As part of History Factory’s “Into the Archives” series, we interviewed Terry Baxter, archivist for the Multnomah County Records Managements and Archives Program in the Pacific Northwest. The conversation covered the history of the Multnomah County archives, trends in digitization, and the important work that Terry and his team are doing to preserve the history of Portland and the surrounding area. To learn more about archives, visit our blog.
Sam Grabel: Terry, you manage the Multnomah County archives. Can you tell us about the history of the archives?
Terry Baxter: The Multnomah County archives date back to a little bit earlier than the formation of the county, which was formed in 1854 The records, as I believe most government records do, become voluminous as time moves forward so that we have fewer records from the early days of the county. And then in 1913 or so, there was an administrative change that caused a lot more state functions to trickle down to county government. Then in 1967, Multnomah County became a home rule county, which means that it has its own legislative body and an executive body. That also expanded a lot of the county functions and, of course, the county archives and record keeping that went with that.
SG: What types of materials do you have in your archives?
TB: It’s a mix of documents. We have a lot of photographs, maps and plats. We have a small motion picture collection, which has all been digitized. A couple of them have been heavily used because they’re kind of unique. And we have a lot of microfilm. And then there is a growing body of more digital material. We have a digital archivist on our staff, four professional archivists, and two paraprofessionals that run our county records center.
SG: Talk a little bit about the digitization specifically. Is that a new initiative for your archives?
TB: Like a lot of small government archives, we’re not heavily funded. Digitization is something that we’ve prioritized but also put in the context of a budget that prioritizes staff over everything. We use a mix of digital management systems. Our digital archivist has been working really hard to put together a plan for how we can choose collections to digitize.
We’ve only been live for about six months. That was deed records, voter registration records, poor farm records and marriage records. We’ve been digitizing on demand for folks for reference.
The plan has been to do two things: We want to do description better and provide broader access. We’d like to get collections that either have a demonstrated desire to get access to the collection or one that we think people would probably want to use. That’s the matrix we’re using to put stuff together. We plan to evaluate that based on actual use.
SG: Can you explain a little bit about metadata and its function?
TB: The reason that we use it is to contextualize stuff that isn’t very accessible on its own. If you were to find a disc of photographs, that doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. If you put in the data—the date it was taken, who the photographer was, where it was taken, who the people are in the picture, and how it relates to other discs of photographs out there—all of a sudden, you have a lot more understanding about it and it becomes useful to you.
The metadata provides that information and turns it from a random chunk of data into something that’s more evidence-based. Most of the systems I’ve worked with now since archives have been pretty much computerized just do that on their own. But having an underlying understanding of why it’s there and what it’s really trying to do in the background is important. It lets people know where the stuff came from.
SG: And ultimately it makes everything more searchable?
TB: Yeah, I think that’s definitely a benefit of it. But the stuff there is, you know, it’s really visually oriented. There’s tons and tons of photographs, video, and all sorts of ways that we’ve been digitizing six boxes of VHS tapes that date back to the mid-’80s. It’s so cool, but it’s hard work.
The films that we have around the Vanport Flood are really unique, and they document a really important time in Portland’s history.
During WWII, they built two large shipbuilding plants here in Portland, one in Vancouver on the Washington side, and then one in Portland on the Oregon side. They were churning out all sorts of ships for the Navy, and that required bringing workers to Portland. At one point, Vanport had 30,000-40,000 people, which made it the second-largest city in Oregon. It was kind of slapped together in this bowl next to the Columbia River, which is now Delta Park.
The significant thing about Vanport is that it brought in close to 20,000 Black folks. And in 1948, on Memorial Day, the Columbia River flooded most of the area. But for Vanport specifically, sitting in a bowl with an 18-foot dike around it, when that dike was breached, it just filled up, and the entire city was washed out to sea. The casualties were fairly minimal for an event that size, but the main thing is that it forced a whole bunch of folks to move into Portland proper because there was no place to live.
All of a sudden, Portland’s Black population really swelled. And the documentation of that event is really powerful for a lot of narratives in this city. And then things that happened after that — the development of I-5, Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Legacy Emanuel Memorial Center, which basically just carved a big channel down the middle of the Black community and really forced it to displace around the rest of the city.
So there’s this short period of time — 1948 to about 1960, that’s a really impactful period. Those two films that we have were used in a couple of PBS documentaries. They’ve been used by a lot of other researchers. Just the documentation and the fact that you can still see this stuff is, I think, a really meaningful asset, and it’s really important for people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.