It Depends!

I am a master's candidate in the Archives and Records Management program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. During the spring and summer of 2011, I did my internship at the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle, WA. I am also an ambassador for the April 2012 release of the 1940 Census. I'll blog about that here as well as my experiences indexing it, and I encourage you to get involved at

22 January 2014

New voyages

On Monday, I finally earnestly engaged on a project which has been eating away inside of me ever since I traced my paternal American/English side and discovered that at least one branch of my tree contains slave-holding families. It's to be expected of any family whose history is supposed to go back to the Revolution, there being a dark part of our history between us and our oft-vaunted forebears.

This moment came to me in searching for Dameron ancestors and discovering them on slave schedules, closely followed by finding records from the sale of a Dameron's estate, records which included the sale of human beings.

I had always been proud of my Northern, largely Scandinavian roots on my father's side and my recently-arrived ancestors on my mother's side, confident that my DNA bore no traces of that horrific institution. Finding out otherwise shook me to my core and made me physically ill.

At the beginning, I left that branch of the family alone. It seemed that the rest of the Dameron family research world hailed the family's possible connection to Jamestown and a manor house in England, without acknowledging that any success on this side of the pond came at the expense of the lives, dignity, and humanity of others. And I couldn't think of it without being ashamed.

Later, however, I realized how badly I wanted to know as much as possible about the concrete effects of my ancestors actions, and that more than I wanted to know about the Damerons, I wanted to know about the people they enslaved and what happened to them and their descendants. Seeking your family's history means taking the bad with the good, the shameful with the admirable, with your eyes wide open.

The posts to follow are an attempt to document my process and experiences in finding out the whole story - or at least as much as I can.

05 March 2012

Going home

My great-grandmother Katarina was born in Transylvania and then left behind with her grandmother at the age of 4, while her parents sailed for America. It is unclear what the exact plan was, but as it turned out, Katarina grew up in her small, ethnically German village and came to Ohio on her own as a young woman in 1920. Meanwhile, her parents had raised 8 more children, all Americans and fully part of the family. My great-grandmother was never able to experience anything akin to siblingship with them, but always felt like more of an aunt. And she never stopped trying to win them over, even as a wife and mother in her own right, clearing out the cabinets to come bearing armfuls of food.

After the 1940 Census is finally indexed, I hope that I will glean a little bit more about what happened with my family during the Great Depression, a period that, in my imagination, has been largely a shadowy area, populated by Dorothea Lange photographs and John Steinbeck imagery. From other records, I know some things: when my ancestors immigrated, when they were born, where they lived in 1930, just shy of five months before Katarina's father - suffering from illness and lack of employment - tied a noose around his neck in the family barn and left his family to fend for themselves throughout the interminable depression and all that would come later. I don't know, however, what happened to them after this defining event, just after the last available Census. In a matter of months, much may be illuminated for me in this respect.

From family history interviews, I know how Katarina struggled to find a place in a new country with a family she'd never known, even through marriage to an upstanding, gregarious man and raising her own children. And I know how her daughter, my grandmother, came of age during World War II, meeting a firm yet gentle Army man who knew when to put his foot down and when to laugh about the trials and tribulations of family life. But I don't yet know the effects of the Great Depression on my grandmother as a young woman or on my grandfather who would enlist. As with any research in records, the genealogist plays the lottery, without knowing whether they will hit the informational jackpot or confirm what they already knew.

I suspect, however, knowing what I know of my family but also of the turbulence of the 1930s, that there will be so much to discover. As time marches on, it only gets harder to learn about our ancestors' lives, as paper and memory alike deteriorate with passing years. Eagerly awaiting the 1940 release, I temper my anticipation with workaday responsibilities and squeezing in some indexing of other records - and I do my best to spread the word and get others involved. Work in eager anticipation with me at

