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Seeing Our Neighborhoods: Providing Public Access to the Boston Globe Photograph Collection

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant

“Photo morgues” are stored collections of photographs from a newspaper’s past issues and news cycles. Archived, or else in the jargon “sent to the morgue”, these files remain hidden in the background of the history of journalism, in the form of defunct and forgotten newspaper clippings. While photo morgues can support a wide range of audiences and pursuits—including academic and citizen historians, students exploring the stories of their neighborhoods and communities, genealogists, and visual artists—identifying and accessing photographs of interest is often difficult for several reasons. Many physical photo morgues are maintained within the organizational scheme created by the source newspaper, requiring the researcher to search through any number of thematic folders to determine if a hoped-for photo exists.

While digitization offers the hope of solving access issues, many digitized photo collections have been monetized, reducing the access for many potential users. This project seeks to bring one of these collections back to life, by making publicly accessible an extensive archive of digitized photographs from one of most relevant newspapers in US journalism, the Boston Globe. After having acquired the Globe’s “photo morgue,” this project, with the support of a group of researchers, is committing to digitize a section of the full archive—selecting the photographic prints that help document the history of Boston, covering education, architecture, infrastructure, neighborhoods, politics, protests and demonstrations, and other major topics of interest. These include major events such as the development of the Central Artery and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, construction of the Prudential Center and the redevelopment of South Boston, Boston Public Schools desegregation and busing throughout the 1970s, and beyond—key elements that have shaped and continue to shape our city, its people, and its environs. From specific events to more general topics, from local festivals to theatre and musical productions, the Globe’s archive of photographs stretches back for over a century and constitutes a diverse social and cultural record. With the aim to benefit multiple audiences, including students, scholars, and the general public, the current project seeks to reduce barriers to the Boston Globe photo morgue by providing free access to photographs that are richly described, built upon machine learning models for image analysis and retrieval that can be used to find similar items in the collection, track trends over time, and retrace the many narratives contained in the history of Boston journalism.

Principal Investigators

David Smith, associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences; Giulia Taurino, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

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