History Day Resources for Students and Teachers at the Seattle Municipal Archives

The Seattle Municipal Archives is one of many Pacific Northwest repositories that preserve primary sources that may be used to research History Day projects. This guide points to some of the Archives' resources available for History Day researchers and suggests a few topics for which the Archives holds rich resources.

Records in the Seattle Municipal Archives illuminate the history and activities of Seattle City government and its elected officials, as well as citizens' communications with their government. From 1869 to the present, the City's interaction with its citizens are outlined in petitions, initiatives, meetings, and letters. The dialogue among City employees regarding their jobs and responsibilities is reflected in the historical record as well, through reports, memoranda, maps and photographs. From the rights of citizens to introduce or amend new laws to the responsibility of elected officials to act ethically, records in the Seattle Municipal Archives illuminate the ongoing effort to make Seattle a better place to live and work.

History Day is an exciting way to study history and to learn just what it is that historians do and how they do it. Visit the National History Day website for additional information about the program and helpful answers to frequently asked questions.

The following links suggest some ideas for research and provide a primer on how to use the resources of the Seattle Municipal Archives. Also see our Archives 101 section for more information about primary sources, finding aids, and archives.

Tips on Doing Research

The following tips are helpful to consider when conducting archival research at the Seattle Municipal Archives, or any other archival facility.

  • Always call or email to make an appointment.
  • It is helpful to have conducted your secondary source research before coming to the archives.
  • You should narrow your topic as much as possible before coming to the archives. Having a clear idea of your topic will make your research time at the archives more efficient.
  • Learn how to use the archives' online databases and guides.
  • Discuss your topic with the archivists! They are there to help you.
  • Materials in the archives are organized differently than in a library; they are arranged by department or office. It is helpful to think about which office would have created the records you are looking for.
  • The archives is located within the Office of the City Clerk, making it easier to research legislative history.
  • One cubic foot of records contains approximately 2,500 pieces of paper. The Archives contains millions of pieces of paper.

Using the Seattle Municipal Archives Databases and Guides

The Seattle Municipal Archives has produced several online databases to assist researchers in locating needed records. With the exception of the photograph database, the Municipal Archives databases tell you what is in the archives, but do not provide the text of records in an online format. You will need to visit the archives to see the materials listed in the databases. Note that each database search page includes a link to tips for making searches more efficient and productive.

Photograph Database
The Photograph Database provides access to more than 100,000 digital images dating from 1900 to 1984. Because the bulk of the images in the archives are negatives, this database provides the best access to them. The majority of images are indexed by subject. They can be searched by keyword or subject, time period, and neighborhood. This database does not represent all of the photographic holdings of the Archives and images are continually being added. Please contact the Archives if you do not find what you are looking for, especially for dates after 1950.

Records Series Database
The Record Series Database provides a broad description of over 1,000 records series preserved in the archives, dating from 1869 to the present. A record series is a unit of records filed together because they serve a similar function or activity. For example, City Council Minutes or Parks Superintendent Correspondence comprise two separate record series. The Record Series Database is very useful for determining whether or not the records of a specific City agency are held by the Archives.

The database also provides information about subjects in the records. For example, a search for "Police Department" finds 29 record series. However, only two of these series were created by the Police Department; the others, from different agencies, contain information about the Police Department.

From most record series, there is a link to a folder list, which provides file folder titles for the entire collection.

Subject Files Database
The Subject Files Database includes folder titles and dates for almost all of the file folders in all of the record series in the Archives. There are over 75,000 files folder titles included in the database.

The Subject Files Database is very helpful for determining the quantity of material available on a specific subject. For example, a search on the word "Skagit" results in 267 folder titles; a search for "Ross Dam" brings up only 30 titles, illustrating the importance of narrowing one's topic.

It is helpful to remember when using this database that folder titles are those used by the creator of the records and the titles are not subject indexed using a controlled vocabulary. It is helpful to search under synonyms. For example, a search for "dumps" yields different results than "landfills."

Documents Database
Published and widely disseminated reports and studies are cataloged, indexed, and preserved in a government documents collection. The Documents Database can be searched by author, title word or subject. It is useful for looking at studies and reports on a specific subject. For example, a search on "comprehensive plan" yields 124 documents, indicating it would be helpful to refine the topic by neighborhood or time period.

Most of the documents in this collection date from the 1970s to the present. However, there are a significant number of older documents dating back as far as 1896.

Legislative Databases
The Office of the City Clerk maintains online databases to legislative records, including Ordinances, Resolutions, and Clerk Files. The Clerk's site also includes databases for the current City Charter and the Municipal Code.

History Day Topic Suggestions

The following are some broad topic ideas that could be researched at the Seattle Municipal Archives, along with related resources available in the archives. However, topics are limited only by your interests and imagination. Think about what is important to you in the City of Seattle and then frame your own topic!

