April 15, 2016
Students Connect Boston’s Busing Past To Present Through Digital Archives
Marilyn Morgan, director of UMass Boston’s Archives program, is providing graduate students with a hands-on education about the busing crisis in Boston—without the “white gloves” that might come to mind when picturing archivists at work.
“It may seem esoteric at times, but history does matter,” Morgan said. “The stereotype is that archivists sit in a room with little white gloves and go through documents, but that’s not true at all. They’re constantly engaging with the public about things that matter.”
She chose one of Boston’s most contentious periods as the focus of her new course, Transforming Archives in a Digital Age. UMass Boston graduate students use digital scanning software through a partnership with the Boston City Archives to upload letters, photographs, legal documents, artwork, and other artifacts to create an online exhibit and digital archives from the viewpoints of the many stakeholders involved in the court-ordered desegregation of Boston Public Schools in the 1970s.
Each student zeroes in on a perspective of his or her choosing and contributes artifacts to the online archive throughout the semester. Exhibit topics range from the clash of church versus state; the views of students for or against the court action; domestic and international responses toward Mayor Kevin White; and the police and law enforcement officials caught up in the middle of the issue.
“Learning out of a textbook can be really boring for people, but if you click on the primary source documents, you can see them in high resolution and see it for yourselves, that this is the evidence,” said Lauren Prescott, a New Bedford native who is completing a master’s degree in history and a certificate in archives. “Especially if high school students today are looking at it, they’re seeing how students their age felt 40 years ago. It’s a great way for students to connect with their own history.”
For Prescott, the course also has proven critical to achieving her goal of becoming a professional archivist. Through the coursework in Morgan’s class, she’s already landed an internship at the Boston City Archives, and now works as an administrator supporting the South End Historical Society.
“This whole project has a public-facing mission, that’s what I like about it,” she said. “People can sit at home in their pajamas and learn. Not everyone necessarily can go to the archive, or would be interested in going.”
Daniel Morast, of Sandwich, who hopes to spend his retirement working in a history museum once he finishes his master’s degree, has used the course to brush up on twenty-first century archiving skills, but also to explore the way law enforcement responded to the crisis.
His coursework has him interacting with the Boston mayor’s office and turning up forty-year-old letters requesting that the U.S. Air Marshal activate the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to help Boston and state police mitigate the public’s response.
“This project says to the people of Boston, we have our own issues right here, and we’re not so squeaky clean,” he added. “Kids today need to learn about their parents and their neighbors and the issues they faced, whether they were the victims or the perpetrators.”
Not all students take the course toward a history master’s degree or certificate in archives. Several American studies students have fallen in love with archiving through the course as well, Morgan said.
Though they approach the class from different levels of experience, each student learns how to digitize materials, create metadata, and catalog archival materials according to Library of Congress Subject Headings and other standards.
Morgan said she hopes the completed project will eventually become a tool for Boston Public Schools teachers to use as they approach a new busing curriculum implemented in light of the 40th anniversary of the conflict.
“It’s a piece of our history,” Morgan said. “People need to realize that everyone has a bias. If we can point people to the direct source to learn about a topic they’re interested in, that’s great.”