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ASU archivist makes Japanese Internment Camp Collection digitally accessible

Robert Spindler says publicly available, searchable resources allow a new look at a dark chapter of U.S. history

Robert Spindler

June 08, 2017

Uncomfortable as it may be, one way to avoid the mistakes of the past is to confront them — one of the reasons preservation of historical documents is so important, said Arizona State University archivist Robert Spindler.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order that cleared the way for the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, a dark chapter of U.S. history that underscores the fact that xenophobia is not a recent phenomenon.

During the past couple of years, Spindler (pictured above) has helped to digitize a rare collection of newsletters and photographs from Arizona’s Japanese internment camps. The collection, a collaboration between the ASU Library Arizona Collection and the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, contains more than 5,000 pages of bilingual camp newsletters, now publicly available and text-searchable via the ASU Library Digital Repository.

“Over the decades, there’s been a fair amount of scholarship and exhibit work and historical interpretation done regarding the Japanese internment camps,” Spindler said. “But having this content searchable enables more research; a new look at this history.”

The collection tells the everyday life stories of the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans interned in Arizona’s two campsMore than 13,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center, southeast of Phoenix on the Gila River Indian Reservation, and more than 17,000 were sent to Arizona's other internment camp, the Poston Relocation Center on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. for three years during one of our country’s most difficult periods.

There are stories of baseball games, prom dresses and church services — and stories of soldiers who fought bravely for a country they loved “despite the great tragedy of internment,” as Spindler put it.

“There is deep and amazing patriotism expressed in these pages,” he said. “[Despite] the separation of families … and the loss of their businesses, the loss of their homes … they endured, and they pulled together as a community. That shows what it’s really like to be a patriot, to be a person who still believes in your country, even though the chips are down … and, in this extreme case, you’ve been unjustly incarcerated. That is real patriotism, and that, in my mind, is the greatest story here.”

When Spindler began working on the project in 2015, he had a massive amount of digitized image files that needed to be shrunk in order to be presented online in a user-friendly way. He taught himself how to use Adobe Acrobat to shrink the files and used the software’s optical character recognition feature to make the scanned images text-searchable.

“It’s really basic digital librarianship, but from a user standpoint it’s transformational,” he said. “Now you can search for your family members, or search for information about schools, or information about the baseball teams, or the other day-to-day things that are featured in these papers.”

Having the collection available online also reduces the handling and associated degradation of the physical copies of the newsletters and photographs.

An important aspect of the collection, Spindler said, is that it honors ASU and its partners’ commitment to open access.

“There are some organizations who have business models where they digitize materials and they try to generate revenue from the result of that work. Sometimes that’s the only way you can get this work done,” he said. “Then there are other institutions that can build collaborations that are dedicated to open access to material.

“So our work here at ASU has centered largely around trying to clear the rights for materials and to make materials open access. What that means, in a very practical sense, is that when you go to our site, not only can you download and search these materials but you could also repurpose this content in any way you choose.”

One thing about the collection Spindler found especially intriguing were the pages of the newsletters that are in Japanese.

“I’m really interested to find out what they were saying,” he said, adding that figuring that out “would be an outstanding graduate student project or faculty research project. But ultimately, anyone globally can work with this material, which is part of the fun of doing this work.”

Collection highlights also include cartoons from the newsletters and special holiday editions. Spindler and colleagues have been gradually acquiring more materials over the years, and he said there’s a possibility they may reach out to the Arizona Historical Society in Papago Park, which has a color motion-picture film documenting the construction of the camps that would make a nice addition.

“So there’s still some other materials we can bring forward to make this a richer collection,” he said, “but ultimately I hope the project honors the sacrifice, honors the community and maybe in some small way apologizes for the terrible injustice of internment.”

Top photo: Rob Spindler, the archivist of special collections at ASU's Hayden Library, looks over copies of the Gila News-Courier in the Luhr's Reading Room on May 4. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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