Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Information for Freedom

Among the first executive orders signed by Barack Obama were two that require greater compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. Now, there's an executive order Densho likes. We are all about information here. In fact, we can overwhelm people with information. In our Digital Archive we've stored thousands of government documents that redress activists and coram nobis lawyers dug up in the 1980s to prove that the government detained Japanese Americans on false premises. I shudder to think how the quest for redress could have been shut down if federal archivists had locked the documents out of sight.

Obama's executive order says:

"A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.' In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike."

We like those sentiments. And I hear a common strain in a quote by Thomas Jefferson that my coworker Dan sent me. In 1791, Jefferson said of government documents:

"Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals (of valuable historic and state papers) deposited in our public offices. The late war has undone the work of centuries in this business. The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them in from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such multiplication of copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident."

We'll make sure that Densho's digital copies are beyond reach of accident.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy Spring from Densho

The cold and wet weather is still lingering in the Seattle area, but Densho got to celebrate the beginning of the spring by hosting an "ike-bana" (flower arrangement) class last week. This 10-week class is taught by our inspiring instructor, Akemi Sagawa sensei, and 12 students had a chance to learn how to give "new life" to a few flowers and branches in a small container. It is truly amazing to see just a few twigs defying and creating serene space for our home (and office!)

Sogetsu School Mercer Island branch will hold the 19th Ikebana Exhibition on March 28th and 29th at the Community Center at Mercer View. Go to http://www.misogetsu.org/ for more details.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tribal Grant

Yesterday I went with Densho board members Tomio Moriguchi and Mari Horita to the Muckleshoot Casino to accept a check for the very nice sum of $10,000. (Mari is pictured on the right, with Muckleshoot Public Affairs Specialist Madrienne Salgado.) The Muckleshoot tribal council hosted a lunch and invited a roomful of lucky grant recipients. We were impressed by the depth, breadth, and diversity of the tribe's philanthropy. The long list of nonprofits that received grants do everything from feeding and housing people, nurturing troubled youth, mentoring college students, preserving woodlands, presenting arts and culture, and on and on. In addition to Densho, other Japanese American groups were in the crowd. Talk about a feel-good event. Many folks remarked on the tough economic times as they accepted their checks -- but everyone seems resolved to work harder. Densho is in good company.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It "was" in the P-I

St. Patrick's Day 2009 turned out to be unlucky for Seattle, this being the last day of business for the local Post-Intelligencer newspaper that started in 1863. There'll be no more physical paper printed as the P-I moves to an on-line only existence.

P-I's last issue

Moving to an all-digital format may be a sign of the times (though I'll miss the morning ritual of collecting the paper in the driveway and the tangible feel of turning its pages), but to me the real loss is the decrease in stories - all of the unemployed reporters, editors and investigators who will no longer be informing us and telling our local stories.

Incidentally, during the last several weeks, the P-I has been printing a photo each day from their archives and last Saturday was this one showing family members being evacuated.

Though we're inundated with devastating photos every day in the news, this photo is still surreal to me showing little kids in the back of a truck next to an armed soldier - and to think it all took place right here in Seattle.

Densho is also in the business of capturing, telling and preserving stories, and in an on-line format - indeed Densho was founded with the goal to be all digital. Let's hope that the P-I will find a new sustainable life in the online world so more stories continue to be told and preserved.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

This is my first entry to densho.blog as the newest member of the Densho staff, having taken over as Technical Director when Geoff departed after 8 years with Densho.

Coming onboard, I have to say I am very impressed with the use of technology and resourcefulness that went into creating the backend infrastructure supporting the collection, processing, organization, and dissemination of the oral histories. Visitors to Densho's public website and archive collection see the formatted transcripts, videos, photos, and audio streams, but what they don't see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes to create the collection.

I can't help but also be impressed with the scope and vision of Densho's mission when it was first formulated more than 12 years ago, long before YouTube. The decision to create an all-digital video collection of oral histories and to carefully transcribe and catalog everything from the very beginning was not only insightful but instrumental in making Densho's collection a tremendous valuable legacy for future generations.

It's interesting to compare what Densho is compiling with something like Google's recent release of historic LIFE magazine photographs, which was strongly criticized in a NYTimes article for its lack of historical context.

This contrast highlights an important aspect of the uniqueness of Densho's archive in that it captures and preserves the personal stories of those who experienced or witnessed the incarceration firsthand. Rather than simply "making it available," Densho provides framework and context so that many of these firsthand accounts have a face and a voice.