Case Study: Spokane Jail Register (1898-1900)

After examining a few Spokane County jail register documents from the turn of the 20th century, I have come to the conclusion that Spokane was a haven for drunk, rowdy folks. For example, in 1898 drunkenness was a very common crime in Spokane. From December 21st to December 31rd there were 30 different people charged with drunkenness, and that was just on the one page I examined. The punishments varied from fines of $6 or $7 to spending 1-4 days in jail. I also noticed that there were very complete descriptions of the nationality, occupation, age, and gender of the perpetrators. All of them were male, except for Millie Buford, a twenty-year-old prostitute. The age of the culprits ranged from twenty to late sixties. Many of the convicted were from Italy or Norway. Occupations included farmer, tramp, upholsterer, and most frequently—laborer.

Prostitution was also a common occurrence in Spokane according to the jail register of 1900. There were 36 different women listed as being arrested for prostitution on January 3, 1900 alone. Something worth noting is that hardly any information was gathered about prostitutes compared to drunks. The age, marital status, arresting officer, and more was not recorded on the form about prostitues. Also, the prostitutes didn’t spend any time in jail, but rather paid a fine, usually $10. Could it be that all of the prostitutes just came in to the station, paid their fine, and went on with business as usual?

Archives: Balance Between Preservation and Access

If one hundred people were polled about which jobs they believed had the biggest impact on society most would probably reply with an occupation like “doctor” or “police officer.” “Archivist” probably wouldn’t make the list, but maybe it should. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) noted that “since ancient times, archives have afforded a fundamental power to those who control them,” and the same principles apply today. Today archives are still used to preserve information, but in more recent years making that information accessible to the public has also become a key part of their mission.

The most obvious purpose of archives is to preserve information that has been deemed significant for people or organizations of the future to have access to. According to the SAA, archives exist to “strengthen collective memory,” and to “provide transparency and accountability to public and private institutions.” There is a set of standards used to determine whether or not an item should be saved in archives, which Thomas Cauvin outlines on page 37 of his book, Public History: A Textbook of Practice. Archivists often make choices that directly impact what people remember about the past.

The other equally important mission of archives is to take the significant information that has been preserved and make it accessible. According to Jerry Handfield, the digital archivist for the state of Washington, “the records belong to the people,” and are “meant to be accessible to the public.”  However, after looking over the SAA’s article on using archives, it becomes apparent that accessing archives isn’t always as easy as it seems. There are extensive rules that mandate every aspect of visiting an archive, making it unrealistic for many to utilize these resources. The reasons behind these strict rules are valid. There have been occasions where original documents have been damaged, stolen, or destroyed. One of the most famous cases involved Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s national security advisor, stealing and destroying highly classified documents from the National Archives. Allowing access to archives too freely invites the misuse of these precious documents, but limiting their use to a privileged few also limits their impact on society as a whole. How should these two purposes intersect?

One recent development that has completely changed the way archives can be accessed is the internet. Cauvin pointed out that digitalization has helped “collection managers to protect and preserve originals while making a digitalized copy not only available, but more easily accessible.” (35) A great example of this principle in action is the Washington State Digital Archives, which house over 184,000,000 records and as of November of 2010 was being accessed 363,000 times a month. (26) Digital archives have revolutionized the amount of information that is easily available to the masses, and greatly reduced the difficulty of retrieving it. Cauvin thinks the change is good because it has shifted the focus “from being about something to being for somebody.” (45) However, digital archives are not without their difficulties. June Timmons, an employee at the Washington State Digital Archives, brings up that fact that “digital formats are constantly evolving and changing over time.” With technology that is always changing, maintaining digital archives in a format that will stay relevant is a constant challenge.

Archivists should strive to maintain a balance between access and preservation, but should always be pushing for innovative ways to make archives more accessible. The rise of digital archives is a great example of how quickly a new technology or idea can change an entire field. Continuing to encourage the preservation and public use of the records, documents, and other items stored in archives should be one of the main focuses of modern-day archivists.

Tech + History = ?

In 1981, a news report made the shocking prediction that in the future most people would read their daily newspaper online from their own home computer. For better or for worse, the world we live in parallels the world described in the decades-old new report more closely than the people in 1981 probably ever imagined. Technology has changed every aspect of our world, and the study and presentation of history is no exception. How has technology shaped history and what has its impact been? All in all, the blending of history and technology has had a very positive impact on the field of history.