04 March 2012

On Impermanence and Transition

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last,         but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”                                                                               - W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge
One of the first, most difficult truths archives students learn in graduate school is that, at best, only 5% of records created ever get to be preserved within the stacks. Unfortunately, it's often estimated at closer to 3%. There are a multitude of reasons for this - lack of resources, not enough archivists - but more often than not, the things we create are lost or destroyed long before an archivist even has a chance to process them. In the contemporary moment, things just usually don't have the importance that later generations will attach to them. And frankly, it has to be this way. As much as we might like to know every detail of our ancestors' lives, it seems fitting that what we get is a curated view. What bothers us the most is that great-grandma may not have curated it herself, but rather had it curated for her by outsiders, officials, or unthinking next-of-kin. And so we're left with an uncomfortably incomplete picture of those who came before us, and acceptance of this is as much an ideal part of the archivists' toolkit as appraisal or description.
Yet none of this is to say that impermanence should be the enemy of a grand undertaking.
The 1940 Census will be released on 2 April 2012, and an immense indexing project will begin right out of the gate, fueled by innovation, volunteers, and institutional collaboration. It is a progression from indexing projects of past Census releases, but it is hardly a culmination. The vast Web 2.0 outreach campaign, using social media, blog ambassadors, and recruitment of indexers across all walks of life, builds on the inescapable velocity of the internet and is yet a transitional phase, between years-long offline indexing and whatever the future of access and outreach holds for genealogists in the digital age. It is transitional between the 1890 Census, destroyed by fire and carelessness and lost to us forever, and whatever awaits us at the release of 1950, ten years down the line and available through the unimaginable technology that awaits us.
The 1940 Census is also transitional, of course, within an historical context. None of this has escaped the media attention on this release, a photograph of America made of 132,122,446 pixels. Many counted in 1940 were the first Lost Generation, people who had survived seemingly the worst the world had to offer, World War I and the influenza epidemic. They found themselves in an interminable worldwide depression that uprooted families and communities and exacerbated social problems hitherto thought confined to other people, in other places. As census enumerators arrived on American doorsteps, Europe was disintegrating, and even more uncertainty and pain awaited, unseen, on the horizon. They have rightly, if somewhat elaborately, been called the "Greatest Generation," and in some ways, they lived much as we do - doing the best they could with the resources and information they had, sometimes aware of historical context, and often unaware of the transitional frames that we would later impose with our incomplete picture, with incomplete records.
We are witnessing the creation of another Lost Generation. This is not to draw unwarranted historical parallels, because we can't possibly do that without diminishing one long-passed generation and attempting prognostication of another's fate. But while we're indexing, while we're searching and connecting dots, creating the image of those we find at one frozen moment in 1940, let's be mindful of what Americans in 72 years might want to know about another lost generation that started to see its opportunities erode in 2008. Of course, statistically and culturally, this recession nowhere approaches the Great Depression. But we understand some things viscerally: we've told ourselves that surely it won't last much longer, looked for signs we're pulling out of the tailspin, and muddle along the best we can, wondering what our lives will look like if and when prosperity returns. What assumptions will future Americans make about us? What stories can we leave?
We can't possibly see the context of the transition we inhabit, but we can try to leave more behind us. The Census Bureau was aware of the monumental historical changes that had occurred in the 1930s, and appropriately expanded the scope of questions, giving us a less-incomplete picture of the effects of the Great Depression. The 2010 Census was a pared-down version of a Census schedule, and as I filled in mine, I was suffused with the importance of recording my existence at a certain time and place, but also with disappointment that my descendants, should they come looking for me, will know fewer details of my life from that record than I have learned of my ancestors. I am in transition myself; as I am now will change, fall away, merge into a future me, until the day comes when I cease to exist at all. I can leave no permanent sign of my life, but I leave what I can.
And as an archivist-in-training, I try to preserve what I can as long as possible and make it available to others. I am so excited to get to index the 1940 Census. It gives me a sense of being able to exert a little bit of control over impermanence, though I'm fully aware of my limitations in this respect. I encourage heartily participation - to any extent - with this project. For the first time, the Census will be released as free digital images, and passionate volunteers will index the records, paid only in self-satisfaction in having made them easily accessible. Dedicate a little time to this project. After all, it only comes every ten years, and with thousands of volunteers readying themselves by indexing other extant records, this opportunity to work "behind the scenes" will be transitory as well. Get involved at

26 October 2011

The Stories We Choose To Tell: Samuel B. Cobb and the Kit Home Movement

Presented in Pecha-Kucha format at the Murray-Goltz Archives Building in Bellingham, WA on October 25, 2011 for Archives Month. Presentation slides available at SlideShare.

