Donald Schmechel Oral History Collection

October is American Archives Month and we are celebrating with the completion of a new digital collection: the Donald Schmechel Oral History Collection.

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Donald Schmechel was a Seattle Public Library board member who, in the 1980s, created a project to interview prominent figures in Pacific Northwest History. Schmechel raised funding for the project, volunteered his time to manage it, and conducted interviews along with a crew of volunteers. The resulting oral histories were divided between the Seattle Public Library and the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).

The library’s collection includes interviews with individuals such as Dixy Lee Ray, Washington’s first female governor; Jacob Lawrence, an artist who was famous for his paintings celebrating black life and culture; and architect Victor Steinbrueck, who helped design the Space Needle and led efforts to protect Pike Place Market’s historic status. Interviewees share stories of their families, careers and experiences during significant historical events such as the Great Depression, World War II and the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Many of them reflect on the changes they witnessed as Seattle grew and provide detailed views of life in the city that reveal a more personal view of history than you often find in newspaper articles or history books.

Digitization of these videotapes was possible because of a partnership with Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound (MIPoPS). MIPoPs received a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which enabled them to reach out to the Library and several other community partners to help save their video collections. They also helped MOHAI to digitize their portion of Schmechel interviews through previous grant.

In total, we digitized 67 interviews. These interviews were spread across 198 Betacam, Umatic and VHS tapes and included 187 hours of content. The lifespan for magnetic media is, at a maximum, about 30 years. This means that media collections globally are now facing what archivists refer to as a “magnetic media crisis” where video housed on magnetic tape (like VHS) is at risk of deteriorating past the point of saving. The Schmechel interviews were created in mid- to late- 1980s, making it imperative that we act quickly to preserve them.

All the interviews can now be streamed online and are available to view and share at any time. You can access the interviews through both the library’s digital collections and through MIPOPs’ Internet Archive website.

~ posted by Jade D.

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