Robert Spindler says publicly available, searchable resources allow a new look at a dark chapter of U.S. history
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as it may be, one way to avoid the mistakes of the past is to confront them — one of the reasons preservation of historical documents is so important, said Arizona State University archivist Robert Spindler.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.