On a clear night (1) in November 1882, a young millworker and erstwhile miner arrived by boat on the Ash Street docks in Portland, Oregon, just a month shy of his 23rd birthday. With him were his earthly belongings in a small pack, a mining partner who had traveled with him, and the dollar-fifty the two had between them. Born in Searsmont, Maine, Samuel Bedlington Cobb had hearkened to Horace Greeley’s call to ‘go west, young man,’ taking up whatever odd jobs presented themselves across the Midwest, before landing in Portland to ply his carpentry skills.
By 1880, Portland was a burgeoning and muddy city of nearly 18,000 people. Wooden sidewalks lined dirt roadways. Anti-Chinese sentiment was increasing. Sewers had not long been a part of daily life, and clean water was often at the whim of the currents of the Willamette. Not ten years earlier, a fire had destroyed 20 city blocks, but Portland was on the rise as a major port to the Pacific and the Transcontinental Railroad was on its way. The next few decades would mean rapid industrial and economic growth for Portland, as well as population growth that swelled the city to over 200,000. Opportunities abounded for those - usually white men - who were willing to take chances, invest, and fully embrace capitalism on the farthest edges of the American frontier.
In the industrialized new century, manufacturing took on the trappings of being “scientifically” managed. Even something as fundamental and expertly crafted as the family home could be ordered via catalogue, cut to specifications in a factory, shipped on a railroad boxcar, and put together by Dad. The irony of the kit home is that many of them were designed as Craftsman-style homes, based on the premise that simplifying, rationalizing, and harmonizing production would engender a more Progressive ideal for society - yet these homes were made in factories on the backs of low-skilled workers, not by knowledgeable, well-compensated craftsmen. The first company to pioneer the kit home, Aladdin, even enjoined its potential buyers to “hire an ordinary man to put it up.”
Sears, Roebuck & Co. followed a few years later with their Modern Homes series and, by the teens, kit home companies had sprung up around the country, including here in the Pacific Northwest - Hewitt-Lea-Funck Company of Seattle and Fenner Factory Cut Homes of Portland among them. Magazines like Popular Mechanics and Good Housekeeping were filled with ads that promised a home of one’s own, affordable and easy to assemble. The ads focused on the benefits to the family domain - that a man could not only afford to provide a home for his wife and children, but would erect it with his own hands (and the help of friends, male relatives, or a locally-hired contractor). 
During my internship this summer at the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle, I was able to assist in the processing of a series of exhibits from District Court in Tacoma, originally totaling about 180 cubic feet. Heavy weeding became necessary, as many of the documents or objects couldn’t be tied to specific case files in our holdings. In some instances, a particular wide-eyed intern, who shall remain nameless, made impassioned arguments for saving exhibits that otherwise were destined for witness disposal. One such victory for this intern was an disorganized pile of filthy, oversized envelopes and assorted other smaller documents. Inside each envelope was a set of plans for a kit home produced by the National Home Building Co. of Vancouver, Washington, 85 sets in all. Each one was a detailed set of plans, with front, rear, and side elevations, framing diagrams, floorplans, and detailed specs. Miscellaneous items included plans for a “Cotillion Hall” for Portland, detailed diagrams of architectural flourishes for the homes, such as fireplaces and columned bookshelves, and scraps of receipts for kits sold.  The signature that united all of them read simply and tantalizingly, S. B. Cobb.
By 1916, Samuel Bedlington Cobb had married, started a family, and built himself into a pillar of the Portland community. Working his way up in the lumber business, he and a long-time friend eventually took over the Standard Box & Lumber Company and made it successful, expanding one plant, only to watch it burn to the ground two years later, moving operations to a new site. (At the scene of the fire, Cobb had watched with characteristic calm, praised the firefighters’ efforts, and chalked it up to “spontaneous combustion.” [2])
In 1911, using pattern and plan books (3), he designed and had built a house for his family at 1314 SE 55th Ave. in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood of Portland - an eight-bedroom, Craftsman-style home that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Cobb and his wife, Florence, raised their children in this house and Cobb died here in 1951, at the age of 91, having outlived his wife and three of his children.
But in 1916, Cobb was in the prime of his life. He owned land, was successful in business, and provided a good life for his wife and six children. He was a prominent member of the Portland community, was chosen for various civic committees, and had served as a state representative twice, in 1902 and 1914. Always a businessman with an eye for opportunities, he joined his son, Earl, in the creation of the National Home Building Co., a kit home company based in nearby Vancouver, Washington. The 25-year-old Earl Cobb incorporated and managed the company, but his father soon became the largest shareholder, due in large part to the 75 unique sets of plans the lumberman designed himself and sold to the company in exchange for thousands of shares of stock. Newspapers lauded the creation of the new company and its initial sales, crowing that “Anything from a chicken house to a mansion can be made here.” A year after incorporation, the Oregonian declared that “The demand is greater than the company can supply” and that the plant was being expanded to double capacity. Indeed, the series at NARA shows that several homes were produced and shipped out to diverse parts of the country, including one modified to a customer’s specifications. At least two NHB homes were built in the city of Portland. (4) But only a year-and-a-half after the expansion, in October 1918, Cobb lost his son to influenza and by December, the Clark County sheriff had sold the assets of NHB. The company filed for bankruptcy, and claims by creditors snowballed. In 1923, the bankruptcy trustee sued Samuel Cobb over the plans Cobb had used to buy stock in the company, claiming that he had overvalued the plans, to the detriment of the company’s creditors seeking remuneration. Cobb lost. (5)
In an autobiography Cobb wrote for Camp Namanu, a Camp Fire Girls site located on land the lumberman donated, not a word is dedicated to the kit home company he started with his son. Perhaps Cobb kept silent about this period of his life because it didn’t fit the narrative of the successful Portland businessman; perhaps it was because he associated it with the early death of his son, Earl. Maybe the explanation is far simpler: in a life as adventurous as his, maybe the 90-year-old Samuel Bedlington Cobb had largely forgotten about the few years that he spent in the kit home business. And so had the documentary evidence - until decades’  worth of smoke-riddled court exhibits arrived at NARA Seattle to be processed by an archivist and two lowly interns. At the end of his autobiography, Samuel Cobb left for posterity two poems of his own creation, a stanza of which could as easily call to archivists to be mindful of the task before them: “Then, let’s be up and doing / Though sometime the hour be late, / Still keep working, working, / Let not labor ever wait.” (6)

