Internment/Incarceration: Exploring Archival Variance at the Digital Threshold

In my last post, I (re)conceptualized the notion of the archival threshold as a flow of both preservation and infrastructural logics. This post takes up these discursive musings and attempts to apply them to my own archival research, which centers on the Japanese Internment and digital representations of historical and cultural memory. As such, this post also acts as a companion piece to my starter kit on the Japanese Internment Camp and Critical Infrastructure Studies.


Throughout my previous post, I outlined the impending closure of the National Archives at Seattle and the damaging effect the relocation of holdings will have on its regional communities. While digitization may present as a corrective in this case, according to Susan Karren, the director of the facilities, roughly “.001 percent” of the one million boxes of documents are in electronic form.[1] David Rencher, Chief Genealogical Officer for Family Search, estimates that digitizing the holdings in full would take hundreds of years:

“Based on Rencher’s figure, then, in Seattle’s 56,000 cubic feet of materials, there would be roughly 112 million pages of documents. Rencher says that one person operating one scanner, working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, would be able to scan about 500,000 documents. Rencher calls this a “camera year,” and reckons that, under perfect conditions, the digitization in Seattle would take 224 of these ‘camera years.’”

Feliks Banel, “It Would Take Hundreds of Years to Digitize Records at Seattle National Archives”

This brief return to Seattle’s circumstances is necessary for two reasons. First, the variance between an archive’s physical and electronic holdings underlines the expense, resources, and deliberation required to digitize and migrate physical, archival material to an online infrastructure. According to its website, NARA’s current strategic plan includes digitizing “500 million pages of records and mak[ing] them available online by October 2024.” Yet, as the pressures in Seattle demonstrate, its hierarchy of digitization (i.e., what will be digitized when) – which ultimately determines its hierarchy of online access – remains unclear.

The second reason transitions us to the subject of this post: the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As the self-proclaimed keeper of the federal government’s holdings, , NARA oversees all ‘internment’ files spanning the period, including War Relocation Authority (WRA) files, military and case records, and internee indexes. Here I do not seek to discursively deconstruct NARA’s ‘internment’ collection and the WRA record, though this is research I have undertaken elsewhere. Rather, this post surveys the ‘internment’/incarceration online archive vis-à-vis how its platform(s), and infrastructural logics approach – or reconfigure – the tradional archival threshold.

National Archives, (In)Visible Thresholds

“It takes some digging to unearth the dramas inherent in system design creating, to restore narrative to what appears to be dead lists”

Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” 377
Research our Records: Japanese Americans; National Archives and Records Administration

Though digitally-based, NARA’s ‘internment’ holdings evoke traditional respect des fonds and the concept of archival bond in terms of its organizational logics. While the site provides an annotated list of what the entity considers its “records of particular interest,” each respective group is arranged via the administration or creating body in which it originated. As Jefferson Bailey underlines, respect des fonds “prioritizes the ‘organic’ nature of archival records, identifying the locus of their generation… as essential to preserving and maintaining context.”[2] Some of the records that NARA identifies as “of particular interest” are as follows:

  • War Relocation Authority (WRA) Records in Record Group (RG) 210
    • “An online database of internees is available, and case files may also be available. We recommend WRA records as the best place to start.”
  • WWII Alien Enemy Detention and Internment Case Files, Department of Justice (DOJ) in RG 60
    • “There is an alphabetical index searchable online.”
  • Compensation and Redress Case Files, Department of Justice (DOJ) in RG 60
    • “Partial searches can be done online.”
  • Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) Recordsin RG 220
    • “These records reflect the Commission’s 20 days of hearings and testimonies from more than 750 witnesses between July and December, 1981, nationwide, from people who had lived through the events of WWII.”
  • “… the searches you can perform in these record groups will prepare you for future research. You can then continue your research with records at the National Archives by visiting us in person, contacting us by phone or e-mail, or by hiring an independent researcher.”

While these groupings are electronically bonded through the list form, it bears noting that acquiring access to any particular record requires visiting each respective group (i.e., its originating administration) via a hyperlink to its individual page. Archive visitors are invited to “click here to proceed ” into each record group, only to again click-through its inventory of content. Arguably, such interactive pathways operate twofold. One on hand, they signify the traditional archival principles of “provenance, original order, and collective control.”[3] In a sense, each click-through to an individual page is its own ‘wander down’ the archive stacks of old. While there are pathways to be sorted through and explored, there are also paths with a higher threshold than others. These invisible paths come to the forefront through the list itself; qualifying terms and phrases like “partial” and “you can continue by…” subtly ensure some access while denying its entirety. Consequently, logics of the threshold remains omnipresent even through what appears as full public access.

On the other hand, these interactive pathways also function at the conceptual level. Through infrastructural separation, these lists prohibit site visitors from ever ‘taking in’ the ‘internment experience’ in any kind of comprehensive fame; while I can search the Database of Japanese American Evacuees for individuals, I cannot aggregate search results via grouping terms such as family name, state of residency, or even camp location. Those who may have had an “Alien Enemy Hearing” during this time period are not included in this database but rather solely in the Department of Justice records. Each individual (record) thus electronically exists as a standalone file in a singular location; here, one cannot be an “evacuee” and “alien enemy” at once, despite the ideological entanglement between the two definitions at the time.

