A mural on the Densho building features a wheatpaste of a large-scale printing of a photo by Dorothea Lange from the Densho Archives. Art by Densho artist-in-residence Erin Shigaki.

Densho is a digital history organization that documents the WWII incarceration experience of Japanese Americans in hopes of advancing social change today. Our archives include some 50,000 photos, documents, and ephemera, as well as nearly 900 oral history interviews with survivors of Japanese American incarceration, all of which can be accessed and downloaded. Our online offerings also include an encyclopedia, a resource guide and curriculum for educators, and a blog that helps the general public and community members alike connect more deeply to our archival material.

Densho’s archives and other digital offerings exist alongside longstanding partnerships with our community — both in Seattle and beyond — and close relationships with scholars, artists, and the media. We exist to empower, inspire, and help share the voices of the underrepresented. As a result, we depend upon relationships of trust, reciprocity, and respect with the community in which we work. While this is a complex process that we are continually learning from, listed below are a few underlying tenets of the approach we have come to think of as our “Community Model.”

Location Matters

When attempting to build a house, one must truly begin at the bedrock. Having our physical office located in the outskirts of the historic Seattle Nihonmachi grants our staff the ability to become inspired and involved with some of the locations from which we have related collections. Many of our staff members have personal, family ties to the area.

Densho’s offices are adjacent to the historic Seattle Buddhist Temple, pictured here in 1914. Courtesy of Densho’s PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection (number 83.10.9235), Museum of History & Industry.

This location grants us the ability to interact with the strong Japanese American community in Seattle. Additionally, staff and volunteers have the opportunity to have personal connections with the legacies that we help preserve. Sharing these spaces and stories adds a deep level of intimacy and commitment to the handling of a collection. Furthermore, it opens the doors to the cultivation of strong partnerships with like-minded peers and institutions who might possess an entirely different set of expertise.

Being able to work with long-standing institutional pillars of the Seattle Asian American community such as the Wing Luke Museum, Nisei Veterans Committee, and the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington grants us tools, resources, and audiences that we would struggle to attain single handedly. Lastly, with our historically diverse neighborhood becoming increasingly threatened by gentrification and development, the decision to locate and keep our physical collection in an area of relevance to our materials sends a powerful statement to both those who would participate in the erasure of our local community’s rich history and those who so actively help in its preservation.

Just as we nurture our Seattle roots, we also work to cultivate strong connections with our community outside of Seattle. Our archives include material from across the US and beyond, and they represent partnerships we’ve developed with individuals and organizations like the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Japanese American National Museum, Oregon Nikkei Endowment, and dozens of other universities, archives, and local history organizations. While we can’t replicate the rootedness of our Seattle connections, we try to foster that same spirit of commitment and accountability in all of our partnerships.

Process and Access

Staying economically and physically grounded in an area also impacts how we receive collections. Oftentimes, potential donors find us after being referred by other institutions or individuals who have worked with us to preserve their own family’s personal history. There is something truly powerful about being able to show a donor the actual room that their heirlooms were digitized in. It is also extremely helpful to have a network of peers on hand who can assist in identifying unknown aspects of a collection under review.

Densho Digital Archivist Caitlin Oiye Coon, former Densho Assistant Digital Archivist Cameron Johnson, and Executive Director Tom Ikeda look over a box of historical materials with Frank Sato (center) on the morning of his oral history interview. These materials have now been digitized and are available online in the Frank Sato Collection.

The narratives we preserve are undeniably part of a living history. We see this as much in the stories we capture in oral histories as in the current events unfolding around us. And because we are deeply engaged with our community, we are constantly reminded that we don’t own this living history so much as help preserve and make it available for the greater good. This belief guided our decision to make all of our materials available for free in our online Digital Repository and, when possible, to allow for Creative Commons licensing for non-commercial usage of those archival materials. By the same token, we respect our narrators’ wishes when they want us to redact parts of their oral histories or sensitive information from their donated archival materials.

Being a repository for a marginalized group’s story and identity is an inherent act of discursive power, and we, as an organization, gain and retain the trust of those we represent by maintaining a constant feedback loop of accountability and flexibility. With this in mind, we consistently value and include the donor and community’s wishes in our decision making process.

Culture of Sharing

Giving up the proverbial “reins” in the service of fostering a sense of trust and integrity within your community requires a platform that affords others the chance to actively participate and engage with the materials they are represented by. For that reason, a portion of our effort at Densho goes to the creation and maintenance of a publicly accessible, open-source software solution that we utilize for our digitization work. Importantly, we freely provide this tool to other cultural institutions looking to enter the world of digitization whilst avoiding the prohibitive costs of many archival software platforms.

Correspondingly, we actively encourage feedback and participation in the development and analysis of our tools, the majority of which are found here. The decision to build our digitization system based on the Git model was made out of a desire to ensure free, continual access to archival tools. This open access ethos is necessary for sustainable support of groups for whom access to funding is never a guarantee. A willingness to encourage, enable, and even train your peers in the collection process makes for an enjoyable and meaningful engagement with the materials one holds and creates.

Activating Archives

As part of our mission to “inspire action for equity,” Densho is increasingly engaged in endeavors that connect the Japanese American WWII experience to current events and to other related histories. We organize direct actions and letter writing campaigns, participate in rallies and marches, and don’t shy away from using our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter channels as platforms for speaking out. Our education program is currently focused on highlighting the intersections of Japanese American and Black history and offers educators free tools for using primary sources to lead critical conversations about racism and discrimination in the classroom.

Densho staff and volunteers march in the 2018 May Day Parade. They hold a banner signed by community members at an event organized by Densho on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

We are also finding new ways to engage the arts to promote conversations about history and civic engagement. In 2018, we launched an artist-in-residence program that funded Yonsei and Gosei (fourth and fifth generation Japanese American) artists as they used our archives to create murals, digital art, films, and music that promotes racial and social justice today. In October, we organized an event that featured Japanese American and Indigenous artists who treat intergenerational trauma as a form of haunting. The event, held at the Seattle Public Library, featured a film screening, poetry, and open discourse about the role of art in healing from historical trauma.

Our deep ties to our community inform this outreach work and they embolden us to use our archives as a source of empowerment and allyship.

We are always learning and evolving, but we keep three beliefs at the center of our archival practices: First, a repository or institution focused on the empowerment of the community it represents should have the simple yet irresolute goal of sharing. Second, everyone has the capacity to learn, participate, and grow through interaction with primary source materials. And, last but not least, we will continually strive to respect and amplify the voices of the community represented in our collections.

While our collections process is unusual for our field, we hope that the model we have developed for prioritizing community and individual stakeholders serves as an inspiration for others.

By Cameron Johnson, Former Densho Assistant Digital Archivist and
Natasha Varner, Communications and Public Engagement Director

An earlier version of this article appeared at www.densho.org.