Every record tells a story, as Debbie Bahn, an archivist, knows firsthand.
Bahn, the first electronic records archivist at the Washington State Archives, spoke at Access and Preservation Day at RootsTech 2019. In her presentation titled “The Washington State Archives Online Patron Experience,” Bahn shared a few of the stories discovered in digital records, as well as how patrons can find their own stories in this archive.
The Washington State Archives Mission
The mission of the Washington State Archives is to preserve and provide access to born-digital and digitized records created by the state government. It takes great partnerships and great volunteers to make a digital archive successful. It also takes government agencies that are willing to transfer their records to the archives.
The digital archives website of the Washington State Archives opened in 2004. The searchable records online now number over 73 million, and another 183 million records have been preserved but are not yet online. From these records emerge millions of stories waiting to be discovered.
Every Record Tells a Story
The first story Bahn shared came from the earliest marriage record in their collection. “It is an imposter,” Bahn said. The marriage date of Laura Shaw and Evin Morgan is recorded as “Xmas 1843.” However, according to the license and certificate, the marriage didn’t actually occur until 1899.
Bahn shared another intriguing marriage record: the 1913 marriage certificate of King Corn and Queen Alfalfa. This wasn’t the marriage of two people with unique names, but an actual marriage between the two agricultural products corn and alfalfa. In the marriage certificate, the corn’s color or race was written as “white dent” (a type of field corn) and alfalfa as “green.”
Upon further inquiry, it was discovered that the marriage was meant to promote crop rotation. Planting alfalfa was a way to replenish the soil of corn farmers, which is why alfalfa’s occupation on the marriage certificate was listed as “Helping King Corn.” (Corn’s occupation was “Building up the Community.”)
Discovering Your Own Stories
People can find their own family history stories in the Washington State Archives. A first step is to visit the archive website and search records by name, keyword, or detail. Each collection has a unique set of fields that can be specified using the detail search.
On the website, you can also look at a record series. Hover the mouse pointer over Collections, and in the drop-down, click Record Series, which will take you to a page where you can select the series or collection on the left and the titles in the collection on the right. To read a description of a collection, select the About This Collection tab.
At the end of her presentation, Bahn encouraged attendees to “play around on our website.” Then let them know what you think. Contact the digital archives at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Debbie Bahn joined Washington State Archives in 2008 as the repository’s first electronic records archivist. She leads a team of archivists who acquire, preserve, and provide online access to scanned and born-digital records of Washington’s state and local government agencies. Debbie is also an adjunct instructor for the graduate program in history at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, where she teaches the digital archives graduate seminar.
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