One of the most important ways that technology has shaped modern history is by the mass digitalization of archives and books. This trend towards digitalization has dramatically increased the accessibility of information to the public. In this day and age, it is possible to research almost any topic if you know the right place to look. Things as obscure as the New York City Fire Department Incident Action Plans following 9/11, or the journal entries of citizen from Virginia in the 1860’s, are available for anyone who wants them. Mass digitalization has also had the positive effect of demanding better scholarship from historians. With a simple search on Google Books, it is now possible to find hundreds of books on nearly any topic in seconds. A blog post by Dan Cohen, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, points out that the reality of instant fact-checking and follow-up is something that “should push us to improve historical research.” It is much harder (or at least we hope it is much harder) for distorted facts to be passed off as accurate when nearly everyone has the ability to double-check them.

Technology and public history are in many ways a match made in heaven. The internet is the perfect venue to present interactive information to a broad range of people around the world. For example, a Stanford student created an interactive map that tracked the growth and demise of post offices in the early American West. Without modern technology, this student would have been stuck with a few different stationary maps to represent the change. Another example of modern technology being used to increase the interaction between the public and history is Cleveland Historical. This website uses an interactive map to document historic locations around the city. For example, one of the stories documents the Ralph J. Perk and the birth of the RTA transit system, and links it to a specific location in Cleveland. Initiating this interaction with the public is one of the main goals of public historians, however technology has allowed some public interaction to go too far without proper supervision.

In an article on the “Northwest History Blog,” Dr. Cebula makes the argument that the public doesn’t always take projects as seriously as professionals do, and often their contributions are unhelpful. In another blog post, Dr. Cebula points out that technology has allowed inaccurate, but well intentioned amateurs to author blogposts, podcasts, Youtube videos and more on history. These incorrect historical accounts are often viewed with authority by members of the public. Dr. Cebula accurately claims that the problem isn’t necessarily the technology. Rather “the real culprit,” of these offences is “the historical profession, which has been slow to adopt new technologies.” In Public History A Textbook of Practice, Cauvin agrees that “historians are often absent from one of the most influential and popular sources of historical knowledge.” (163)

Technology has already proven to be a useful tool in improving the accessibility of historical documents, and it has the potential to become a powerful conduit for the presentation of history to the public. Public historians should act now, and partner with professionals with other skill-sets to fully utilize technology for the promotion of history. As Cauvin points out, one great way to foster this interdisciplinary interaction is to host a “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” aka THATCamp. (175) THATCamps are informal “unconferences,” that rely on collaboration and conversations between students, faculty, professionals, and anyone who has an interest in the intersection between the humanities and technology. Perhaps a way for EWU Public History students to do their part in encouraging the cross-over of technology and history would be to organize a THATCamp in the Spokane area.

Historical Hoarders?

Right now in Spokane County there are hundreds of properties listed on the Spokane Register of Historic Places. How many can you name? As a Spokane native and history major, I wanted to believe that I would be familiar with the majority of the historic buildings, but I honestly couldn’t list more than about twenty properties off-hand. In the United States alone there are over 92,000 properties listed on the National Historic Register. In fact, the National Park Service has stated that “almost every county in the United States has at least one place listed in the National Register.”  What is the purpose of preserving all of these buildings?

Historic buildings and preserved objects do have a place and a purpose in the modern world. The most obvious reason for keeping historic buildings and items around is to preserve the history of the place, people, time period, and culture that a specific structure inhabited. One way to preserve that history is by turning the building into a museum, a topic heavily discussed in previous readings. In Mickey Mouse History, Wallace discussed a popular concern shared by many preservationists over the years—that there would come “a future in which America found itself without roots, without a sense of identity, with nothing to lose.” (187) Making an effort to preserve the traces of history that we still have is one of the first steps we can take in remembering the past as a society. There are also many reasons to preserve old buildings that aren’t quite as academically motivated. Wallace points out that “history has become a cash crop,” and that “twenty-nine states [list] tourism as one of their three largest industries.” (188) Many of the spots responsible for fueling the tourism industry are sites listed on the National Historic Register. There are also other monetary motivations, such as tax breaks and grants, available for owners of historically registered sites. Whether well-intentioned or not, a great deal of historic preservation has taken place over the past fifty years because these measures were put in place.