Database of Japanese American Evacuees (Record Group 210)
M. Donald Nagai database search results; Database of Japanese American Evacuees (Record Group 210)

These files that are included in the Database of Evacuees are lists in of themselves, and the fields of entry include telling entry points such as “Birth Place of Parents,” “Number of Times in Japan,” and “Language.” Much like the files of many other “evacuees,” my grandfather’s recorded value set pertaining to the above categories tellingly reads as follows:

  • “Father=U.S. exc., Mother=U.S. exc.,”
  • “Never in Japan”
  • “Language Not Applicable (11 yrs. and under)”

It bears also noting that, as a child born in the camp, his sister is not present in any of these electronic databases. Her information is only obtainable through a written request form that must be completed and mailed to NARA’s Archives Reference Section in Washington, DC. This entanglement between paper and electronic holdings, representation, and access only further exemplifies the pragmatic limitations of NARA’s ‘accessible’ online presence.

(Digitally) Reconfiguring the Threshold

Entering “Japanese Internment archive” into Google all but guarantees NARA’s location at the top of the search list. However, recent years have seen a disengagement with the euphemistic language originally used by governmental forces and WRA materials. Consequently, inputting “Japanese American Incarceration archive” yields more productive results, displaying an array of options that capture different points of James Smithies’ global humanities cyberinfrastructure model.[4]

 This includes archival sites such as Bancroft Library’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Archive, its access host, Calisphere’s Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA), and Tessaku, a newer archive that features localized and familial oral testimonies, as well as resources that delineate how to best navigate NARA and “reclaim your family’s history from the  government archives.” More importantly, this revised search demotes NARA to Google’s second result. The first result – now prominently displayed through a Google Featured Snippet – features the Densho Digital Archives.

Densho was founded in 1996 by two former Microsoft employees who “saw the need to harness new personal computer technologies to record the World War II experience of Japanese Americans at a fraction of the cost.”[5] According to Brian Niya, its founders stressed two goals: that the collection remained free for noncommercial, educational use, and that the collection itself remained solely online.[6] While the Seattle-based nonprofit originally focused on the aggregation of born-digital incarceration oral testimony, it has since expanded to include familial photographs, documentation, and other donated personal effects.

Upon first glance, the most striking distinction between Densho and its federal counterpart is its use of the interface. In recent year, Densho has expanded its organizational reach; its site thus hosts other contextually relevant digital materials, including a blog, pedagogical resources, and – most recently, the Campu podcast. Its Digital Repository has thus become just one of the many layers constituting Densho’s infrastructural imagination.

Densho Digital Repository

The Densho Digital Repository homepage presents a collage of distinct images that together represent the “photographs, documents, newspapers, letters, and other primary source materials” that constitute the collection itself. Hovering over an image reveals a “view object” hyperlink that then transports you to said object’s individual page. Notably, unlike NARA’s collection of public hearings and testimony – which ranks fourth in its groupings list – representations of oral testimony (and thus ‘internees’ themselves) are the first featured objects of this collage.

Densho Digital Repository Browse Bar
Topic: Construction; Densho Digital Repository

In the digital archive, to echo Margaret Hedstrom, “the interface becomes the ‘critical element in the interaction between documentary evidence and its consumers.’”[7] Ultimately, Densho’s organizational logics promote its own archival bonds and parallels alongside user interpretation. While pre-constituted groupings categorize materials via Narrators, Collections, Topics, and Facilities, it also provides a “Topics” list that operates akin to a bibliography. These metadata tags may range anywhere from “Concentration camps” and “Railroads” to “Strawberries” and “Midwifery.” The inclusion of such metadata interactivity thus encourages a ‘cross-disciplinary’ understanding and ‘open’ exploration of Densho’s digital infrastructure.

Final Thoughts

While NARA’s online platform seeks to sustain (a sense of) custodial order and archival control, Densho’s Repository instead generates unconventional archival connections by way of its terminology, amalgam of holdings, and the digital base itself. In doing so, it seeks to provide both the infrastructural access and ideological contextualization that traditional ‘thresholds’ and custodial understanding overlook. Comparatively analyzing the traditional and (mostly) born-digital archive prompts reflection on archival description, meaning, and access, as well as the infrastructural imaginaries thereof.


[1] Eric Lacitis, “’Terrible and disgusting’: Decision to close National Archives at Seattle a blow to tribes, historians in 4 states,” The Seattle Times, January 25, 2020, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/terrible-and-disgusting-decision-to-close-national-archives-at-seattle-a-blow-to-tribes-historians-in-4-states/.

[2] Jefferson Bailey, “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives,” Archive Journal (June 2013): https://web.archive.org/web/20170919162159/http://www.archivejournal.net/essays/disrespect-des-fonds-rethinking-arrangement-and-description-in-born-digital-archives/.

[3] Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (Spring 2012): http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/.

[4] James Smithies, “Towards a Systems Analysis of the Humanities,” In The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), 132.

[5] Brian Niiya et. al., “Japanese American Incarceration – Densho.org,” Journal of American Ethnic History 33 No. 4 (Summer 2014): 49.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bailey, “Disrespect des Fonds.”


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