Narrowing your topic to make it appropriate for a History Day Project is one of the most important steps in the research process. Before you begin, take a look at the resources available online about doing primary research.

Clean Water

What does clean water mean to you? Clean water from a tap in your house? Clean water to swim in? Clean water for wildlife?

We do not think very much about water supply unless there is a drought. We take it for granted that we can wash clothes, take a shower, water the lawn, or get a drink of water in our homes or apartments. However, for early Seattle residents, the right to a dependable and clean water supply was an important issue and not a right they could take for granted.

Water quality is a broad topic and you will need to narrow your research to the aspect that interests you most. Pollution issues in Elliott Bay or Lake Union can be studied, as can the use of Green Lake and Lake Washington for swimming. You could also focus on the early 1900s and the context for the decision the City made to use the Cedar River as its water supply.

Examples of questions you might ask:
What were some of the water related issues for citizens in the 1890s? Did requests for water come from a specific neighborhood or part of the City? Where did drinking water come from? How did water get from its source to peoples' homes and businesses? How did the City meet its responsibility to provide clean water in the 1890s and what were some of the issues it struggled with?

Sources at the Seattle Municipal Archives:
General Files
City Council Minutes
Water Department Annual Reports
City Charter
Maps of Seattle
Myra Phelps, Public Works in Seattle, 1875-1975

World Trade Organization Meeting in Seattle

In November and December 1999, demonstrators took to the streets, protesting the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle. The encounters between the Seattle Police Department and the demonstrators surprised many. Despite well-publicized planning to shut down the WTO meetings, police appeared by some to be ill-prepared for the large number of demonstrators, and clashes between police and demonstrators became violent.

Examples of questions you might ask:
Why were people demonstrating against the WTO meeting? How could the encounter between law enforcement personnel and demonstrators be characterized? What planning took place to prepare for the demonstrations? What role did the press play? How could the demonstrators be characterized? How many different levels of government were involved in law enforcement? How could the exchange between citizens and its City government be characterized after the WTO meetings were over?

Sources at the Seattle Municipal Archives:
WTO Accountability Review Committee Records and Timeline - 13,500 documents were cataloged by the Committee. The database is available online; the records themselves are located at the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Homelessness

There have been homeless people in Seattle since the city was incorporated in 1869. City government has viewed the homeless in different ways throughout its history. From vagrancy and public nuisance laws in the 19th century to burning the Hooverville during the Great Depression to opening City Hall as a place to sleep during winter, the city has taken many approaches to dealing with the issue.

Researching this long-standing problem would probably best be done by selecting a specific time period to study.

Examples of questions you might ask:
What has the City accepted as its responsibilities in caring for the homeless? Have proposed solutions changed over time? Have City actions made a difference? What other organizations have worked with the homeless? Where have the homeless slept and eaten?

Sources at the Seattle Municipal Archives:
City Ordinances (Laws of the City)
Clerk Files (Legislative History)
City Documents
City Council Records
Health Department Annual Reports

The Seattle Model City Program

In response to urban problems of poverty and race in the United States, Congress passed legislation in November 1966 to initiate a demonstration effort known as the Model Cities Program. The program was designed to encourage cities to develop a concerted attack on social and economic problems as well as physical decay. Seattle was the first city chosen to receive federal funds. The Seattle Model City Program (SMCP) ended in 1975.

SMCP explored solutions to a wide range of social and economic problems. The participants encountered a variety of different experiences.

Examples of questions you might ask:
What was a key feature of the SMCP? To what extent did SMCP involve city, state, and federal agencies? How was the Model City neighborhood defined? What solutions for social and economic problems were explored? Which programs were most successful? What were some of the frustrations for those in the SMCP? Pick one of the seven city-wide Task Forces and follow it through the SMCP program.

Sources at the Seattle Municipal Archives:
Seattle Model City Program Records:
     Walter Hundley Correspondence
     Department of Housing and Urban Development Correspondence
     Scrapbooks and Newspaper Clippings
     Reports, Studies and Evaluations
     Citizen Participation Division Files
     Advisory Council FilesTask Force Minutes
     Branch Office Files
     Project Monitoring Files

Records of the Office of the Mayor
Wesley Uhlman Mayoral Records

Other ideas
There are an almost unlimited number of topics that could be explored at the Seattle Municipal Archives. A few additional ideas include:

  • Fair employment
  • Noise (whether cowbells or construction)
  • Motion picture and theater censorship
  • Women's rights
  • Open housing
  • Public morality laws
  • The Bogue Plan for a new civic center
  • Women in the Fire Department
  • Prohibition
  • Public health services
  • Forward Thrust
  • Ethics and elections laws
  • Renters' rights
  • Urban renewal

Feel free to contact the archives for more ideas or to find out whether there are SMA collections on another topic you're interested in.