One problem presented by historic preservation is the reality that we only have a finite amount of space in cities and in our country as a whole. It can be argued that the number of historic sites and objects we have is already excessive, and as years go by the issue will only get worse. For example, the documentary Objects in Memory shows some of the over 10,000 objects, ranging from melted filing cabinets to calculators, that were preserved from the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Many of these items hold immense emotional value, but is it reasonable for the government to pay to house these artifacts in climate controlled, expensive environments from now until eternity? At this time there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution to our country’s storage problem, but instituting a stricter system for sorting through proposed artifacts may be a good place to start.

Historic places seem to be easier to implement into the surrounding community than artifacts. In Public History: A Textbook of Practice, Cauvin makes the argument that “it is crucial that urban historic preservation engages with communities.” (79) Without a community that is using, or even aware that these buildings exist, there isn’t much of a point to preserving these structures. It is the job of a public historian to find ways to link their community to local historic sites. One possibility is converting historic buildings for public use. For example, the Preservation Nation blog recently posted an article about a historic brewery in St. Paul being converted to a rent-controlled apartment community for artists. Eastern State Penitentiary even operates as a haunted house certain nights to help pay the bills and to expose the community to the historic jail. While not an ideal situation, it cannot be denied that Eastern State Penitentiary has gained much of its popularity from the haunted house attraction. A really cool campaign started by the Preservation Nation Blog, This Place Matters to Me, is a great example of a practical way to get a community involved in historic preservation. Even in Spokane, a recent survey of 778 East Central properties resulted in a walking tour that helped engage and inform the community.

Historic preservation is a complicated topic; we fear forgetting, so we become historic hoarders instead. There is  always value to preserving artifacts and historic sites, but to reach their full potential we must find ways to inform the community of the historical sites all around them.

spokane-building-montage

A photo montage of some historic buildings in Spokane from the Spokane Historic Preservation Office website

Using Tech of Today to Present the Past

New technology has presented modern historians with unique problems that their predecessors never had to face. They are in a never-ending battle for the public’s interest in a world filled with iPhones, Apple Pay, and Amazon delivery drones. The pervasiveness and accessibility of technology has also influenced the people that museums exist to serve. A blog post on Museum Blogging examined the new challenges museums are facing in reaching out to the millennial generation. The answer to this dilemma is obvious, although implementation is much more difficult—museums must embrace modern methods to better serve their communities. Over the past decade many historians came to the same conclusion, and because of that, many museums are doing a remarkable job of implementing new technologies and techniques to help them reach a broader audience.

A recent step taken by museums to help them reach a younger audience is improving exhibit design, flow, and diversifying the ways that information is transmitted to museum guests. In Public History: A Textbook of Practice, Thomas Cauvin references scholarly work published as recently as 2014 focused on cutting-edge exhibit design practices. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace recounts his visit to Ellis Island, and discusses his worries that some visitors may not fully experience the national landmark, simply because they do not go to the exhibits in the intended order. To figure out where planning and reality diverge, some museums are employing the use of eye tracking technology to evaluate where patron’s eyes first look in an exhibit. An interesting study by the Indianapolis Museum of Art tested the feasibility of implementing wide-spread eye-tracking technology in museums.  Basically, they found that current eye tracking technology wasn’t extremely effective in uncontrolled settings like a museum gallery, but it still proved useful in controlled studies. Another element of exhibit design that has taken a new direction in recent years is undoing the “tyranny of objects” that has often permeated exhibits (Wallace). Audio accounts, video recordings, augmented reality, and other innovative ways of conveying information are starting to replace the textbook on a wall approach that has been prevalent in museums for decades.

Another factor that disconnects museums from their modern communities is the tendency to focus on distant issues with little bearing on the lives of local people. Of course, there is still tremendous value in learning about the struggles, successes, and daily lives of people that lived 500 years ago, but sometimes institutions use this as a cop out. It is often easier to talk about issues separated from us by time or distance than to confront the problems in our own neighborhood. Wallace aptly observes that museums are often “more comfortable talking about tropical rain forests in Brazil than toxic dumpsites in their own back yard.” It seems that observing a problem that happened 50 years ago is much less scary than acknowledging a current problem that we may have had a part in causing.

