The astounding collection of materials in the Seattle Municipal Archives is available for anybody to use, however they want. For the past 31 years, it has been headed by Scott Cline.
Scott Cline remembers the creation of the Seattle Municipal Archives some 31 years ago.
“I went around to city agencies to see what they had kept … in the basement of a building, in people’s desks, what have you,” he says.
Sometimes it took some convincing.
Cline says it took a while to get Seattle Parks and Recreation to let go of framed originals of the Olmsted Brothers’ now-renowned plan for the city’s parks, which gave residents literally hundreds of vistas. Its primary goal was to locate a park or a playground within a half-mile of every home in Seattle.
Finally, Parks relented and took the framed drawings off the wall, and they were transferred to the archives.
At 66, Cline is retiring in August from the city archives, which he’s headed since they began in 1985 with a two-year federal grant for the preservation of historical records. The city is conducting a nationwide search to replace him.
“We hold him in the absolute highest regard,” says Marie McCaffrey, executive director of HistoryLink.org, which offers encyclopedic essays on the history of the state. “He led the way in organizing over a century’s worth of city records. Because of his early understanding of the potential of the internet, he helped Seattle become one of the first cities to provide its citizens with digital access to its history.”
“The city owns the copyright, and we could enforce the copyright if we wanted to, but we want to make this stuff as widely available as possible,” says Cline.
Before starting this city’s archives. Cline had worked at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. That two-year grant in Seattle evolved into a relatively small part of the city’s bureaucracy, with an eight-person staff, half-a-dozen volunteers and an annual budget of about $600,000.
Not art, but interesting
You never know what treasures you’ll find in those numerous records. Maybe there is some nugget in the 2,736 digital files of news releases from when Greg Nickels was mayor from 2002 to 2009. It’d be a stretch.
Nuggets are found, however, in the thousands of photos of city street projects.
For years the city had at least one staff photographer whose job it was to chronicle city projects.
“We have lots of paving photography,” says Cline. “It was basically industrial photography. It’s not fine art.”
But in those street-project pictures, what also shows up are people and cars and scenes that depict an era.
Plus, says Cline, a staff photographer such as Nick Cirelli understood the value of taking photos of who was living here and of the skyline as it changed.
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“They were great photographers,” he says. “They had an appreciation for the history of the city.”
Cirelli, now 77, had been a Coast Guard photographer when he began working for the city in 1969, retiring in 2000.
He remembers chronicling everything “from the Kingdome construction and destruction,” to taking portraits of politicians.
He remembers Mayor Norm Rice as his hardest subject. “He seemed impatient most of the time.” Cirelli got 5 minutes with him.
Mayor Charles Royer, who had been a TV commentator and had faced plenty of cameras, “was one of the best … he was very approachable and made people feel at ease.”
In cost-cutting, the professional photographers were replaced by digital cameras used by other employees, says Cirelli.
Ask Cline about the importance of archives and he replies, “If you walk down the street, you’re walking on a sidewalk paved by the city; you’re using city water when brushing your teeth; when you turn on the television it’s with electricity provided by City Light.”
Same old issues
Cline says an archivist soon sees patterns.
These days punks steal cars. In the 1890s they stole horses.
These days there is talk of lowering speed limits in neighborhoods. In the 1890s, there were complaints about speeding horses, says Cline.
These days there are complaints about noise pollution.
“Back then people were complaining that cowbells were too loud,’” he says.
An archivist figures out, “There are no new issues, just new facts on the ground.”