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Digital archives bring history up to date

Sun., Oct. 5, 2008

74 million records available on Web site

To research the brief political career of William Williams – a candidate for Lincoln County sheriff in 1894 – Nancy Ellis turned to her computer.

Washington State Digital Archives helped her track down the relevant facts. Williams ran on the Populist ticket, won the election, but was never sworn in.

The county commissioners “didn’t like the deputies he appointed,” said Ellis, a Lincoln County Historical Society volunteer who’s working on a book about local sheriffs.

About 74 million records are available online through the state’s digital archives. People can look up marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, census data, military service, election data, property deeds and even old pictures. Chief Spokane Garry’s death certificate, for instance, is linked with a photograph.

“And that’s just the beginning, the first baby steps,” said State Archivist Jerry Handfield, who was in Cheney on Saturday for an open house of the digital archives, which are housed at Eastern Washington University.

The 74 million figure represents about 3 percent of the historic and contemporary records state officials hope to eventually put online. Coming soon: A database that will allow listeners to search 50,000 audiocassette tapes of Washington legislative hearings by topic. Microsoft is helping with the project.

Washington leads other states in its digital archives, Handfield said. The center received a $1 million Library of Congress grant to help seven other states establish their digital archives. The center is currently working with Colorado, its eighth state. Delegations from other countries also visit the center, to see how the system is set up.

On Saturday, the four-year-old center was as hushed as a library. Open house visitors spoke in low, reverent voices as they toured climate-controlled rooms filled with computer equipment. The tour also took them into the stacks, where paper archives from 11 counties are stored at 68 degrees, with 24 percent humidity.

The 1861 marriage registry of James O’Bryan and Susannah Finley is one of the older paper records. Both bride and groom were illiterate when they wed in what is now Stevens County. They signed with “X’s.” Archives Assistant Lee Pierce is working on a project to digitalize Spokane’s jail records from 1898 to 1901. The records provide a fascinating glimpse into local history, he said. The records reveal that prostitutes paid monthly fines of $10 to stay in business. Men arrested for running gaming operations paid $5 monthly fines.

The city took in $1,275 from prostitution and gaming fees during November 1898.

“That was big money for Spokane’s economy,” Pierce said.

The museum-like ambiance in the building doesn’t reflect the digital center’s true use, officials said. About 1,000 visitors log on each day to

“We’re one of the most visited archives in the world,” said Larry Cebula, assistant digital archivist. “Yet, it’s mighty quiet in here.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at

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