How not to crater Washington's collective memory

Our state archives are in danger and money is scarce, but history still matters.
Crosscut archive image.

Ralph Hopkin’s Woods Electric today, as it is in storage at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

Our state archives are in danger and money is scarce, but history still matters.

The Washington State Archives, according to a recent Herald of Everett article, will soon run out of space. This seems like a problem that should have been foreseen — and in fact it was.

For the better part of a decade, plans were underway to build a new state Heritage Center on the Capitol campus in Olympia to expand archive space and create a new home for the state library. Secretary of State Sam Reed even pushed the project, finding a dedicated funding source to help pay for it. Money was collecting in a dedicated account for that purpose.

Then the Great Recession hit, the state hit lean budget years, and the fund was raided to pay for other things.

Now the Heritage Center — which was not uncontroversial — is kaput. The problem of what to do with the growing number of state records, though, remains. Current Secretary of State Kim Wyman has asked for funds to lease warehouse space to help, but a permanent solution will have to be found.

What does our state history contribute to modern day Seattle? This winter, Seattle became obsessed with the discovery of an 8-foot mammoth tusk in a South Lake Union construction site. The Burke Museum, the state-funded natural history museum at the University of Washington, stepped in to dig up the rare find and engage the public in learning more about the tusk itself and the world it came from millennia ago. They plan to display it at the Burke's annual “Dino Day” on March 8.

That's just one highly publicized example of the value of the state's investment in scholarship and education. There are countless others.

Personally, I use many of these resources regularly. When I wrote Crosscut's Roots of Tomorrow series on examples of early Seattle urbanism, I tracked down the state's very first automobile — a Woods Electric from 1900 — at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. A staffer there took pictures of it so that Crosscut could share it with readers. Most autos end up in the junkyard, but we still have out first set of wheels!

Earlier this year, I worked with a state librarian in an attempt to find an original copy of the 1866 Memorial, an official request passed by the territorial legislature that asked President Andrew Johnson to secure fishing rights for U.S. fishermen in Russia's Alaskan waters. The 1866 Memorial was the impetus for the Alaska Purchase, supplying Congress with an economic justification for spending the money. The purchase was an event that reshaped America and secured the prosperity of Washington and Seattle.

Though she couldn't immediately find the original document, the librarian in Olympia went to work. Eventually, with the help of a seasoned UW librarian, she wound up in the University of Washington's Special Collections library with a long-forgotten file that contained a hand-written copy of the memorial. A founding document of our history was located and I, as a result, was able to share that document with Crosscut readers.

I have also been working with the Secretary of State's office and consulting with archives staff on updating the Washington Centennial Time Capsule in 2014 — a volunteer project that started back in 1989 and will continue until the state's 500th anniversary in 2389. The capsule is stewarded by a group of volunteer "Keepers," recruited at age 10 to update the capsule every 25 years and recruit a new generation of kids. It's designed to be a demonstration — an experiment — in long term stewardship (you can read about it here).

The capsule is on public display in the rotunda of the Capitol building and will be a centerpiece of the state’s 125th Anniversary festivities in November. I hope the symbolism of its permanency is not lost on the lawmakers who pass it every day.

But capsules are not meant to replace a society's commitment to leaving accessible records, nor the people who help inform us and enhance our daily understanding of who we are and what we've done. Librarians, archivists, scholars and curators keep alive our public memory banks. They need to be nourished — and funded — for the long term.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.