I’m part of a class project to create some new interpretive material for Fort Spokane and other sites around Lake Roosevelt. It can be a challenging space to research, because it brings together a lot of topics that don’t get very careful treatment in the written record: Native Americans children’s lives in the boarding school system, the fate of an abandoned fort, and a lot of towns that are literally underwater today. It’s an occasion to flex our research skills, and it’s also an occasion to take stock of what’s out there.
I found great sources early on through the University of Washington Library collection “Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest.“ I found it while I was looking for sources on the orchard at Ft. Spokane, through a google search for Indian boarding schools and Spokane. The front page doesn’t give much of a hint to the depth of the collection, but within a few clicks I found a 1902 report by the school’s superintendent, in which he wrote about planting the orchard and the condition of the trees. Like many online collections, I think this one suffers from a front page that offers few hints at the total shape of the collection, but the content is there, for those who are willing to dig for it.
I had a similar stroke of good luck with a page on the Washington State Library website , with a special edition of the Valley Tribune from 1908. The paper described the way a new irrigation system made the land better for farming, and gave a hint of how the area around Kettle Falls was trying to entice migration from elsewhere. I did check the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site to see if I could find more newspapers from the area, but didn’t have much success with it. I appreciate a good “advanced search” option, but I didn’t find the one on Chronicling America especially helpful; it exposed a lot of options that I’d expect a good plain-language search to take care of behind the scenes, and really didn’t help me make my searches more specific, in this case.
Google Books seems to have a special place in early arguments over the role and meaning of digital history. As digital historians on the order of Dan Cohen have noted, the project had a tremendous value to researchers for the brief moment it offered its full library to the public for free. Today (like many Google products,) it’s a strange compromise between the many roles it’s taken on. I gave it a search, and found plenty of books that are on-topic. But limiting that search to “full view only” whittled it down to a fairly useless collection of public-domain documents. Searching for published books is a valuable feature, but I think Worldcat does a better job of it, since it connects with library catalogs to actually find copies.
I have to add that one of my favorite digital resources is email. While I was researching that irrigation system, I found a company in Colorado with the same name as the contractor on that project. I poked through their website for clues, but eventually sent an email to a PR contact, and got a helpful response within the hour. A classmate and I were curious about a stone monument on the site of St. Paul’s Mission, too, and sent a couple of emails to local Kiwanis Club representatives. A day later, we had a great answer from an “old timer” who used to hunt ducks in the Marcus Flats and knew exactly the information we were after. The internet connects people, and sometimes the simplest connections are the ones that get the job done.