Neighborhood Matters: An Outreach and Advocacy Project by Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections

by Angela Lee

“Neighborhood Matters” is an outreach and advocacy project hosted by Northeastern University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections (ASC). This lunch time series aims at promoting diversity and inclusion by organizing a free public event; its goal  includes bridging campus and community. “Neighborhood Matters” first began in 2014 and is held at Snell Library on the Northeastern University (NEU) campus two to three times a semester. The project was proposed and led by the head of NEU’s Archives and Special Collections, Giordana Mecagni. “Neighborhood Matters” started out as the simple format of a Boston-specific documentary screening event; it has  grown into a more interaction-driven forum that encourages thought-provoking communication over the past six years.

The scope of this community-based initiative is confined to the city of Boston.  Within this geographical boundary, “Neighborhood Matters” sheds light on local history that is largely underrepresented through unique stories narrated by our neighbors. The project is an embodiment of NEU’s ASC, aligned with their collection policy to curate diverse historical records to preserve the history of Boston’s social movements. The individual voices captured by “Neighborhood Matters” bring insight and new perspectives to seemingly mundane places in Boston.

The project’s target audience includes local communities, as well as NEU members, but events are open to anyone who is interested in how actual neighbors have shaped and been shaped by Boston’s distinct neighborhoods. Not only does “Neighborhood Matters” encourage community members to appreciate their neighborhood more, but it also offers an opportunity to network. As a result, NEU’s ASC becomes a nexus of rekindled community spirit and identity.

According to NEU’s archivist, Molly Brown, the topic of each event is curated in response to current and socially significant issues that are worthy of public attention. Due to this adaptability, an event is planned a few months ahead of time, rather than on a yearly basis. Sometimes socially active figures reach out to NEU’s ASC and propose an idea for an event. For instance, Alison Barnet, who is a local author and a long time committed attendee of the “Neighborhood Matters,” suggested the recent event entitled “Once Upon a Neighborhood: A History of the South End from Alison Barnet.”

This author talk was held on February 11, 2020, and featured Alison Barnet as a special guest. Originally from New York, but now a resident of the South End since the 1960s when she was a transfer student at Boston University, Barnet has witnessed the ceaselessly changing landscape of Boston over the past half century.

This South End history writer shared her version of the Bostonian chronicle, which traces Boston’s legacy all the way back to the 1600s, based on her newest book Once Upon a Neighborhood: A Timeline and Anecdotal History of the South End of Boston. The event had a great turn out and a large number of elderly attendees, due to Barnet’s many personal allies who showed up to support her. While she recounted snippets of South End history, the audience reacted with fervent nodding or occasional sighs as a sign of empathy.

Following Barnet’s jovial reminiscing through her long-term residency in the South End, she presented video footage of her 1980s appearance on network TV. Barnet’s satirical performance in the skit addressed a looming threat of gentrification and displacement in Boston. Since the gentrified neighborhoods are still an ongoing battle faced by the city of Boston, her story is not limited to the past but resonates with all of us in the here and now. As the series’ self-explicit title suggests, neighborhood does matter. However, “Neighborhood Matters” asks us to consider why it matters, how a sense of neighborhood can be cultivated, and why it is important to stay connected with the people who live around us. The belief behind this outreach and advocacy project is that posing these questions makes a difference in our everyday life, while also demonstrating the tangible value of NEU’s ASC.

This grassroots empowerment is what has driven the “Neighborhood Matters” forward, resulting in enhanced social recognition of NEU’s ASC. Brown, NEU’s archivist, attributed the continuous positive feedback and growing number of loyal attendees as an indicator of the efficacy of “Neighborhood Matters” since its initiation. This gradual but steady effort contributes to increased community awareness, and its impact reverberates beyond NEU’s neighborhood.

Elizabeth Nagarajah, an attendee who is a Class of 1990 NEU alumna, described “Neighborhood Matters” as an invitation to all to reflect upon their society’s interconnectedness. As a Roxbury resident for nearly 40 years, Nagarajah is frustrated by the frequent marginalization of the Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park neighborhoods in the media. In her eyes, Roxbury is “a neighborhood full of families and people who care and love the area,” even though the neighborhood is “depicted as a crime infested area full of brokenness.” Nagarajah stressed the importance of people seeing more of these marginalized neighborhoods than what the local news displays, with the help of projects like “Neighborhood Matters.”

