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Making Meta Connections

By Johnna Rizzo | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

The Northwest Digital Archives is founded on an egalitarian notion: to make a region's archival resources available to all.

It involves nineteen institutions that hold more than eight million photographs and 320,000 feet of manuscripts and materials. The collections are spread across five states: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska.

The humanity of history is abundant--the nameless faces that filled up the days of the past: the residents of Marcus, Washington, stoically watch their houses being moved to make way for the Grand Coulee Dam; sunbathers on the Oregon coast frolic in the latest 1930s fashions; Filipino cannery workers pose with an octopus caught by accident in their nets; displaced Asian Americans await food rations in internment camps.

The recognizable personalities are here as well. In the University of Oregon Libraries live the papers of authors Bernard Malamud and Robert Cantwell, including a manuscript page of William Faulkner's A Light in August and correspondences with novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, and Time publisher Henry Luce. Washington State University Library houses a one-hundred-thirty-piece photographic collection of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who enrolled in the university in 1926 as a speech major. Other topics in the Northwest Digital Archives include immigration, transportation, mining, agriculture, and children's literature. Relationships are central here--how one collection ties into another.

"People don't always know what it is they're wanting to look up," says Jodi Allison-Bunnell, the consortium's administrator. "You have to give them ways to get into the collection, ways to connect to a source that will suck them in."

Then the database takes over; it adds context. A search for railroad images, for example, is instantly connected to the Chinese immigrants who built the tracks, or the WPA, whose workers are seen bent over the frames of boxcars--which then threads to other archival collections that concern Chinese immigrants or WPA workers.

The comprehensive NWDA will make the Web site the first place to go for information on the Northwest, says consortium director Larry Landis. "We want researchers to get an accurate picture of the Northwest, and having these primary sources available on the Internet is one way to do that."

The richness of the collections is harvested using XML, or extensible markup language. Landis says the structure used by the NWDA "provides for much more robust data retrieval." Twenty-two hundred finding aids exist so far, and phase II of the project, already under way, will add sixteen hundred more.

Allison-Bunnell explains the technology: "EAD [encoded archival description] puts parts of collections into fields that are readable by computers, pushing library cataloging much further; digitized materials themselves are searchable." If a researcher types in a name, for instance, Edward Curtis; a people, Yakima Indians; a public program, CCC; or an innovation, railroads, twenty-four hundred separate archives are searched simultaneously for hits not only in subject titles, but within manuscript pages within folders within boxes within rooms, and comprehensive results pop up immediately on the computer screen. NWDA has linked up to Google, and the database should be fully searchable by early September.

Along with Northwest, the North Carolina ECHO Project, the Five Colleges Project in New England, and the Online Archive of California are already in progress. The hope is that eventually each region will link into a United States database.

Some connectivity across regions is occurring. The NWDA is linked to the Online Archive of California, but at this point they are not mutually searchable. Well-funded libraries outside of the Northwest such as the Bancroft at the University of California at Berkeley, the Huntington, and Yale's Beinecke all hold important Northwest collections. A goal is to link them into the NWDA. The intention, says Landis, is "to extend the resources of all institutions involved."

"What is important is the end result--the public good and what we are bringing to researchers," says Allison-Bunnell. She sees rewards for donors as well. "We're not offering them just a different dusty attic than their own."

About the Author

Johnna Rizzo is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

NEH has provided $650,000 in funding to the Northwest Digital Archives ( Participating institutions include the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Alaska State Library, Historical Collections; Gonzaga University; Idaho State Historical Society; University of Idaho; Montana Historical Society; University of Montana; Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; Eastern Washington State Historical Society; Oregon Historical Society; Oregon State University; University of Oregon; Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University; Pacific Lutheran University; City of Portland Archives; Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle Museum of History and Industry; University of Washington; Washington State University; Whitman College; and Whitworth College.