Digital Summer School: The Boston Teacher’s Union Collection

The residents of Boston have witnessed no small amount of debate and conflict in the city’s education and labor history. Schools have served as a flashpoint in this history, and a project that has taken form over the past five years, the creation of the Boston Teacher’s Union Collection (BTU Collection) strives to document and provide new insights into this history. Nick Juravich, Assistant Professor of History and Labor Studies and Associate Director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, sat down with The Metropole (virtually) to discuss the BTU Collection’s history, present, and future.

Particularly since it requires a partnership between the Boston Teacher’s Union (BTU) and University of Massachusetts Boston, how did the BTU Collection become a reality? How did the university and the union work together to bring it into existence?  

This project came about thanks to the vision and initiative of Betsy Drinan, a longtime teacher, school leader, and elected union leader in the Boston Public Schools. Betsy was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the BTU as part of the BTU for All slate in 2017, and as she tells it, once she got into the BTU offices, she found boxes and boxes of fascinating archival material: old photos, scrapbooks, newspapers, contracts, and more. As a resident of Dorchester, she was already active in local history, and through that work, she’d met some of our public historians and librarians at UMass Boston (UMass Boston and BTU Headquarters are both on Columbia Point, which is part of Dorchester, and we have a long-running relationship with the Dorchester Historical Society).

In 2018 Betsy pitched Carolyn Goldstein, the Public History and Community Archives Program Manager at UMass Boston’s Healey Library, on doing something with all this material. That first step turned into the BTU Digitizing Day in the fall of 2018. I started at UMass Boston in the fall of 2019, and Carolyn put me in touch with Betsy right away. We launched the oral history project in January of 2020 and started the newspaper digitization over the summer of 2021.

Beyond the specifics of how this all came about, there are a couple of big-picture things that have made this project successful, so far. On the BTU side, Boston educators elected leaders in 2017 (and again in 2019 and 2021) who are committed to a broad, transformative vision of teacher unionism, one that embraces social justice, organizing, and union democracy. They’re connected to the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), a network that includes the current elected leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and United Teachers Los Angeles. The union is currently bargaining a new contract, and they’re fighting for the kinds of social-justice goals—educators who reflect the diversity of the student body, access to counselors and social workers, affordable housing, to name a few—that have been central to the revival of teacher unionism in the United States over the past decade.

In fighting for racial and economic justice in the present, the union—its elected leaders, staff organizers, members, retirees—have proven willing to explore and confront the BTU’s history. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Boston knows the history of education here is, to use a euphemism I hear a lot, fraught. As my UMass Boston colleague and our Professional Staff Union president Anneta Argyres said when we launched these collections in May, a lot of unions, knowing how contentious this history was, and still is, might have left these boxes in a closet in the union hall. It’s a testament to the kind of union BTU is today that they’ve been willing—and even excited!—to open them up. Betsy has led the project, and BTU’s entire leadership team and organizing staff have been tremendously supportive, too. The union funded oral history transcriptions and newspaper digitization (neither of which are cheap!) and worked with us to find oral history narrators, sit for interviews, and connect this work to BTU’s ongoing organizing with members and in the wider Boston Public Schools community.

On the UMass Boston side, we have a great network of support in multiple places on campus. First and foremost are our amazing archivists and librarians. They co-organized the “Digitizing Day,” a participatory archiving event based on the Mass Memories Road Show, something UMass Boston has been doing for nearly two decades. They also host everything on our Open Archives platform, which is hooked into Digital Commonwealth and Digital Public Library of America, and which also connects our collection to the Beyond Busing: Boston School Desegregation Archival Resources project, in which UMass Boston is a partner.

I’m very lucky to work in both our History Department and our Labor Studies program, both of which have provided essential support. Our Labor Resource Center funded a brilliant undergraduate student worker who prepared the digitized Boston Union Teacher files for uploading last fall, and I had the good fortune to work with eleven amazing graduate students this past spring in a new “Digital Public History” practicum course, in which we built a companion website and library guide for the collections and planned a public launch last May.

This got long! Suffice to say it’s a big project with a lot of different participants and stakeholders, but it’s also one in which we’ve been really fortunate, thus far, to work well together and support many pieces of this in service of a larger whole.

Black and white photo of a  white man  in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, walking out of a building and shaking the hand of a white man in uniform with hat. Outside the building, just beside the door, a white boy leans his shoulder against the building, one step down from the door and one step up from the sidewalk, facing toward the door, hands in trouser pockets. The door is very large and made of wood. The building is constructed of very large blocks of stone.
“Release from Charles Street Jail.” Boston Teachers Union Collections, University Archives and Special Collections, Joseph P. Healey Library, UMass Boston. 

The BTU Collection consists of three main parts: The Boston Union Teacher newspaper, the Boston Teachers Union Oral History Project, and Boston Teachers Union Digitizing Day. What does each of these constituent parts bring to the archive?