At the heart of NEU’s ASC’s achievement lies their proactive redefinition of their role as a social activist, as opposed to a simple institutional library and archives. NEU’s ASC has embraced their socio-geographical context as a means of garnering public support and earning advocacy. The more people realize the influence of their neighborhood through “Neighborhood Matters,” the more people commit to building a more inclusive community, supported by NEU’s ASC.

Meet Kate Boylan, Director of Archives and Digital Initiatives at Wheaton College

Kate Boylan, the Director of Archives and Digital Initiatives at Wheaton College, describes her job as having “all the irons in all of the fires.”  Among her many duties she oversees digital preservation, manages the Wheaton College Digital Repository, teaches instructional sessions, helps students and faculty incorporate digital initiatives into their scholarship, handles reference requests, hires and oversees staff and student workers, and engages in outreach and advocacy work.  She works and collaborates with Mark Armstrong, her tireless and fearless colleague and College Archivist/Records Manager, as well as Thomas San Filippo, intrepid Systems and Educational Librarian.  Boylan recently spoke with me about her path towards archives and digital initiatives and the different forms of outreach and advocacy she is involved with at Wheaton College.

Boylan attended Wheaton College as an undergraduate, majoring in English and film with a minor in music.  As a senior, like many college seniors, she did not know what she wanted to do following graduation.  However, thanks to childhood visits to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, she did know that she was interested in film preservation projects.  Following internships at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as an audiovisual reference intern and an audiovisual digitization intern, she decided to attend Simmons College to earn her Masters in Library Science.  Subsequent positions at the Massachusetts Department of Recreation and Conservation Archives, the Simmons College Archives, a private school in Boston, and the non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves gave her plenty of experience working at the intersection of libraries, archives, education, and digital resources.

In 2016, Boylan returned to her alma mater as a Digital Initiatives Librarian, working with faculty members to support their digital scholarship projects.  Digital initiatives and the Wheaton College Archives soon merged, and Boylan became the Director of Archives and Digital Initiatives.  As director, she is responsible for leading the important work of outreach and advocacy for the Archives.  Boylan focuses this work around forming relationships with the three main stakeholders of the Archives: the faculty, the students, and the administration.

Thanks to Wheaton College’s small size, Boylan is able to have one-on-one conversations with many of the faculty members to learn about their teaching and their research.  These conversations are instrumental in developing relationships with the faculty.  They help Boylan determine the needs and interests of faculty members, think creatively about how her department’s resources can help them succeed, and increase campus awareness of the physical and digital resources of the Archives.  She says that once a faculty member visits the Archives or starts to use a digital initiative, they begin to incorporate it into their work and to recommend it to their colleagues.

Her work building relationships with faculty members also helps Boylan connect with students.  When there is faculty buy-in to the archives, they tend to bring students into the archives.  In the last year, Boylan has worked with approximately thirty different classes, including instructional sessions about cultural heritage and primary sources, a First Year Seminar about Wheaton’s history, humanities classes, and STEM classes.  Boylan also points to student workers as an opportunity for outreach.  When they are interested in their work, they tend to tell their friends about it, and, in Boylan’s words, “moss grows fast on a rolling stone when it comes to students” and word of mouth.  Thanks to this kind of outreach, Boylan estimates that 26% of the student body engaged with the Archives last year.

Of course, Boylan’s outreach is about more than the number of people who come through the door.  It is about truly engaging those people with interesting, meaningful, and relevant projects and resources.  The digital initiatives element of Boylan’s work is a huge asset in this.  For example, a computer science class recently used the collections to develop a program that can help determine the authorship of literary works.  Currently, Boylan is working with the administration and the faculty to use technology to actively steward and document the College record as Wheaton redevelops its curriculum and works to build more inclusive STEM classrooms.  Additionally, the Archives recently received a grant to work with faculty and students to develop a workflow for creating, sharing, managing, and preserving their digital work.  These and other collaborations stand out as examples of how digital initiatives can help cultural heritage professionals connect with users in innovative new ways.

