Densho Digitization Preserves Internment History

3 min read
  • Information Technology
  • Document & Records Management

One of the saddest parts of history is losing individual voices. The Densho digitization project is working to preserve those voices from a particular period in American history.

In response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government in spring 1942 set up a series of internment camps in the central U.S. to house more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans—including American citizens—who lived near the West Coast, out of concern that there would be sabotage. The camps lasted until 1945, when they began to close. In 1988, then-President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology, offering $20,000 in reparations to each camp survivor, in response to a multi-year protest from the Japanese-American community known as the redress movement.

The concern at that time of the redress movement was to apologize to the community before the surviving population passed away. That same concern led to the formation of the Densho project, which has the goal of collecting video oral histories from the survivors while they were still alive, as well as digitizing the records of the camps, so that information could continue to be used as primary research sources. The organization’s video interviews, which are also transcribed, can be streamed; work is also underway to make them downloadable. The organization is also putting clips of the oral histories on YouTube.

Thus far, the Densho Digital Archive and Digital Repository consist of 901 interviews with 816 narrators, comprising 1779 hours of video, as well as 12,228 photos, documents, and newspapers. The material is tagged with metadata that helps researchers find the information they want. It also includes an online encyclopedia to explain concepts, a discussion on terminology, and a blog.

Densho is a Japanese term meaning “to pass on to the next generation,” according to the Seattle nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1996. “The legacy we offer is an American story with continuing relevance,” the organization explains. “Densho uses digital technology to preserve and make accessible primary source materials on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. We present these materials and related resources for their historic value and as a means of exploring issues of democracy, intolerance, wartime hysteria, civil rights and the responsibilities of citizenship in our increasingly global society.” Densho also works with individual camps to help them digitize their records.

The effort is similar to other ones that have endeavored to capture historical records, particularly of everyday people. For example, scanning a set of World War II servicepeople photos owned by a Mechanicville, N.Y. restaurant meant that everyone could see them. The U.K. National Archive is also crowdsourcing the digitization of diaries from World War I servicepeople.

Capturing these records, particularly the oral histories, is significant because many of the interned people never talked about it, even with their families or children. Without Densho’s efforts, this history could have been lost. The project is funded through donations and grants and has received a number of awards, including the American Library Association’s Online History award.

The organization promotes other media as well as oral histories. For example, earlier this year Densho exhibited a collection of pictures by famed photojournalist Dorothea Lange about the Japanese internment. Nature photographer Ansel Adams was also hired to take pictures. Internment residents themselves were not allowed to have cameras.

“Lange, known primarily for her photographs of Dust Bowl America during the Great Depression, was hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans,” writes Stephany Bai for NBC News. The U.S. government then embargoed the photos until 1972, when they were shown in an exhibit about the internment. They led to the formation of the redress movement, she adds.

Densho’s most recent effort, launched last fall, is the Names Project, a database of information about the Japanese-American internees that is based on two paper forms originally filled out for each internee family: Form WRA-26, upon their entry into the camps, and the Final Accountability Roster (FAR), about their departure. The WRA-26 forms were converted to punch cards in 1943 and converted to other forms several times since then, while the FARs were converted to microfilm.

The real beauty of the Names Project, though, is that the names will be cross-linked with the photos, oral histories, and other records Densho has about each of them. It’s similar to the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which is digitizing and cross-referencing Civil War-era documents about African Americans.

“When completed, the registry will allow anyone with an Internet connection to search names of prisoners and track their experiences through incarceration,” writes Sarah Stuteville in the Seattle Times. “They want to collate all of their collected information—oral histories, registry information and documents—and host it online.” As with other nonprofits digitizing historical information, Densho is working with volunteers to transcribe, “clean” and match all of the information, she adds.

With digitization projects such as Densho, the voices of history will never be silenced.

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