1. “October in Oregon,” Willamette Farmer, 3 November 1882, 1.

 2. “Fire Leaps High. Spectacular Blaze Destroys Box Factory. Damage about $35,000. Flames Spread with Marvelous Rapidity. Adjacent Blocks in Danger. Standard Mill is Completely Destroyed, with Docks - Neighboring Buildings Partially Saved - Lack of Fireboat Felt.” The Morning Oregonian, 2 Nov 1903, Page 12, Historic Oregon Newspapers, University of Oregon Libraries. 

3. Ann Fulton, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Cobb, Samuel and Florence, House (1911),” National Park Service, November 1998, pg. 2.

4. “Activity is Shown in Realty Dealing. Good-Sized Transactions Are Closed and Others Reported Nearing Consummation. War Influence Not Felt. Building Programme Includes Two School Structures in Portland for $170,000, One in Corvallis and Six Elevators,” The Oregonian, 29 April 1917, pg. 23.

5. C. W. Ryan, Trustee of the National Home Building Co. vs. S. B. Cobb, United States District Court, Western District of Washington, Southern Division, Case #2856, 1918. Exhibits and case file in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle, WA: RG 21, USDC, WDW, SD, Tacoma, Exhibits, 1887-1965, Boxes 77-82 for plans and 82 for these images; Box 88 for Minute Book for National Home Building Co.

