Tag Archives: National Archives

Market Space

Space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical.

-Richard White

Drawing upon Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of SpaceRichard White provides this definition of space in What is Spatial History? and challenges historians to think about change over both time AND space as they practice history.

I am currently researching Center Market, Washington D.C.’s oldest and largest public marketplace. The market was located on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1801-1931 until it was demolished to make way for the National Archives Building. I am using representations of space such as maps and blueprints to try to recapture a sense of a place that no longer exists.

Plan of the Interior of Center Market 83-G-8993

Plan of the Interior of Center Market, June 1924. Courtesy of the National Archives.

This ground plan shows the massive size of the market and even some of the diversity of activity, but it fails to capture the daily activities and use that really produced the market. Center Market was much more than a building. Although they were constrained by the built environment, people shaped the market space.

Photograph of the Interior of Center Market (83-G-672)

Photograph of the Interior of Center Market, April 21, 1923. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Photographs can give some sense of everyday life in the market; pictures capture the layout of the market, the goods that were sold, the people that shopped there and the clothes that they wore. Together these things inform us of the culture and experience of the past. When compared with representations of space such as maps or plans, they can also show surprising discrepancies. For instance, the official ground plan of Center Market only depicts the interior of the market. However, photographs show that Center Market’s exterior was just as bustling and crowded as its interior. Farmers’ wagons, trucks, and automobiles lined the curb outside of the market selling fresh country produce.


Photograph of the Farmers Line Outside of Center Market  (83-G-16314)

Photograph of the Farmers Line Outside of Center Market. Courtesy of the National Archives.

The very name ‘Center Market’ hints at the importance of space and movement. The market originally earned the name because it was easily accessed via the main roads and waterways of the city of Washington. Center Market was located in the ‘center’ of a very different Washington D.C. To get a better idea of the change, take a look at this map of the city of Washington D.C. in 1861 compared to 2014. The ‘center’ of Washington D.C. has changed from being a vibrant public marketplace to a monumental core of official government buildings.

It is worth repeating: space is, “something that human beings produce over time…Space is itself historical”

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District of Columbia War Memorial

DC War Memorial

The District of Columbia War Memorial circa 1936. Lantern Slide Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The District of Columbia War Memorial is one of the lesser-known sites on the National Mall. Built by the residents of Washington D.C., the Doric temple honors the 499 local men and women that died in service during World War I. It is a beautiful memorial and it tells important stories about individual sacrifice, community mobilization, and national memory.

Researching these stories has led me all over D.C.: from the Library of Congress to the National Archives; from the Historical Society of Washington D.C. to the DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division.

I have been organizing my research using the online tool Zotero. Check out some of my early research on the Memorial here:  https://www.zotero.org/groups/dc_world_war_memorial/items

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A Capital Market

"Front View of 7th Street Entrance to Center Market"

Washingtonians of all ages and backgrounds pass Center Market in 1922.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Current Washingtonians might not recognize the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. in the photograph above. This corner of Pennsylvania Avenue used to be home to Center Market, Washington D.C.’s largest public market. What was once a bustling and vibrant marketplace is now part of Federal Triangle, a monumental core of white marble government buildings centered on a majestic and magnified National Mall.

But long before the monuments and the marble, there was a Market. In 1797, President George Washington designated two acres in the heart of Washington City for use as a public marketplace. For the next 134 years, Center Market was a Washington D.C. landmark on Pennsylvania Avenue, until it was demolished in 1931 to make way for the National Archives Building.

 “The great focus of interest, the one-time social center, place of endless entertainment, is gone and can never be restored…Another generation will have no concept of the significance of the site on which they stand.”
Sunday Star, May 17, 1931.