They’re each really exciting collections in their own right, and they also fit together nicely because they grew organically out of one another. The Digitizing Day came first, with three goals: first, to start digitizing some of the union’s own archives; second, as a way of seeing whether there would be enthusiasm for more of this kind of historical work among the union’s members, staff, and leadership; and third, to see if UMass Boston would be interested in doing more with BTU and these collections. As it turned out, the answers were affirmative!

The oral history project came next, in part to build on some of the short interviews and conversations that took place at the Digitizing Day, and in part because at the time, the BTU was planning for a big 75th Anniversary Gala in October 2020. Our original plan for this project was to launch it then, along with an anniversary video that would have relied heavily on the stories we heard, along with some additional narration and documentary-style film of archival materials. At the same time, we said from the outset that the goal was to build a larger project, something that would be ongoing and committed to an in-depth investigation into the union’s history, one that gathered the widest possible range of voices and perspectives.

As you can imagine, the BTU 75th Anniversary party didn’t happen, and neither did our video. BTU had to pour all its energies into supporting educators and school communities during the pandemic, and gathering, of course, was out. As Betsy and I came back to the project under these conditions (and shifted our interviewing to Zoom), we started thinking about what it would look like to build an even bigger digital project, and the newspapers, which Betsy had discovered and perused herself, kept coming up as this incredible, unique record. In the summer of 2021, just before she officially retired, Betsy dropped those off to be digitized: hundreds and hundreds of pages’ worth of teachers’ voices, union history, and unique perspectives on Boston history and the history of education here more broadly.

I should note, too, that this isn’t the extent of BTU’s physical archives. We’ve now taken in a full run of BTU contracts from 1966-2018 at UMass Boston, and while we likely won’t digitize them anytime soon, we’re working to put some information about the evolution of the contracts online through our companion site. There are also a few additional boxes of BTU material that we’ll need to fully process down the line, too, and beyond that, we may reach out to longtime leaders and organizers in the union to see about donations of personal collections.

In regard to the Boston Teaches Union Digitizing Day, it directly engaged the public through crowd sourcing to some extent. Can you describe the Digitizing Day a bit more and discuss the role of this approach in regard to building an archive? What are the pros? What are the cons?

While I wasn’t here for the actual event, I’ll give it a shot. As I mentioned earlier, UMass Boston has been a home for participatory archiving for nearly two decades. Our long-running project, the Mass Memories Road Show, is what Betsy Drinan had in mind when she asked Carolyn Goldstein for help: a one-day event to which union members would bring themselves, their stories, and a few images or flyers or clippings from their own personal archives to be scanned. On the day itself, BTU and UMB collected 190 scans and 18 short video interviews. There are some real gems in here: fabulous photos of teachers and students, as well as BTU members on picket lines and marching to City Hall; some great flyers and clippings (including from now-defunct publications); and powerful stories in the videos. At the same time, like any such collection, it’s very uneven, and reliant on who showed up on the day.

This kind of work was made famous by the University of Nebraska’s History Harvest, and there’s a lot of good writing about it as a standalone model (we read this great chapter by Marvin Anderson and Rebecca Wingo in our Digital Public History course this past spring). The BTU Digitizing Day, however, was sort of a hybrid in a couple of ways. To start, Betsy and the BTU used the occasion to start scanning some of the union’s own archival collections, including a trove of photographs (I blogged about one of my favorites on our companion site). In that way, the resulting archive is both more traditional and more comprehensive than it might have been.

More significantly, I think, was the fact that this became a jumping-off point for what is now a much larger project. Several of the folks who were interviewed for three or four minutes in 2018, or who just showed up to share a photo, have since sat for ninety-plus minute oral histories. The handful of tantalizing newspaper clippings that we scanned in 2018 are now contextualized by this massive, scanned run of the Boston Union Teacher. There are still leads for us to follow that emerged during the Digitizing Day, and in that way it remains a great font of inspiration.

Two final, quick thoughts. First, while we’re not planning it actively, I think it would be both very productive and a lot of fun to do another Digitizing Day, or even a few. Now that we’ve launched the project and we’re putting these archives and stories out into the BTU universe, I think we’d get even more great stories and images (and then we could build on those, of course).

Second, our aforementioned amazing archivists (how’s that for alliteration?) have just launched a brand-new participatory archiving toolkit: RoPA, the Roadmap for Participatory Archiving. This is a fabulous resource for anyone thinking about doing this work, and I’m very glad to have a chance to highlight it for UHA members. For our overworked library staff at UMass Boston, this also serves a very specific purpose, which is to re-imagine the very labor- and resource-intensive Road Show model as something more nimble, customizable, and community-driven, to the point that it could yield many more, and more varied, roadshow-style “harvests” in Massachusetts and beyond. If we did run a sequel to the Digitizing Day, it would be on this platform, and that would be exciting in its own right.

A woman stands at a podium. On a projector screen behind her to the left are the words "Black Choices, Black Voices: Navigating the Layoffs of 1981" and images of people on a video call. On a whiteboard behind her to the right is written "Welcome to the BTU Collections Launch" in large lettering.
UMass Boston graduate student Eleanor Katari presenting at the launch of the Boston Teachers Union Collections, May 3, 2022. Photograph by Nick Juravich.

