I began this project in early winter 2017 when I came across a collection on the Washington State Digital Archives titled “Spokane County WWI Soldiers Miscellaneous Lists”. The collection had a list of thousands of names of servicemen with no further information. I contacted the Northwest Room where the collection was held and after looking through the finding aide I noticed a number of World War 1 Spokane County War History Record, separated alphabetically in folders.
These were completed by a war history committee for Spokane County in the 1920’s. There were several hundred of these record cards, and I was impressed by the lengths of documentation the committee went to in recording the veterans military records. Branch of service, unit information, engagements, personal citations, and even number of times the veteran was gassed in Europe were just a few of the fields on these service records cards.
With so much valuable data, I wondered why this collection hadn’t been scanned and placed on the Digital Archives. I soon found the answer. Hidden in a legacy section of the Secretary of State website was a World War 1 collection that included scans of the record cards. The project was hard to find for good reason. It’s presentation used a plugin called DjVu, an antiquated file format with the last version released in 2006. Although the user could navigate the WW1 project, the scans couldn’t be opened with just a basic web browser like the rest of the material on the Digital Archives.
Around this time I began theorizing exactly how my MA project would look. My effort involved a few different things. First, I wanted to scan all of the record cards in an archival format and put them on the Digital Archives website. To accompany this, I’d include a spreadsheet of metadata that corresponded with the scans. Because the MA project also required a writing requirement, I wanted to write about how exactly the city of Spokane participated in World War 1.
My desire to scan the War Committee’s cards and put them on the DA seemed like a good idea considering my internship at the Washington State Digital Archives. Since beginning the internship in January of 2017, I acquired lots of experience in scanning historical documents at the Washington State Archives Eastern Region Branch. I learned how to use a feeder scanner(Kodak i420) and a flatbed scanner(Epson Expression 1640XL), which coincidentally turned out to be the same kind I used at the library to scan the record cards. I also learned how to implement metadata for corresponding images. I completed spreadsheets filled with metadata on agency meetings and minutes, and projects for Eastern Washington, This process took much longer than I anticipated, but since students receive Microsoft Excel via their EWU email account, I was able to complete most of the work in my free time.
I ran into a few unique challenges while completing this part of the project. I spent several Saturdays scanning the collection, but some of that time was wasted. The original .tiff files for my first batch of scans were massive in size, with most of them exceeding 25mb. This meant that besides the issue of storage, the scanning itself took much too long. Filling the flatbed with three of the record cards took about 5 minutes to scan. I contacted Mary Hammer from the state archives in Olympia, who notified me of some settings to change on the scanning software. This brought the file size down to a more manageable amount, drastically cut down on the time it took to scan the cards, and still retained an archival quality image for the Digital Archives standards.
The other issue I ran into concerned the cards themselves. While scanning I noticed a serious problem: there was almost no uniformity on how they were filled out. For example, some cards were a wealth of information with almost every line filled out in a clear and legible manner. Most however, had missing information. To make matters worse, some of the writing was extremely hard to read. Other times, the person who recorded the data made obvious errors and/or misunderstood the field on the card. For example, one serviceman’s age was listed as “3”, while other times the “branch” info was left blank or filled with information not related to a branch of military service.
This essentially killed part of my original goal of having extensive fields of metadata for this collection. With so many missing/ineligible/incorrect data filled out, I settled on metadata fields limited to first name, last name, middle initial, branch, age, and type of enlistment. It was frustrating having to pull back on my initial goals, but the volume of discrepancies and the amount of missing information left me no choice.
I originally intended writing a 20-30 page paper about Spokane during WW1, both right before the war and immediately after American involvement. I had done something similar on a much smaller scale about a year before for a class website about the early National Parks. During Winter break I intended on reading through the Spokesman Review and Daily Chronicle newspapers from 1917 to 1918 and keeping track of interesting stories that I could write about. I found no shortage of stories, and I eventually began separating them into a variety of different fields. These included Spokane on the verge of the war, German Americans in the area, Women and their participation in the war effort, the anti war effort, the recruitment and mobilization of troops, and of course, Spokane’s veterans actual combat experience in France. I started writing on the individual sections during break and quickly typed up around 15 pages worth of material.
Completing the writing portion of this project via a paper seemed natural as a student, especially considering the amount of papers I’d already written over the years. When I began trying to piece together the various sections into a cohesive single piece of work however, I ran into some problems. I was telling a number of different stories, oftentimes with very different perspectives, that typically only related to one another by their geographical location of Spokane. Even after making a very serious attempt to create a singular narrative with a paper, parts of my writing just felt out of place. That’s not to say the content was felt poorly written, but parts of it felt out of place in a large paper.
It was at this point I considered a format closer to Spokane Historical, rather than a single paper. Because I was writing on a variety of topics, individual stories with their own pages seemed a bit more user friendly instead of an intimidating 20+ page paper on one webpage. In my research I also came across potential visualization pieces unsuitable for a normal research paper. Although diagrams and political cartoons appear out of place in a formal paper, they fit perfectly on a website. Since my project already lent itself to the format, and since I already had experience uploading and editing stories on Spokane Historical, I decided to register a domain and install Omeka on it.
I found a number of limitations with Omeka pretty quickly after installation. I couldn’t customize my website the way I initially wanted to, so I began looking at other options. In 2016 I made a blog for my Digital History class with WordPress, a very popular website development software. Since I knew I was going to redesign my former class blog into my personal portfolio, I started looking at using the same software, but a different theme for my MA project. Since many people use WordPress, I had no issues finding themes to try out and I finally settled on a minimalist one, which is currently implemented on the website.
Besides my own personal minimalist preference, my decision to go with this kind of design was twofold. First, a design like this limits distractions from my content. I implemented features such as parallax scrolling on a few other designs but they felt the same each time: gimmicky, and a distraction from my writing. Since I’m actually covering a few different things in my research I want people to easily identify topics they’re interested in, and get to those pages as quickly as possible. The second reason centers around potential users of the website. I’m willing to bet that a large number of the visitors will be older folks who use antiquated computers with slower than ideal internet speed. So besides the minimalist look for aesthetics, the design has a practical purpose to reach the largest amount of users possible.
Museum of Arts and Culture
Another factor in my decision of World War 1 for my project had to do with timing. The centennial of armistice day this November provided me with an opportunity for my work to receive more attention thanks to what will undoubtedly be a spike in public interest on the topic. Dr. Cebula connected me with the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture who, at the time, was thinking about possibly putting together an exhibit for the historic occasion come November. I was fortunate enough for them to not only decide to go ahead with the exhibit, but to choose a former classmate of mine, Logan Camporeale to lead it. Logan found some of the photos and veteran cards useful and will be able to use them in the exhibit.
I want to thank Richard Sola for his suggestions on some very important sources I’ve used, and also for speaking to me about the city during the war. It was extremely helpful when coming up with ideas for stories. I want to thank Riva Dean from the Spokane Public Library for being so accommodating during the multiple visits I made to the Northwest Room to scan the Spokane War Committee record cards and photographs. I want to thank Debbie Bahn, Lee Pierce, and Mary Hammer for training me how to digitize records and complete metadata for the archives and to prepare them for the public. I want to thank Dr. Cebula for his guidance on this project, for giving me critical feedback on my writing, and providing me with direction on how to take my content and implement it on a website.