I found this quote while researching Center Market last semester.  I took it as a challenge to recapture something of the significance of Center Market through photographs of daily life at the market.I created an online exhibit using Omeka.net for a class on Visual and Material Culture:  Market Forces

A word cloud of the script from my first web exhibit for a Visual and Material History class

A word cloud of the script from my first web exhibit for a Visual and Material History class

Despite my best intentions, the web exhibit did not accomplish all of my goals. There are many, many ways that I would improve the website. Omeka.net did not allow me to make my own customizations to the website. The organization of the exhibit flows poorly. The section descriptions are hidden on the exhibit home page and are not integrated into the exhibit. The layout options for each section are limiting, forcing me to either cram too much text next to the pictures or leave uncomfortable white spaces at the top of the page. Most of all, I was frustrated with the photograph display. The Omeka.net site simply links the image back to the catalog description page. The ideal photograph display should be interactive; users should be able to engage with the photographs, enlarging images and zooming in on areas of interest.

Luckily, I am getting another chance to interpret Center Market’s fascinating history. I will work with the History Office at the National Archives and Records Administration to create an online exhibit for the History Office webpage.

The largest component of this project will be the creation of the web exhibit. I will design and code this website myself using Dreamweaver. The website will be hosted by http://www.nara.gov. I have been tasked to only  use sources from the National Archives, so I will need to do additional research to find new primary sources.

There is also a digitization and public access component to this project. As I discover new records at the Archives that have not been digitized, I will scan and enter the records into the Archives’ Online Public Access database. I will also be uploading a gallery of Center Market Photographs to the National Archives History Offices’ Flickr account.

This project will combine many of the skills and challenges that we have been discussing in my New Media class this semester and I cannot wait to share the final results with you all!

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“Against Forgetting”: Historians’ Role in Digital Preservation

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” -Milan Kundera

This is now the fourth time that I have been assigned to read Roy Rosenzweig’s seminal article, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.”  The first time that I read the article, I was an undergraduate historian struggling to understand how this technical problem could really affect me or my future career.

Now I am a public history graduate student, deeply interested in digital history, and interning at the National Archives where I am part of a team working to preserve the Archives’ in-house photographs that are not scheduled to be accessioned as permanent government records. While my own perspective has changed drastically over the years, each time that I read this article, I am able to find new insights and inspiration from the work.

Despite the fact that the article is now over a decade old, the problems that Rosenzweig outlines are still of very much concern for historians today. The digital era has created an abundance of sources; from email, to electronic records, to tweets, digital content is exploding rapidly. Yet, at the same time, the digital era also poses the threat of “a future of record scarcity”; rapidly changing technology and the ephemeral nature of the internet pose problems to preserving born-digital records. Floppy disks and computer tapes might not be readable by future technology and all of the vibrant user-generated content that exists on the internet could be lost when websites shutdown or companies fail. In the years since Rosenzweig published this article, no one has made a radical breakthrough towards solving this problem. In fact, the advent of cloud computing and the continued growth of electronic records has only complicated the situation even further.

At one point in the article, Rosenzweig mentions the National Archives and Record Administration’s Electronic Records Archive as a possible solution to the preservation crisis. The ERA was an ambitious program that, in the words of former archivist John W. Carlin, “will be able to preserve any kind of electronic record, free it from the format in which it was created, retain it indefinitely, and enable requesters to read it on computer systems now in use and coming in the future.”

Unfortunately, development on the ERA stopped in 2011 with many of its larger goals unmet: most ERA content is not available to the public through the Online Public Access system, there is no function for content-based search of electronic records, and most disappointingly, the electronic preservation processing function does not allow records to converted from one format to another. By these measures, the ERA project could be considered a failure.

Yet, part of the beauty of Rosenzweig’s call to action is that he rejects any “perfect” solutions. Perhaps the original goals for the ERA were merely too lofty. As the National Archives is quick to point out, the ERA provides, “safe storage of the original bits, and the capture of technical, provenance and event history metadata.” That is a start. As Rosenzweig eloquently puts it, “We have never preserved everything; we need to start preserving something.

Historians need to do their part by thinking actively about preservation of their own work, of their sources, and of the public goods that they manage. We may not have “the” solution to this problem, but we need to start experimenting with finding “a” solution. And maybe that is enough.

For now.

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