By Shawn Proctor
Philadelphia is a haunted city. Not by ghosts, necessarily, but by unresolved tragedies echoing through the culture, haunting the people who must live on.
In the Kensington neighborhood of the city, Gordon Coonfield, PhD, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, happened upon vernacular memorials, created by ordinary Philadelphians to remember people who died, often violently. Flowers. Candles. Graffiti. A cardboard sign scrawled in marker. Each element is an important (if temporary) gesture to make a tribute that says to anyone who sees it: this person lived and died here.
Vernacular memorials have appeared in many places around the world. But they have a special meaning in Philadelphia, the city that originated graffiti art.
“This is home for people in a city with a very, very long history. And these memorials are a part of that history,” he says. “There is a desire to express loss that is not being met in current society.”
Dr. Coonfield, who lives in the area, began photographing and making notes about each memorial, including its location. As his entries grew, his digital scholarship project “Kensington Remembers” took shape. With the expertise of Erica Hayes, Falvey Memorial Library’s Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Professor James Parente, MFA, Communication and Media, these ever-changing, temporary memorials will be preserved, placed on an interactive digital map, and studied.
In fall 2019, Dr. Coonfield discussed with Hayes his vision for the website and, together, they reviewed and selected the website platform and Geographic Information System (GIS) best suited to his project. They continued to meet and refine the project over the next several months–memorial by memorial–with Parente contributing to the project’s web design and the custom logo.
“This digital scholarship project examines these public memorials created throughout a historic neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. Mapping technology connects these disparate locations, making them easy to navigate and understand, thanks to Dr. Coonfield’s photographs and textual explanations,” Hayes says.
“The Library staff has been enormously helpful, and are a great resource for faculty with projects like this. The Digital Scholarship Program at Falvey and the Library Technology Development department, including David Uspal, are experts in the ethics and methods of digital preservation. And Erica provided insight about the technology as well as an understanding of how best to develop this project. Without her, ‘Kensington Remembers’ would not exist,” Dr. Coonfield says.
In the future, Dr. Coonfield plans to continue expanding the project, publish articles in communication studies journals, and present on his findings at academic conferences.
If you have an idea for a digital scholarship project and would like to collaborate with Falvey Memorial Library, contact Erica Hayes or visit the new Digital Scholarship Lab online, which is scheduled to open in Fall 2021.
Shawn Proctor, MFA, is a Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.