Remembering Lincoln in the Pacific Northwest: Washington State’s Civil War Read-In

Periodically, Ford’s Theatre features guest blog posts by our partners and advisors from the Remembering Lincoln project. This week, we feature a post by Dr. Lorraine McConaghy, a historian from Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Here she shares lessons learned from another public history project, the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Read-In.

Dr. Lorraine McConaghy.

A year ago – January 1, 2013 – I was looking ahead with a weird combination of eagerness and anxiety to the beginning of a crowd-sourced research project, the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Read-In.

We had recruited 300 readers, willing to commit to reading a difficult assignment, to gather evidence from it, to scan that evidence digitally and to upload the scan with a descriptive record. The evidence? Well, we were asking them to read digitized and microfilmed newspapers, hard-copy archival records and classic histories, combing these sources for references to Washington Territory’s experience of the antebellum, Civil War and early Reconstruction periods.

Washington Territory’s Civil War experience was fascinating. I’d published a biography of a slave and master in the territory, so as I prepared to curate the major exhibition Civil War Pathways in the Pacific Northwest, I knew enough to be sure there was much more to learn. There was more material to review than any one historian could possibly read in a lifetime—why not get some help and share the fun?

The Read-In was a public history project, designed to give away the skills of basic historical research and engage Washington residents in their history of the Civil War. The territorial topics included race and slavery, treason and secession, international relations with the Crown Colony of Victoria (now part of British Columbia, Canada), suspension of habeas corpus and suppression of anti-Lincoln newspapers, and involvement of settlers in the war itself.

If the Civil War was understood only as a regional war of battlefields, the Pacific Northwest had no part in it; if it was understood as a national war of ideas, then settlers fully participated in the debate.

There were no battles in Washington Territory, but there were fistfights, graffiti, civil disobedience, and noisy disagreement over convictions. And a significant number of settlers left everything behind to travel east and fight, whether for the United States or the Confederate States of America. The commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial gave us a national framework for the project and I was excited about what the readers would discover.

What had we hoped for and how did we do? We hoped to build the capacity and appreciation for historical research among ordinary people in Washington State. We hoped that fewer Washington residents would regard the Civil War as a set of distant events, in which settlers had no stake. We hoped to bring the collective expertise of hundreds of readers to bear on the curation of a major exhibit at the Washington State History Museum. We hoped to learn new things about the territorial Civil War. We hoped to build a searchable online database of primary source material that would be useful to researchers of every sort.

The first Read-In training was scheduled for Saturday, February 9, 2013, at the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle. We would  then host 10 additional trainings across the state, from Spokane to Vancouver, and from La Conner to Walla Walla. We hoped to register and train 30 people at each site in a day-long program that combined me teaching the basic Civil War narrative readers would need to understand their assignments, our web platform developer teaching the techniques of scanning, describing and uploading records to the queue, and our volunteer project coordinator organizing and distributing the assignments. We expected to train through mid-June, giving an assignment to each trained reader, and ultimately receive uploads of their records to a private archive platform, called Omeka, for editorial review and publication.

As the project unfolded, nearly every expectation that we’d had proved wrong.

Of the 280 readers who trained, nearly half could not finish their assignment. Some of our best readers found using the technology too difficult and others who found the tech easy, could not make sense of the difficult prose in the documents.

We had to do far more editing of submitted records than we had expected, and we eventually recruited three volunteer editors and one volunteer technical editor. I wished we had the resources to pay our volunteers, who were heroes.

Reader dropout negatively affected the comprehensiveness of our database – if a reader told us they’d only found two pieces of Civil War evidence in a three-month period in the 1864 Walla Walla Statesman or the Seattle Gazette, we knew they hadn’t been thorough, but what should we do about it?

We hadn’t set technical standards for scanning the newspapers, book chapters or other archival materials because we didn’t want to scare off our readers, so we ended up with a motley array of image file types and even verbatim transcriptions. We learned a lot in our Read-In boot camp about how to do it better. Nevertheless, in the end, it was a marvelous project.

It is another New Year and we’re working hard on editing the Read-In website, and expect to go public with 2700 records. Our exhibition Civil War Pathways opens at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma on February 17, with a workstation portal to the Read-In in the gallery.  I invite you to check out Civil War Pathways online. Try using a term like “assassination” or “Pacific Republic” in your search.

Also of interest, a major story about our efforts was published in the Seattle Times Magazine by Tyrone Beason, a Times journalist and one of the African-American readers in the Read-In. I’m hopeful that all we learned through this process will help to make Remembering Lincoln stronger and more useful.

Dr. Lorraine McConaghy is Public Historian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, Washington, and was project director for the Washington State Historical Society’s Civil War Read-In. She can be reached at Lorraine.mcconaghy@mohai.org.