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Boston Research Center embarks on archival mission

The Boston Research Center and the Boston Public Library will help gather information from residents to flesh out city’s history. Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University/Northeastern University

A history of Boston could be written from the letters, photographs, and other documents kept hidden in attics and basements around the city.

With a $650,00 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Boston Research Center will work with the Boston Public Library to unearth that history and make it available to everyone.

In the coming months, the center plans to hold informal forums at library branches to show what it has already gathered on the city’s neighborhoods. Residents will be asked to bring letters, photographs, and other historical materials that might fill in the gaps.

The center, based at Northeastern University Library, embarked on the first phase of the project last year with an initial $200,000 Mellon grant. It used archival materials and data to create seven digital models that explore Boston’s history and culture.


For example, Birth to Boston is an interactive map of Boston in 1648 that lets you click on land parcels and see who lived there. The Diversity Explorer allows you to explore the different types of households in Boston and examine them by race, language spoken, and birthplace.

“After we had that prototype phase, we all got together and thought about what we could do next,” said Dan Cohen, the vice provost for information collaboration, dean of libraries, and professor of history at Northeastern. “We really thought a key aspect of it was connecting more concretely with communities in Boston.”

Some historical materials such as photos, posters, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings exist only in people’s homes. With the new grant, the center hopes to hire a coordinator with the Boston Public Library to set up community meetings, gather these important materials, and make them digitally available to the public. “It’s an incredible challenge, but I think we’ve got some great people and technology to apply to that challenge,” Cohen said.


Karilyn Crockett, a lecturer of public policy and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used the Boston Research Center as she worked on her book “People before Highways.” Published last year, the book examines how neighborhood activists mobilized against the Inner Belt, a proposed highway that would have cut through the heart of Boston.

Crockett interviewed people from the community and found they had flyers, posters, and photographs from marches in their basements.

“One thing about the collections of people who have been organizing who are in economically vulnerable populations, a lot of their stories and photographs are not collected, and so it becomes really important to collect them,” Crockett said.

Maysoon Khan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @maysoonkhann.