Anecdotes from the Archives

Terry Baxter, Archivist, Multnomah County Archives (photo by Giles Clement)Our guest blogger is Terry. Terry has worked as an archivist for 28 years, the last 15 with the Multnomah County Archives, and currently serves on the Society of American Archivists Council. He is also a proud card-carrying library user who empties the system of poetry and cookbooks on a regular basis.

Multnomah County is going to be 160 years old this year.  While no one is old enough (as far as we know, anyway) to remember those sixteen decades of history, there is a place where those stories are kept. The Multnomah County Archives, in the shadow of Mt. Hood and nestled between a gravel pit and a landfill, has been collecting, preserving, and providing access to the archives of Multnomah County government for 12 years.

Archives are the official records, usually unique and created to document actions and not as a purposeful historical narrative, of an organization preserved indefinitely because of their long-term research value.   In the case of the County Archives, this means records of the activities of Multnomah County’s government agencies. “How boring is THAT?” I can hear you saying right now.  

Map of the Multnomah County Poor Farm, 1938Well, maybe you’d like to see and read about the origins of McMenamins Edgefield as the County Poor Farm. Or watch a film of the 1948 flood that destroyed the second largest city in Oregon, Vanport.  Or see the plans for a professional baseball and football stadium in Delta Park. These and thousands of other records, documenting all aspects of the county and its interactions with its residents from 1854 on, are preserved by archivists for anyone to view and use. Archives have all sorts of tales to tell us about our individual and common pasts, about each other, and about ourselves.

1948 flood that destroyed Vanport, OregonArchivists love to connect people with these stories. Stereotypical views depict archivists as introverted Jocasta Nu’s, hiding in basements, hoarding piles of dusty files. If this was ever accurate, it certainly isn’t now (except the basement part!). Archivists are deeply concerned about context and connection. They locate and describe records and how they relate to the organizations that created them and then work to make those records as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. An archivist’s happiest moment comes when a person’s face lights up after finding something deeply meaningful in the archives.

Proposed stadium in Delta Park in the early 1960sArchivists are also collaborators who know they usually don’t have all the information in their archives that a person needs. There are a number of archives in Multnomah County (and across the rest of the world).  Many residents of Multnomah County are familiar with downtown Portland’s “History Row. ” Located within a short walk of each other on the south park blocks are the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland State University Archives, the Portland Archives and Records Center, and “Portland’s Crown Jewel” – Central Library and its wondrous John Wilson Special Collections.

So come visit, meet an archivist, and let the stories you find connect you to the voices, past and present, of others who have inhabited our county.

Contact:

Terry Baxter, archivist
Multnomah County Archives
1620 SE 190th Avenue
Portland, OR 97233
503.988.3741

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