Northeastern University Library Launches Boston Research Center

Northeastern University (NEU) has launched the Boston Research Center, an addition to its library that will focus on interdisciplinary studies of Boston’s history.

Dan CohenNortheastern University (NEU) has launched the Boston Research Center, an addition to its library that will focus on interdisciplinary studies of Boston’s history. Dan Cohen, vice provost for information collaboration and Dean of the Libraries at Northeastern, notes that the Center is a natural outgrowth of Northeastern’s already-extensive collection of Boston-related materials.

“We’ve been collecting material from Boston for generations,” Cohen says, noting that Northeastern has the archives of both the Boston Globe and the now-defunct alternative paper The Boston Phoenix, both Pulitzer-winning publications that offer decades of coverage of the region. The Globe archive also provides NEU with access to over a million printed photos and 5.7 million negatives from photos taken by Globe staffers and stringers, according to Cohen. “As our collection grew, we started to think about what we could do with all of these materials.”

“We wanted to think about using these materials in a modern, connected way,” Cohen continued, noting that a similar thought process went into the thinking behind the Digital Public Library of America, of which he was the founding executive director. One of the goals of the Boston Research Center is to connect with other nearby institutions like the Boston Public Library and Massachusetts Historical Society with whom Northeastern already has existing relationships.

An additional consideration was that Boston itself, according to Cohen, “is one of America’s leading smart cities.” Boston has an open data portal (https://data.boston.gov/) that offers a wealth of information about things as minor as sidewalk reconstruction and tree plantings, as well as more traditional information like property assessment and crime statistics. Having access to these materials and a number of NEU’s existing resources was a major part of the impetus to launch the center.

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the digital humanities and social science center in the library, provides opportunities for data analysis, while the College of Art, Media and Design offers a program in Information Design and Visualization. Other programs offer skills including digital storytelling that can aid the Center as well. Initially, the Center will be prototyping a few pilot projects focusing on specific neighborhoods like Boston’s Mission Hill. Working with data, an extensive collection of oral histories, and archival photographs from the Globe, Phoenix, and other resources, they are building what Cohen describes as a “360-degree view of a neighborhood as it’s changed over time,” with the ability to look in particular at the impact of immigrants over the decades.

A group in the Center is also working with data from one of the earliest historical censuses, dating back to 1676. The Massachusetts Historical Society has cards used to record data about 50,000 residents, including where they lived, their occupations, family relations, and more. “From that, we can build a digital map that forms an incredible one-year-snapshot that you can then follow over time,” Cohen explains. This would allow folks using the map to visualize what happens to specific families and buildings over various periods of time.

Other projects include an overarching look at large-scale immigration patterns in Boston, and an examination, using stories recorded in books and other documents, of African-American life in Boston over the decades, going back to the 17th century. All of the projects demonstrate what can be done when a group brings together collections from a wide variety of courses and an equally diverse group of researchers and data-analysis tools.

The Boston Research Center will eventually be located  on the fourth floor of Northeastern’s Snell Library, where it will be in proximity to related groups like the Digital Scholarship Group, the library archives, and others, and provide an outpost in the library for groups like NULab. “My vision of a library is as a place that serves more than one discipline at a time,” says Cohen. “It serves everyone and can enable and inculcate a collaborative spirit on campus.”

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