Arguably, the most significant way that museums have succeeded in reaching the younger generation is by the implementation of new technologies and social media. A New York Times article published in 2006 noted the increasing popularity of museum audio guides published in the format of podcasts, and in more recent years the amount of podcasts devoted to improving the museum experience is simply staggering. Another technological frontier being explored is interactive apps that act as tour guides through a museum. In coming years, apps will likely surpass podcasts in popularity among museum patrons because of their accessibility and ease of use.

Even if guests don’t have a smart phone, many museums allow you to access audio content by simply calling a phone number on your cell phone.  Social media is also being harnessed in nearly all museums to help promote new exhibits, interact with the public, show off interesting items in the museum, and more. Twitter is a platform that many historians and museums have successfully adopted, and many popular museums around the world have millions of followers on the site.

Museums may be shrines of the past, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot use cutting-edge technology to communicate to their audiences. In fact, to capture the interest of the new generation, using modern exhibit design, presenting relevant issues, and tapping into new technologies may be the only way to continue successfully engaging the community. It seems that over the past decade museums have made a conscious effort to implement new technology, and now that decision is paying off.

Facts or Feelings?

What is the purpose of museums? Do they exist to make people feel a certain way—inspired, humbled, or reminiscent? Do they exist to give the facts about what has come before, and perhaps a glimpse into the future? The hope is that both of these goals can be attained, but when they are at odds with one another should we sacrifice facts or feelings first? It is the job of a historian to strive to provide the community with the unapologetic truth, not a misplaced sense of nostalgia—when forced to take sides our loyalty should always lie with the facts.

Early museums, such as Ford’s Greenfield Village and Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg, were certainly flawed. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace points out that these early museums ignored major sections of the population, avoided subjects that made them uncomfortable, and presented an idealistic portrait of the good ol’ days. These historical exhibitions hit a home run when it came to tapping into the community’s sense of nostalgia, but when that nostalgia is based on a warped foundation is it beneficial? For all of the shortcomings of Greenfield Village and Colonial Williamsburg, one can hardly deny that they were extremely influential in piquing the nation’s interest in the past. In that sense, these initial museums were very successful. They engaged their audience, but is merely pleasing visitors good enough? People that want to be entertained have novels, movies, and more at their disposal. History should not be reduced to a sentimental, patriotic form of entertainment. There is only one thing that separates history from fiction, and that is that history actually happened; if we don’t seriously defend that distinction then what is the point of history?

Unfortunately, the practice of ignoring uncomfortable details didn’t end with Ford and Rockefeller. When Dr. Cebula visited the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home and noticed inaccuracies and a very blatant omission of slavery from the historical site, he contended that “the interpretation… would be richer and more interesting if [the museum] included stories of the slaves rather than omitting them.” The historic home’s curator defended the oversight of slavery by claiming that “bringing up a hateful subject would be cruel to the [students], who would start hating the messenger.” A recently announced plan for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is bringing a similar discussion to national news outlets like NPR. The National Park Service is confident that it can facilitate an impartial conversation about nuclear weapons, but some groups fear that money will get in the way of an unbiased story. Powerful people and corporations seem to have a knack for getting a positive spin from mainstream history, and some historians are happy to avoid rocking the boat.

Though there are still historians trying to preserve a pristine version of the past, there are many doing their best to circulate new discoveries, correct the extensive misinformation, and most importantly have an open dialogue with the community about the past. For instance, a local article published in the Inlander by Lisa Waananen Jones overviews the life of the “Father of Spokane,” James Glover. In recent years it was discovered that Glover was very cruel to his wife, and these revelations resulted in Spokane City Council members deciding against naming a newly constructed plaza after him. An article on the History@Work blog discusses the relationship between a community and a commemoratory exhibit about Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner accused of killing one of his young employees, that was lynched by a mob in Atlanta, Georgia in 1915. The museum stated that the exhibit was put together to “provoke dialogue by addressing overlooked issues and by honoring both victims of the tragic events of 1913-1915.” Presenting the public with all of the facts and encouraging dialogue and debate about controversial subjects is one of the crowning achievements of public history. History shouldn’t be viewed as dead facts encased in a glass exhibit, but rather as a living entity that has a very direct impact on our present and future.

Historians need to stop trying to protect people by only showing them a rose-tinted past. The illusion of the good ol’ days does more harm than good, because it encourages people to try to revert to the way things used to be instead of moving forward. Acknowledging both the good and bad in the past is necessary to connect history to the present, and because of that historians should swear their ultimate allegiance to the facts.