6. Samuel Bedlington Cobb, “Memoirs of S. B. Cobb, 1859-1950,” Camp Namanu Alumni Association.

02 September 2011

Moving appraisal into the light

No matter what one may have to say about Terry Cook, the Canadian archivist and theorist is at least correct in what he writes about appraisal and what he calls the "great silence" between archivists and historians (and ostensibly any other users of archives). "Appraisal," he wrote,
imposes a heavy social responsibility on archivists. As they appraise records, they are doing nothing less than shaping the future of our documentary heritage. They are determining what the future will know about the past, which is often our present. As a profession, we archivists need to realize continually the gravity of this task. We are literally creating archives. We are deciding what is remembered and what is forgotten, who in society is visible and who remains invisible, who has a voice and who does not. (1)
Appraisal, though controversial, is the "only archival endeavor," Cook argued. And yet archivists are mainly silent about this except among ourselves. How many times have we given the elevator speech about what we practice and spoken only of the preservation of our national or cultural heritage and inadvertently left out that 97% of records don't survive - either culled by their creators or the victims of our appraisal?
The cases weren't even the really old ones!
I don't get out of bed for records less than
sixty years old.

So thus it is unsurprising when bloggers concerned with government transparency or the voices of America's downtrodden exploded with unmitigated anti-government fury when they heard that the National Archives and Records Administration intend to destroy court records, a story often usually tied to some ginormous number like - as in the case of the court records - 10 million+ court cases.

This brouhaha erupted just at the end of my internship at NARA-Seattle and many of us were justifiably angry with the unthinking bloggers who typed before they really knew what they were talking about. We knew what takes place behind the scenes - the records scheduling, the appraising for historical value, the constant justification for preservation - and wondered why NARA wouldn't issue an official response. (They finally have, here:

But archivists also know the sad truth: that there just aren't the resources to save everything users of archives would have us save. Americans have not yet decided to dedicate the kind of resources to their cultural heritage institutions that would even allow archivists to save everything they would like to save. So archivists take a sober, practiced approach to deciding what to expend those meager resources on and what goes into witness disposal. It's not an objective process, but ideally, good archivists base those decisions on sound acquisition and disposition policies and include historians and other user groups on projects of great magnitude, like the National Archives has done here.

This is a great start, but archivists need to do a better job of talking about destruction, amongst ourselves and - more importantly - with the public. The bloggers who typed first and asked - or didn't ask - questions later aren't trained archivists and probably don't know any. They know archives only by what they've accessed and have been unable to access in archival institutions.

At the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Chicago last week, Dr. Susan E. Davis chaired a panel entitled "Genuine Encounter, Authentic Relationships: Archival Covenant and Professional Self-Understanding" (Session #210). Scott Cline went in-depth on the concept of "covenant" and its roots in moral, ethical, and philosophical values, that there is an I/you relationship in all archival activities and that these relationships should be based on mutual respect, responsiveness, and reciprocity. He argued that the archivist must "endeavor to disclose the continual making and remaking of the record." Dr. Brian Brothman floated ideas he's been assembling for (hopefully!) an upcoming publication and exhorted archivists to have a greater "preoccupation" with the dead, who are the primary components of our records and who form an integral, complex, and vital part of the social order. He argued that archivists are "scientists of distance and proximity, architects of distanciation." As archivists, we have the power to connect society with the dead or to remove us further, depending on how we engage in archival practice. "Contracts are made in suspicion, self-validation, and separation," he said. "Covenants are made in trust or love."

Archivists ought to endeavor to form a covenant with our users, one that requires complete honesty about preservation and destruction. Having those policies but staying mum on them and requiring users to search for them does not fulfill a covenant, but rather has the aura of a contract, an agreement in which one does only what he or she must. Love requires one to be proactively honest. This, then, is the only way we can engender trust with our users and the bloggers who reflexively attack at mention of the phrase, "destruction of records."

(1) Terry Cook, "Remembering the Future: Appraisal of Records and the Role of Archives in Constructing Social Memory," in Archives, Documentation, and Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, ed. Francis X. Blouin, et al. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), p. 169.