All of this outreach work means that Boylan has a strong foundation of support to lean on when advocating for the Archives.  However, no matter how strong a foundation someone has, advocacy work never rests.  Boylan is currently preparing to give a presentation about the Archives to the President’s commission in April.  Boylan is looking forward to this “huge opportunity” to show how integrated the Archives is in the college community and how “incredibly energized” everyone is to keep taking the Archives and digital initiatives to the next level.

Ed Summer, Unofficial Curator of Experiments

Ed Summers, Lead Developer, Maryland Institute of Technology

by Victoria Jackson

In a world full of constant content generation, how can library and information science professionals convince their communities, their institutions, and the world at large of their importance? It is a question of growing importance within the field, given the number of technological advancements made seemingly every month. Enter Ed Summers, Lead Developer at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), who has found ways to incorporate user-driven, community-based archival projects throughout his career.

Three years ago, Ed left his position working with digital preservation at the Library of Congress. There, his job included finding ways to preserve digital content. In his current role at the MITH department, he is focused on providing content creators and users with methods of communication. Ed works with both other software developers and researchers, and while his job title is “lead developer,” he does not consider his work as solely technical. When the current director (who is relatively new in his role) came in, he asked if they wanted to change their titles to “better reflect what they do.” Naturally, Ed pondered what he would change his to. He found a title on Wikipedia from nineteenth-century scientists who called themselves “curators of experiments.” Ed is unofficially one of them.

For the last two years, Ed’s main experiment has been Documenting the Now, a “tool and a community based around supporting the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.” Ed serves as the Technical Lead for the project, alongside a host of other archivists from the University of Maryland, the University of California at Riverside, and Washington University in St. Louis. Designed to “explore building tools and community of practice around social media archiving—specifically oriented around the ethics of social media archiving,” DocNow was inspired by the reaction to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, Ed was attending a Society of American Archivists meeting during the height of the Ferguson protests. He and fellow archivist Bergis Jules wondered what people would remember about this event in the future. They collected 13 million tweets in the weeks surrounding Brown’s death, started writing about the data collection and analyzation; archival and public interest ensued. For Ed, it was important the project have a home that was physically close to its origin. The project came to reside at St. Louis University.

DocNow is a tool and a community developed around supporting the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.

DocNow aims to provide practitioners who wanted to preserve these moments with an opportunity to do so. The project had two initial deliverables: a white paper about the ethics issues and a digital tool that would allow people to collect twitter posts. However, while working on the project, questions regarding data sharing and consent arose. The project shifted gears: the new objective became to build a tool that “connected curators and archivists with content creators” and “bring the two into a more meaningful communication.” DocNow puts the focus on content creators and the relationship they have with each other.

As you can imagine, receiving a grant from the Mellon Foundation went a long way to advocate for the importance of the work Ed and his colleagues do. In between such prestigious projects, MITH participates in nontraditional advocacy programs, such as a series of digital dialogues in which the school invites researchers from outside its own community to discuss their work. This interdisciplinary relationship is what drives Ed’s work. Ed believes his most important constituents are the university’s students, faculty, and community—in that order. Working in a university can sometimes involve what he refers to as the “town-gown” divide; ordinary community members and members of the university’s community. His goal—which should be the goal of all archivists—is to bridge the gap between the two. Ed sets an excellent precedent for how to accomplish this goal.

Emily Drabinski: Advocacy is in Every Part of the Job

Emily Drabinski, Coordinator of Library Instruction for LIU Brooklyn

by Gina Cullen

Meet Emily Drabinski, Coordinator of Library Instruction

Emily Drabinski, the Coordinator of Library Instruction at LIU Brooklyn, grapples with a lot of logistics every day. They may take the form of analyzing the metrics of library use, organizing instruction schedules, or reconfiguring the physical layout of the reference desk, but working with the tangible problems is where Emily excels. “What I like about libraries is that it’s material and concrete: books, wires, copiers, opening hours, food policy. You never have a question or problem that’s abstract, they’re always real,” she said while we discussed challenges facing libraries as institutions.