How do you envision the archive being used? Who do you think the audience is for it, and have you been able to determine how it’s been used so far?

This is the question. As we’ve worked on the project, we’ve constantly had this ever-evolving map of audiences in our heads (and sometimes drawn out on big sheets of paper in marker).

I spoke a little bit already about BTU members, organizers, and elected leaders as an audience, and they’re tremendously important as our partners. We’ve collaborated to share these archives in a number of ways already. We created a slideshow of photos from past campaigns for last fall’s BTU organizing conference, and we’re building an interactive timeline of contract gains at the BTU’s request. We’ve also worked with the current editors of the Boston Union Teacher and the BTU’s social media and email list managers to promote this material to members.

One of the most exciting and most developed examples of this collaboration happened in our course this past spring. One of BTU’s organizers, Ari Branz, is completing a masters in Labor Studies at UMass Amherst, and wrote a brilliant paper on a very contentious moment in union history in 1981, when massive layoffs during a city fiscal crisis collided with court-ordered desegregation, which included affirmative action provisions to integrate the teaching corps. One of our UMass Boston graduate students, Eleanor Katari (a former teacher herself), used the newly digitized archives, including oral history clips and headlines and images from the newspaper, to create a digital exhibit based on Ari’s essay, and it’s fantastic. Ari spoke about it at the launch and noted that the union has begun talking about the need to engage in a truth and reconciliation process about those years. If this work can inform that process, that’s huge.

We also think about this on the UMass Boston side. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve used these materials in every class I’ve taught at UMass Boston, from the Digital Public History class to my large-format lecture on Labor and Working-Class History in the United States. One target audience, among our students, is future and in-service teachers, of which we have a great many. We actually had one such student in the practicum course this spring—literally coming from her student teaching assignment to our classroom—and she built a great exhibit about teacher voices, past and present, in the Boston Union Teacher that brought the house down at our launch. The enthusiastic response of our audience of UMass Boston and BTU folks to this future teacher engaging with this archival material was inspiring and encouraging.

As we continue to build the companion site and publicize the collections, there’s so much more we could do. We’ve started some preliminary conversations with colleagues in our College of Education and Human Development, and with folks in our CANALA Institutes who work on ethnic studies curricula with and for Boston Public Schools. This is a place where I’m hopeful we can keep building partnerships and make this great material available and useful to ongoing efforts.

This brings us to the wider journalistic, city, and scholarly community, which I can see is the focus of your next question…

Obviously, Boston holds a significant place in the public imagination particularly in regard to education debates, which seem evergreen in American culture. How does the archive interact with the city’s history generally and on that subject specifically?

You’re absolutely right, and we’re currently hurtling toward a big 50th Anniversary in 2024, which will be 50 years since Judge W. Arthur Garrity handed down his ruling in Morgan v. Hennigan and launched court-ordered desegregation in Boston. These archives can absolutely contribute to new scholarship, journalism, and public knowledge about this history, particularly from the perspectives of educators. Some of the most powerful oral histories we’ve collected are with the educators—Black, white, Latinx, Asian—who worked and lived through those years.

At the same time, one thing that excites me about these collections and the project we’re building from them, is that there’s a long history represented here, going back before 1974 and particularly tracing the arc of what happened afterward. I’ve learned so much from this project about how educators experienced successive waves of school reform in the 1990s and 2000s, both from the newspapers and the oral histories. One student in our course this spring did a deep dive into the BTU’s response to the Unz-funded “English-only” ballot referendum that passed in 2002 and its impact on bilingual and immigrant students.

Insofar as there’s always a danger of freezing a place, and a history, in amber in those well-known moments when a local struggle bursts into national TV newscasts, I think these collections are really useful both for shedding new light on the “busing” story and for helping us study so much more of the city’s, and the school system’s, history.

You’ve been involved in digital humanities projects for over a decade. Based on your experience regarding the BTU Collections, the East of East project, and the Harlem Education History Project, how would you describe the digital humanities in 2022? What is their place in academia?

I’ve gone on way too long already, but suffice to say that we’re here and not going anywhere. Students love doing this work in classes, and digital projects open up worlds of collaboration and connection for public historians, in particular. There are, absolutely, hidebound tenure policies and committees that need to rethink how they evaluate this work as such, but when it comes to our commitments to our students and our public history partners, I think it’s clear that this work is essential.

Nick Juravich is Assistant Professor of History and Labor Studies and Associate Director of the Labor Resource Center at UMass Boston. He is the co-director of the Boston Teachers Union Collections project and learned digital public history practice as a collaborator on the Harlem Education History Project and East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte.

Featured image (at top): Boston Union Teacher front page celebrating BTU’s election as the collective bargaining agent for Boston teachers, November 1965. University Archives and Special Collections, Joseph P. Healey Library, UMass Boston.

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