Reflections on the “Our Marathon” Project

At the beginning of the semester, I recall, we were a bit critical of crowdsourced digital collections. In particular, I’m thinking of the September 11th digital archive. I remember we were skeptical as to its usefulness as a source of historical data. This week our class took a look at Northeastern University’s “Our Marathon” project, which is similarly constructed. After looking at this, my feeling is that these sites do have some usefulness.

To be sure, it doesn’t seem like a historian could interpret the bombing in terms of its meaning to the history of the country as a whole or Boston from this source. The project focuses on the stories of everyday people, such as those who were near where the bomb went off, describing how they remembered the events of that day as they transpired, and police officers involved in the immediate aftermath. There isn’t much about how the federal government responded in terms of policy or how the national mood changed, for instance, that would lend toward an interpretation of the bigger picture.

While providing an interpretation of historical events may be one of the (if not the) central tasks of the historian, this is not all that is involved in the historian’s line of work. Sometimes it helps to describe historical events in detail, so that there is a deeper connection to the historian’s overall interpretation. And this website provides the historian a tool that can be used to “tell the story,” if not to interpret it.

I should emphasize that a big part of why I think this site works is because the event is both so recent and so specific.  The memories are still fresh in the contributor’s minds, and how they felt that day is very evident in their descriptions. It would be more difficult, for example, to try to crowdsource an archive of memories of “McCarthyism.” What all would that label encompass? Would we so easily be able to identify common threads amongst the contributors? Would their memory of how they felt still be as clear sixty years later?

The fact that this event is recent and (relatively) clearly demarcated means we can worry less about the accuracy and consistency of focus in responses and identify reoccurring elements that could help the historian of modern America tell the story of that day in rich, interesting detail, even while trying to keep the focus on a group of people instead of a few individuals. I noticed, for example, many people, in their initial reaction to the first explosion, thought that an accident had happened (such as a ceremonial cannon accidentally going off or a truck hitting a building). It wasn’t actually until the second explosion shortly after that mass hysteria started to spread rapidly. Another aspect of the project I was interested in was its preservation of “memes,” short slogans and icons that were meant to capture a collective feeling, in this case, the resilience and pride of the Boston community; unswayed by the malicious intent of the bombers. I thought this was a powerful visual element that captured both the feelings involved that day and the way those feelings are expressed in our increasingly digital world.

To summarize my point, these examples, I think, prove the effectiveness of crowdsourced digital collections in contributing to the storytelling aspect of the Historian’s craft, if not the hermeneutical aspect.

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