Given the breadth of her responsibilities, it’s clear that she has an excellent grasp on coordination. Every semester she organizes the schedule so that every faculty member has a lab and a librarian available for their requested time slot. She and four other librarians lead about 300 classes a year for primarily freshman and sophomore students, which is only part of their regular duties within the library. Because librarians are also considered faculty at LIU Brooklyn, she has university responsibilities as well, which include attending faculty senate meetings and being the representative at Board of Trustees meetings. She also serves as the secretary of the Long Island University Faculty Federation, Local 3998, NYSUT/AFT, AFL-CIO.

Prior to her career as a librarian, Emily worked in the print media world primarily for magazines. Her last job was as a fact-checker for the magazine Lucky, where she was caught up with the trivial minutiae of tasks like ensuring that the number of bargains listed inside was accurately conveyed on the cover. After getting chewed out for mixing up the telephone number for Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, she realized, “This can’t be my whole life.”

At the time, New York Public Library had a program sponsoring students as they went through librarian school if they worked at the library so she applied for a job with them and in 2001 she enrolled at Syracuse University. She immediately felt at home in her classes, learning about the ways libraries compile, organize, and store all human knowledge for everyone to access. The aspiration of the profession is often confronted by the daily realities of working in libraries.

“It turns out it’s a lot of stapler repair,” she laughs.

But focusing on the little actions and outreach we can have with any person who comes into the library has become a large part of how she conducts her job. Working in an academic setting means that she teaches students not just how to use the library to search for information but how to find and recognize accurate and reliable information. That instruction may take the form of showing health science students, who need sources to debate a critical issue in healthcare, how to find pro and con sources without using the words ‘pro’ or ‘con,’ or teaching them how to access information from Medline. She’s even taught students how to scan book chapters on their phone, a small skill that can have a significant and lasting impact on how they can conduct their work. Sometimes the most beneficial action is something simple like turning on the fax machine or copier, because it makes a lot of students lives better.

Emily’s practical approach to helping students is even more essential given the problems facing LIU Brooklyn. Like many other higher education institutions they have seen declining enrollment, retention issues, and labor issues. Last year administrators physically locked faculty out of the library over contract negotiations and this year they have slashed budgets for nearly every department while also implementing a new policy that obtaining grants is now a factor for achieving promotions or tenure. This has made the primary focus of their outreach and advocacy to be on behalf of their own survival. As she explains, “Working conditions are students’ learning conditions so if we have primarily a contingent labor-force that is getting paid peanuts to teach our students then they’re not going to teach our students very well.”

Part of that work includes what many other libraries have done; they have snack tables at student orientation, they have zines with information about their services, and they have 24-hour service during finals. Assembling statistics and compiling them in reports is another important tool in making the case for additional resources, although the declining enrollment affects all aspects of those numbers. Distilling the intangible act of obtaining knowledge into a measurable metric, something that Emily likens to “extracting resources from higher ed the way you would extract resources from a silver mine, which is just very strange because the commodity is a person,” has its own implications on how it influences the data itself but without that data she can’t show why those resources are necessary. It’s a difficult, challenging time for the higher education sector and that makes Emily’s approach of localized, project-based work all the more essential.

While archival institutions serve a slightly different purpose, this approach of focusing on practical actions can serve as a valuable guide in better engaging with our communities. Emily teaches her students how to navigate the library and learn how to best analyze and utilize the resources they find. Archivists can take the same approach and teach not only how to use the archive but also how to use primary sources and apply the historical context of when they were created. If archivists and local educators can collaborate to create programs that emphasize the importance of these documents –not just historically but relating to many disciplines — then they could provide a valuable service of lasting skills to their community. Hopefully this would also lead to a mutually beneficial rise in usage, further demonstrating their importance and the necessity for adequate funding.

Please check out more of Emily’s publications, which cover a range of topics from information literacy standards and instruction, the intersection of power and library structures, to gender and sexuality in librarianship, available on her website. She is also the series editor for Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies from Library Juice Press/Litwin Books. She considers her article “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” (Library Quarterly, April 2013) to be one of her most important pieces that has guided her thinking regarding all the projects she’s done since and it provides an nuanced and needed perspective to the discussion.