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The Densho Archive: Harnessing the Power of Digital Media

By Deborah Matzner

The Densho Archive is a web-based collection of over 300 hours of video taped oral histories with Japanese Americans who lived through or witnessed the large-scale internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It includes more than 1,000 historical photographs and 1,000 digitized historical documents. The Archive contains interviews taken by Densho staff, digitized images of items from the collections of various museums and universities, and a growing collection of raw materials including interviews and B-roll produced by documentary filmmakers. Among the thousands of these items are newsletters written by and for camp detainees, signed copies of the infamous "loyalty questionnaires" that all detainees were forced to sign, home videos taken in the camps by inmates, and videotaped oral histories in which interviewees share their wrenching memories of childhood years in the camps. Over 150 gigabytes of invaluable information is stored on their servers and available to the general public. All of this is made seamlessly available on the website through common free software such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and Real Player.


During World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans, many of them US citizens, were forced into incarceration in detention camps. In the years following the war, this shameful period in American history was largely absent from U.S. history books and the public imagination. Thanks to the sustained efforts of Asian American Redress Movement, the incarceration was officially judged to be a violation of the Constitution by the 1980 Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. This decision led to the dedication of funds for public education that contributed to a proliferation of scholarship, documentary films, literature, and museum exhibitions..


Densho a Seattle-based nonprofit, sprang from this movement. Named for the Japanese term meaning "legacy," Densho began in 1996 as a community effort to videotape interviews with Japanese Americans in the Seattle area who had experienced incarceration during World War II