-and-connections.html
 Dumanoski, Dianne. “Charlestown – ‘My Town” – Braces for Busing.” The Boston Phoenix, September 02, 1975.
1. Briefly explain how you came to the project.Last year, I became the Director of the Archives Program (History MA) at UMass Boston and created a new course “Transforming Archives and History in a Digital Age.” My goals for this course involved having students: conduct primary research in local collections, select and scan materials, create metadata for digitized items, build a collaborative digital archive, develop subject-area expertise, and design an online exhibit. Because I teach history and archives, I focused the class on a historical topic—the desegregation of Boston Public Schools (BPS). Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the federally-mandated integration of BPS; various separate archives in the area hold collections that document that complex history. As I was developing my course, Giordana Mecagni, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Northeastern University initiated a comprehensive cross-institutional scanning project to make archival materials related to the desegregation of BPS available in a large digital library. Boston Library Consortium funded the project that is supported by the technical infrastructure of the DPLA and Digital Commonwealth. This year, work my students are completing for their Omeka site—scanning and creating metadata for Boston City Archives—is feeding into the larger BLC initiative.
2. Why did you decide to build on Omeka.net, as opposed to a standalone Omeka site or some other platform?Omeka provides a wonderful teaching tool for archivists and historians. It gives students hands-on experience implementing archival theory; it permits them to showcase historical research; and, ultimately, it enables them to create digital history for a public audience. Before I created my course, I searched for platforms that would meet my teaching goals. I wanted students to learn technical skills and acquire hands-on experience implementing practices used by digital archivists. But I also wanted students to immerse themselves in scholarly historical research and to create engaging and educational exhibits for a general audience. There aren’t many platforms that allow one to accomplish all of that. While other exhibit-building platforms exist, Omeka allows students to create a digital archive from start to finish. This entails selecting and scanning documents then creating metadata for digitized images. That back-end work teaches essential technical skills that aspiring archivists and digital historians need to hone. Equally important, when constructing Omeka exhibits, students must think critically about the items collectively and weave together narratives that form cohesive exhibits. To be honest, circumstances beyond my control affected my decision to use Omeka.net instead of creating a standalone site. My university did not have the technical infrastructure to support the standalone Omeka site. With Omeka.net there’s no need to have IT support or server space. I was pleased to discover that Omeka.net doesn’t limit one’s creativity in building a site.
3. What piece of advice would you offer to someone planning to use Omeka.net with a class of graduate students?Build in plenty of time to learn and experiment, don’t be afraid to take risks, collaborate, and don’t get discouraged! When I decided to use Omeka.net in my course, I had absolutely zero experience using the platform. I confessed to my students in the first class that I had no idea if we’d be able to build the robust site we envisioned; but, even if we failed, we would have learned a great deal. I encouraged them not to obsess over individual grades and to approach this as a truly collaborative project—by the nature of the project, either we all succeeded or we all failed, to some degree. Collaboration proved key to building a successful site in many ways. I’d advise anyone beginning to teach with Omeka to identify local resources—both people and collections at local archives or libraries—that you can incorporate into your site’s construction. When beginning this project, I blindly reached out to Marta Crilly, Archivist for Reference and Outreach at Boston City Archives—I knew they housed ample material related to our topic. Over the past year and a half, Marta and I developed a mutually beneficial collaboration. I reached out to librarians, archivists, an audio engineer, and even a copyright attorney, at local institutions; the input of each helped me to create a robust site.
4. How did using Omeka change your and/or your students’ thinking about the content?Our project’s topic—de facto segregation and the federally-mandated desegregation of Boston Public Schools—provoked deep controversy in Boston. In the mid-1970s, the issue of desegregation provoked violent confrontations and pitted white neighborhood against black neighborhood. Over forty years later, the topic continues to ignite heated reactions locally. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was learning that the heated reactions to desegregation of Boston Public Schools reached far beyond Boston. Using Omeka’s map tool, students could demonstrate that individuals from around the nation and the globe watched the media report on this issue. In the sampling of letters students selected, they discussed letters sent from as far away as Mexico, Germany, and Australia. Using Omeka, I realized quickly that creating an interactive digital exhibit on this controversial topic posed unique challenges that writing a traditional paper did not. If we proceeded incorrectly, instead of educating, we could provoke anger or alienate. Many complex circumstances surrounded the intense reactions to desegregation including racism, class disparity, ethnic antagonism, political maneuverings, and contests for authority between local, state and federal agencies. As students dug into the archives and shaped exhibits in Omeka, we learned that race alone could not predict whether one supported or opposed desegregation of BPS. For instance, violent opposition to the decision to desegregate schools didn’t necessarily indicate opposition to school integration. Some citizens (black and white) championed school integration but vehemently protested the plan’s implementation—“forced busing” of their young children to schools far away from their neighborhoods. Omeka helps us to convey the complexity of this emotionally-charged issue by showcasing the documents individually and allowing us to group them collectively to tell a narrative. In this way, exhibits can capture the raw fears, violence, and racist behaviors alongside of the hopefulness, compassion, and peaceful approaches.
5. What is one of your favorite items from the site to share (when talking about it)?Letters written by third and sixth grade students to Mayor Kevin H. White constitute my favorite group of items. Some of the young letter-writers expressed fears while others boldly proposed no nviolent solutions to school integration. While it’s difficult to pick one favorite, the letter below stands within my top three. Writing on colorful stationary, the eleven-year-old student poignantly pleads that the mayor bus the teachers, not the students, “then maybe there wouldn’t be anymore stabbings and fights.” The letter below, written by a third-grade student, writes “this is what I want” above a crayon drawing of a white child and a black child shaking hands. Omeka makes it possible to view the handwritten letters—complete with misspellings and mistakes—and freehand drawings that children used to convey sentiments more clearly than words. These personal details add immeasurably to the content of the letters. They also convey the extent to which concerns about desegregation of BPS permeated the physical and emotional well-being of many Boston’s residents—even children.
6. What is the benefit to using Omeka as a teaching tool?Traditional research papers function as a dialogue between student and professor; creating a project in Omeka expands the discourse and fosters a collaborative working environment. The tasks of learning new technology, conducting historical research, applying archival theory, acquiring subject-area expertise, clearing permissions, and presenting findings in a public forum can be overwhelming when undertaken by one individual. As a result, when using Omeka, students quickly learn to actively collaborate with one another, sharing discoveries that might benefit a classmate’s exhibit or teaching technical tips. I’m so pleased that my decision to teach with Omeka allows graduate students to simultaneously learn new skills, apply theory to practice, and contribute to public education in a practical way.
BPS Desegregation Project: Busing and Beyond: Creating a Holistic Approach to Undergraduate Teaching and Learning with Archival Collections
- What History Matters, and Who Decides? Introduction to Archival Research: students examined course catalogs at the Archives to document and explain changes in the history curriculum over time (.pdf)
- Document Analysis Assignment: students analyzed a historical news clipping (.pdf)
- Mapping Data: Creating and Interpreting Historical Maps: students studied population change over time in Boston and its effects on the school desegregation debates (.pdf)
- Digital Exhibit Project: capstone project in which students developed and narrated a historical argument on the OMEKA exhibit platform, example Boston Massacre Exhibit
- HST 200 LibGuide: compilation of relevant research resources (link)
- Fosters innovations in teaching and learning, many of which are more collaborative & participatory;
- Reduces overall cost of books and materials for students;
- Provides access to education for students who otherwise could not afford or access learning materials.