Spotlight on: Project Archivist Gina Nortonsmith

It took Gina Nortonsmith a long time to realize that she was meant to be an archivist. Before joining the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Nortonsmith spent twelve years working with students in special education. For many years prior to that, as an attorney she defended tenants against landlords and taught at a law school.

“I’ve always loved museums and looking at old records,” Nortonsmith said. “And when my kids were old enough, it seemed like a good time to go back to graduate school.”

In May 2019, Nortonsmith earned a master’s of Information and Library Science from the University of Buffalo, and has been working for CRRJ as a project archivist since 2020. At the center of CRRJ’s work is the investigation of racially motivated homicides in the Jim Crow South, and the creation of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive, containing over 1,000 of these cases, which was released in 2022.

Nortonsmith works with the archive’s records, identifying their origins, applying metadata to those records and cataloging them, among many other tasks. The records often include documents like death certificates, newspaper articles, court records, police reports and interviews with victims’ families.

As somebody who’s interested in justice, the idea of collecting these stories so that they can be told accurately, and in their fullness, has been really important to me.

“Doing this work not in a way that’s just a collection of data points of what happened,” she said “but really trying to represent the wholeness of the victims and present the information about their stories in a way that is respectful of their experience has been very important to me.”

Besides presenting the victims’ stories accurately and in their entirety, Nortonsmith said, an equally important aspect of her work with CRRJ is to highlight how the criminal justice system responded, or failed to act in most cases.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What motivated you to make a career switch and decide to go to school again to become an archivist?

I knew that I needed to do something different. I hadn’t been practicing law for a very long time, and then I went into teaching to explore if that was my next career. I decided that it was not. Then, I had a friend who was thinking about going to library school, and that’s when I realized that it was a career path. As my friend explored going back to library school, the more I heard about it, the more I thought, ‘You know, that’s probably what I should have done in the first place.’

Not that I think going to law school was a mistake. That was a really good decision for me. It was a good way to learn how to think and I have a very strong interest in the justice system, so being a lawyer was a good fit in that way. But I’m also interested in history. I am a big, big history buff, so the idea of saving records and stories always appealed to me. Being able to do this is just fantastic for me.

Q: What part of your work for CRRJ do you enjoy the most?

I think one of the things that I enjoy the most is coming up with plans and working through them efficiently. I have to understand the process of getting a record from one place to its final destination and all the little steps in between. I enjoy working with a group of people to schedule those steps logically and efficiently.

Discussing this with the 15 people working on this project and keeping everybody interested, involved and connected to the work, I think, is one of the things that I really like. It’s not just working with records, it’s working with the people and the records.

Q: What does your work entail, now that the archive has been released?

We have to now create internal systems so that future updates can happen. We have to document the work that we’re doing. We have to document the choices that we have made in the data dictionary, why we decided to go with one definition instead of another and explain the sources of the records.

There is the interface that the users see, but then there is a whole lot of stuff in the background that we have to do to make sure that the next group of people who work on the project can pick up a complete package, rather than a bunch of loose strings, as we had when we started.

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

Q: As an archivist, what tools have you discovered that are helpful in your job?

One of the first things we had to do was figure out the organization of the records and the places that CRRJ had collected that information. Often, it was in a spreadsheet, and the spreadsheets were created by different people at different times for different purposes. One of the things that I’ve been using to combine that information into one source is a tool called OpenRefine.

You can use OpenRefine to clean up messy data, to match information from one sheet to another and consolidate it in one place without having to do it all by hand. That’s been an extremely helpful software.

The other software we’re trying to use is for optical character recognition. In the record collections, we’d like users to be able to search the records that we have for a word or term or maybe a name or a place. So before records get added to the archive, we do optical character recognition on those so that there is a layer [on top of] the image of a record, in the form of a PDF. Associated with that is a text file that has the words from that document and so that the text document can be searched for the names, geographic locations, dates and things like that.

So when you go into the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive to do a search, you’ll get more information than what we’ve cataloged. So let’s say you are looking at an FBI file. You may be able to search that FBI file and get information about the names of the investigators who worked on that file, the names of witnesses that they talked to, the names of the police chief or the other people who had touched that particular FBI case. That gives you a greater depth of access to those records.

Q: What teams involved in the project and what are their roles?

There are three working groups. One is the archive group, and that includes the folks from CRRJ like Director Margaret Burnham and MIT’s Chancellor Melissa Nobles. The two other teams are largely library focused.

The metadata group deals with the records themselves; where they are stored, cataloging those records and applying the metadata.

The third group is the design group, charged with building the website, constructing the database and constructing the search engines for the database and documents. There are some of us who are in all three of those groups, because all of that work is interrelated.

Q: As an archivist, are you involved in the design process and what do you prioritize?

I am involved with the design process. That’s largely the design group and the archive group. The design group comes up with design ideas and presents those to the archive group. One of the things that I tried to do when we meet as a design group is pull on what I’ve heard from Professor Burnham, and Chancellor Nobles and the other folks at CRRJ about what’s important to them and what they want users to get out of using the archive.

My first summer working with CRRJ, I met with Professor Burnham, Chancellor Nobles and Rose Zoltek-Jick, who is CRRJ’s associate director, and we created the data dictionary. We were looking, discussing and deciding which ideas we wanted to capture from the records, and which facets to describe in the database. We came up with 180 elements of information. But for the first version of the database, a much smaller group of those elements — about 50 to 60 — that we thought were most important , were put forward to start.

We created a list of elements and their definitions. For example, if a document describes an ‘alleged offense’ for the victim, we created a standard definition for that. This explains to users ‘What do we mean by ‘alleged offense’? What was the person alleged to have done? Is this a thing that they were actually charged with? Or is this just what somebody said that they did?’

I have been trying to keep in mind those discussions to help us figure out what information is displayed about a specific incident.

Q: What are some of these elements of information and how did you decide which to include?

One of the things that I have taken from CRRJ’s way of working is we put the victims first in everything that we have tried to do. We try to represent the story of the victim and who they were, because what happened was an injury to a person, to a family, to a community. A significant portion of those elements are designed to identify the victim.

Professor Burnham has said repeatedly that in addition to identifying all those things about the victim, the thing that this archive in particular has to offer is to represent what happened in the criminal justice system. So many of the definitions represent what happened after the incident — whether there was any criminal process, and if so what was the outcome.

Q: How do you think the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive benefits the public?

Again, if we start with the victims, I think it is helpful to the families of the victims and the communities to see the records in one place. So often, these violent incidents have been hidden and have not been addressed as they should be.

Providing the public a place to find the fuller story of what happened, I think, will be helpful. And the archive is a resource for people who want to tell these stories. Journalists who want to tell more of these stories, historians and social scientists who want to look at not just what happened but perhaps injustice’s lingering effects on the community, will find the archive particularly useful.

We aren’t that far removed from many of these injustices. There are lots of people still alive who were present when those incidents took place. And if they aren’t still alive, their children have heard those stories, and certainly the children of those folks are still alive.

I think the records and the stories will be helpful to say, ‘Why is anti-Black violence still happening in the present day? Why haven’t things changed? Why haven’t things improved? Why hasn’t there been any economic growth or education change?’

I think the archive can not only tell us the stories of what happened, but help explain why we are where we are right now.

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