February 17, 2018

Boston Libraries, Archives Commemorate Marathon Attack

One year after the tragic Boston Marathon bombings, the city’s libraries and cultural institutions are helping to preserve this painful moment in recent history and helping local residents reflect. Eight libraries and archives, as part of the #BostonBetter consortium, hosted events and exhibits or opened special hours in recognition of the anniversary. Others began working almost immediately after last year’s Marathon to preserve the memories and associated artifacts of those affected by the bombings.

Sources of Comfort

The Boston Public Library sits right at the Marathon finish line. Due to the bombing investigations, the library had to remain closed until Wednesday, April 24th of last year, but when it reopened it became a gathering point for Bostonians seeking answers and trying to make sense of the attack. Michael Colford, Director of Library Services, joined a city-wide team of organizers from those first days. It was clear from the beginning that the BPL would play a key role in observing the anniversary.

A major part of that role is hosting the Dear Boston: Messages for the Marathon Memorial exhibit. This exhibit displays many objects from the memorial that sprang up on Boylston Street following the bombings. When Boylston Street reopened, the memorial was moved to Copley Square across the street from the BPL, where it continued to grow. Later that month, Mayor Menino directed the City Archives to preserve the memorial and then, in May and June of last year, the thousands of items were carefully removed and transferred to the City Archives in West Roxbury, where they are being preserved and are available for viewing. The memorial included posters, artwork, stuffed animals, and, most notably, hundreds of pairs of running shoes. The exhibit features a large display of these shoes in the middle of the hall. Visitors can add their own thoughts and reflections to the exhibit by writing in the guest book or on a tag to be hung upon the trees that are part of the exhibit. Over 5,000 tags have been used already; the exhibit runs through May 11th.

A grouping of running shoes at the Dear Boston exhibit

James McGrath, “”Dear Boston” Exhibit at The Boston Public Library,” Our Marathon, accessed April 24, 2014, http://marathon.neu.edu/items/show/9747

In addition to the exhibit, the BPL held daily outdoor concerts and doubled the number of Art & Architecture Tours the week before this year’s Marathon. There were also special book talks with the authors of Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm and Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice, as well as a slideshow of photographs by Joshua Touster, whose series Aftermath was displayed at Curry College and the Newton Free Library.

Ways to Remember

In the wake of the bombings, librarians and academics began to wonder how best to preserve the artifacts and stories related to this moment in history. At Northeastern University, Professors Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Ryan Cordell acted quickly to begin the Our Marathon digital archive. In May, graduate students Jim McGrath and Alicia Peaker joined the project and later became its co-directors. The archive was developed using a modified version of the Omeka platform developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the same program used to document the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Omeka employs the Dublin Core standard for metadata, particularly appealing to Northeastern University Library which uses the same standard and will be the eventual home of the archive. (For more on Our Marathon, see infoDOCKET.com.)

Tree tags from the Dear Boston exhibit

James McGrath, “Messages at “Dear Boston” exhibit at The Boston Public Library,” Our Marathon, accessed April 24, 2014, http://marathon.neu.edu/items/show/9743.

The majority of items in the archive are born-digital contributions by ordinary people who experienced the bombing or were affected by it. To make it easier for people to contribute, the team organized a series of “Share Your Story” opportunities at local libraries in and around Boston, including a four-day event at the BPL the week before this year’s marathon. The idea for these enormously successful events arose when the archive marked the 6-month anniversary with a gathering at the Snell Library for the Northeastern community. This was followed by the first “Share Your Story” event at the Watertown Public Library in January, which drew at least 100 people. In addition to online submissions and stories collected at events, Our Marathon is sharing and duplicating content with several other local partners including the WBUR Oral History Project and the Boston City Archives, and the Strong Medicine project at the Countway Library in Boston.

Strong Medicine was conceived at the Center for the History of Medicine, which is housed within Harvard’s Countway Library, as a specialized collection of materials and oral histories related to the Boston medical community’s response to last year’s tragedy. The nucleus of the collection was formed by the sympathy mail and handmade crafts collected at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in the months following the bombings. Added to this is an oral history project consisting of interviews with health professionals at Beth Israel, Boston Medical Center, Tufts Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s, and Mass General Hospital. It encompasses all members of the medical community, from trauma surgeons like Dr. Reza Askari to public affairs offices like Erin McDonough, who made the decision to lock down Brigham & Women’s on the day of the bombings.

At this time, only a portion of the collection is digitized but more will be put online as it becomes available. Some materials that contain identifying information were redacted or will not be placed online, but will be viewable in person. Project Coordinator Joan Ilacqua hopes that the archive will show the general public how the medical community reacted to the tragedy both in terms of steps taken and in terms of their personal emotions. Furthermore, as a historian she thinks it will give people in the distant future a window into what people were thinking or doing on an individual basis. “We’re collecting history,” Ilacqua said.

M. Catherine Hirschbiel is Coordinator of Outreach & Reference Librarian, Iwasaki Library, Emerson College, Boston.

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