Posted: May 31, 2018 -- letizia

Obituaries, especially ones from the early 1900s, have much to teach the living. WSU senior Liz Cairns knows because she scans newspaper obituaries from those decades for the Kimble Northwest History Database.

Working with obituaries might not seem like the best form of student employment, but Cairns says she loves reading them. “If it’s written down, it honors the person. It’s especially interesting when the person has lived a long time, to see all that they accomplished and how many lives they’ve touched.”

Cairns recounted the more interesting obituaries she has discovered in her work. One described how the deceased sat on President Abraham Lincoln’s knee as a child. More pertinent to her alma mater were the local obituaries of people associated with the university and whose names continue to live on in its architecture—Holland Library, Kimbrough Music Building, Wilson Hall. There were even impromptu lessons in epidemiology; pneumonia claimed many victims during this time.

Students like Cairns have a chance to learn about many aspects of Pacific Northwest history through their work on the database, a compilation of roughly 300,000 newspaper clippings collected and organized in the late 1930s by the Works Progress Administration to document life in the Pacific Northwest from 1900-1938. Subjects include Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams, mining, Native Americans, government, and much more.

WSU alumni Wallis and Marilyn Kimble provided a seed gift in 2001 to begin digitizing the clippings. Since then and with more support from the Kimbles, library staff and student employees, including Cairns, have scanned clippings, indexed entries, and entered description terms so researchers and others can search the database for specific articles.

In September 2017, Marilyn Kimble contributed additional funds so more students can be hired to work on the database with new equipment that will speed the project along.

“It will mean that even more of the database will be available to the public,” Kimble says. “The Northwest History Database has been well used. It is gratifying to see the monetary contributions used to great potential and far exceeds what we envisioned when my husband and I first committed funds to this project.”

The database is also important to Kimble because of its impact on WSU students who have worked on the project. They relate how it improves their own understanding of the history of the 1900s-1930s on so many subjects, she says.

“They often find they can use information they glean from the database in doing papers for their course work,” Kimble adds. “The work is flexible so students can set their own schedules, which is important to their own studies. The aspect of what it means to the student workers has been very rewarding to me and one not anticipated in the beginning stages of the project.”

“It’s really neat that Marilyn Kimble is entrusting us to help preserve this history,” Cairns says. “It’s an honor in a way that I get to do that. The fact that she wants students to do the work is really special.”

Much of Kimble’s desire to provide opportunities for student workers in the library stems from her own experience of working in Holland Library in the early 1960s as a student herself, which she says “brought much self-satisfaction.” At that time, though, the idea of working on an online database did not exist.

“No one had the understanding of what future technological changes would mean to a library, but technology has broadened the world, and the access individuals now have to material is astounding,” Kimble says. “I hope our changing world never sees the demise of a brick-and-mortar library, as I find the library is still a public gathering place and offers to all a secure location to access information.”

—Story by Nella Letizia