Our Marathon, five years later: Reflections on the work of digital public humanities

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A boy signs a Boston Marathon poster at the Boylston Street firehouse, April 2013. Photo credit: James Schmidt.

Five years ago I was watching the Boston Marathon in Coolidge Corner with my brother Brian. He had recently moved to the city and had never experienced a Marathon Monday, so the lively spectators and runners in Brookline—combined with the perfect spring weather—seemed like a fine introduction to this Boston tradition. A few hours later we were back in Allston when we got a call from our youngest brother, Kevin. Something had happened at the finish line, about two miles from where we had just been enjoying the race. We walked into a local bar and told them to turn on the news.

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. While I was a graduate student in English at Northeastern University, I was project co-director of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital ArchiveOur Marathon attempted to be several things at once: a crowdsourced project collecting stories and reflections; a digital space for reflection and memorializing; and an archival initiative collecting and publishing items, records, and oral histories of a recent past and a still-developing present. At the time of Our Marathon’s launch, we had two projects in mind as points of inspiration: the September 11 Digital Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Between 2013 and 2018, we have sadly seen countless digital initiatives started in response to tragic events and scenes of violence, so many that History@Work recently had enough content to support a series of posts on “Responding Rapidly to Our Communities.”

In April 2018, the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group launched a new and improved version of the Our Marathon site. The first version of Our Marathon was built with Omeka, an open-source content management system that enabled us to quickly and efficiently collect, publish, and curate digital materials. The site showcases project materials in their new digital home, the Northeastern University Library Digital Repository Service (DRS). The migration of materials from Omeka to the DRS ensures long-term preservation of materials by university librarians and archivists, improves the accessibility of objects through its search mechanisms and collections structures, and provides the project with an updated interface for 2018 audiences. Long-term preservation was always the goal of Our Marathon, and as the project’s former co-director, I am impressed and relieved with the attention Northeastern has paid to the permanent home of the project’s materials. Special thanks goes to Amanda Rust, Sarah Sweeney, Caroline Kilbanoff, Lauren Bergnes Sell, Megan Barney, and David Heilbrun for their work on this massive migration and preservation project, and for allowing me to help guide and review materials during this process.

As viewers can see from the project’s “About” page, a digital archival initiative like Our Marathon requires a tremendous amount of labor, resources, and institutional support. We’ve gone to great lengths to document these dimensions of the project because we know from experience that digital labor is often invisible or undervalued. A project at the scale of Our Marathon is more than a project assigned to students over the course of a semester, a CV line, or a conference paper. We can and should talk more about the economic, professional, physical, and psychological costs of community-centered digital public humanities initiatives. Many practitioners are already doing so, in the developing conversations around the work of Documenting The Now, at events like The National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web, and through initiatives like Design for Diversity (among other efforts). It can be easy to assume that a digital humanities initiative is also a public history or public humanities project, or to declare that we understand what it means to “Think Digital,” as Steve Lubar advises public humanists to do in his oft-cited “Seven Rules.” But the promise of the “new kind of openness” offered by digital contexts is complicated by ethical considerations, questions of accessibility and accountability, and modes of collaboration between scholars and the communities they seek to serve, describe, or support.

Our work on Our Marathon was motivated by the belief that “No Story Is Too Small”—that there was value in documenting, sharing, and saving the many ways people responded to these events, whether it was leaving a signed pair of running shoes at a temporary memorial, embracing the popular phrase “Boston Strong” and making it their own as they described the value of their regional identity on social media, writing a letter to a local hospital where survivors were recovering, or mourning the lives that were lost. “No Story Is Too Small” was a useful shorthand for us, in that it documented our interest in reflections and experiences beyond newspaper headlines as we staged “Share Your Story” events in Boston, Watertown, Newton, Stoneham, Cambridge, and Brookline. But a methodology like “No Story Too Small” can also be limiting, in that its blanket assertion, removed from context, does not invite its audience to reflect as well as to document. The new kinds of openness offered by the digital have led to conspiracy theories, xenophobia, rampant misogyny, racism, and fear. Many digital records of experience in the twenty-first century require us to reflect more on our investments in crowdsourcing and to reimagine the work we do to create opportunities for communication, reflection, and critique in digital spaces. 

I am troubled by the realities that have led us to consider the uses of digital spaces in the wake of traumatic and tragic events, but I am appreciative of the voices in these ongoing conversations. This is difficult work for audiences and collaborators. I am still not fully recovered from the time I spent working on Our Marathon. A few months ago I learned that Hollywood cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers and Denis Villenueve, worked on documentaries early on in his career. Noah Gallagher Shannon notes thatOne day, during a shoot in a psychiatric ward, [Deakins] was jolted from behind the lens when a schizophrenic patient broke down. Stopping to assist her, some illusion, already too thin, seems to have broken in him, and he hasn’t returned to documentary since.” I have continued to work, and it was on Our Marathon that I saw why the illusion Deakins rejected holds value, and why he hasn’t returned to this work. Our Marathon tried to resist the kind of approach Deakins recoiled from, and the desire for alternative approaches has motivated me to continue working with community archives and on digital efforts that encourage new and varied voices and privileged forms of collaboration. It may be easier to maintain distance and to hide behind the armor of professional or academic methodologies that keep us comfortably removed from the objects of analysis. And in many respects, the luxuries of digital tools and avenues of access available to some of us seem to encourage a kind of distance; we can scrape data, take screenshots, find information, explore digital archives, and create ideas of communities without collaboration. We must find ways to step away from the lens and decide if we are ready for the work involved in what happens next.

~ Jim McGrath is a postdoctoral fellow in digital public humanities at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. As a graduate student at Northeastern University, he was project co-director of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. He is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.


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