Scott Cline has a unique perspective on Seattle and the massive changes taking place in the city. As the city archivist with the Seattle Municipal Archives, Cline preserves a wide range of materials that document the city’s history and its transformation.
After 31 years, with as much change as ever taking place in the city where he works, Cline is retiring. On Tuesday, he spoke to a crowd gathered in the Bertha Knight Landes Room at Seattle City Hall, where he shared stories of his work and showed off maps, photographs and other materials that he has collected since 1985, when he established the city’s Archives program.
“If you laid all of our boxes side by side it would stretch for about 3 miles long,” Cline said of the records kept a few floors below where he was speaking. As a matter of introduction to the scale of his department’s work, he showed a by-the-numbers slide to further illustrate his point:
- 13,000 linear feet of textual records
- 3,000 maps and drawings
- 3,000 reel of audio recordings
- 1.5 million photographic images
- Hundreds of hours of moving images
- Growing collection of born digital records
Cline, 66, said the mission is to “make all of that material, all of those records, available to anyone who wants to use it for whatever purposes they might have — city officials doing city business, or members of the public who simply want to learn something about the city or are doing historical research.”
While that mission has held true for many years, the manner in which it gets done has changed “pretty radically” thanks to the digital age.
“The theory behind what we do is the same but the tools are different. They’re different in a lot of ways,” Cline said. “One of the ways they’re different is the records are now born digitally. A lot of them are still printed out, so we get a lot of paper. But for archival records that are born digital, we’ve had a pretty active program, particularly in collecting photographs for the last decade. We now have a very active program for collecting digital records that were created digitally by City Council and the Mayor’s Office in particular, and by some other agencies.”
Digitization has also helped the Archives make things available to the users who seek those records, whether it’s through the city government website or a Flickr account set up in 2008 to showcase select imagery.
“If you go to our website, particularly with photographs, we have about 100,000 photographs on our website,” Cline said. “We have a lot of users we never see. People who want high resolution photographs, if it’s high resolution on our website they can just download it. They don’t have to ask us, this stuff is free for anybody to use. Same thing with maps that we have online.”
Cline said that the Archives office has experienced pretty constant statistics for the past 12 years when it comes to users who make direct contact — email, in person and telephone. Users interacting with the content online is where the growth has happened.
“The hits on our website and the various databases on our website have just grown amazingly,” Cline said. “We don’t know how many users we have anymore, that’s one of the changes, and I think it’s a great change. Our whole notion of what we do in this profession is to make as much stuff available as possible and if we can make it available and not know who’s using it, that’s great.”
Cline’s presentation included several images and maps that were among his favorites from over the years. It was clear from his appreciation for photographic composition and the artwork on early parks plans, for instance, that Cline loved what he looked at every day. He also loved to handle it all.
“I’m a very tactile person. One of the reasons I got into the profession is I could have my hands on the stuff,” he said. “It’s what frustrates me the most about the digital environment.”
While showing an an 1890 guide map to the City of Seattle, Cline noted a number of striking elements, such as large areas of unpopulated land in the city. He pointed out the Duwamish River, before it was straightened and before Harbor Island was built. He mentioned the tidal flats which were filled in in 1902 in an area that is now home CenturyLink and Safeco Fields.
“The other thing — I apologize for any Eastsiders here — but the other thing I love about this map is that Bellevue does not exist,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
In a city that is currently booming, Cline made particular note of things that Seattleites considered through the years but which never became reality. He considers some of them lost opportunities for the city and others he calls disasters that were averted.
A map showing a proposal for a light rail and subway system in Seattle in 1920 drew audible gasps and wows from the crowd.
“The line goes above ground on Fourth Avenue, and at Third Avenue it goes into a tunnel and it goes under the city,” Cline said. “And it comes out, and it branches off and goes out to the University of Washington — but there were also branches that were headed toward Ballard, Fremont and up to Capitol Hill. Sounds kind of familiar.”
Cline said the transportation system was designed for future growth and development and that it might have cost $600,000 at the time, or $7.2 million in 2015 dollars. The City Council placed it “on file,” meaning it was rejected in what Cline called “seriously a lost opportunity.”
Other maps and images drew similar connections to modern day Seattle and the challenges it faces with growth.
The early 1990s plan for the Seattle Commons “would have been our answer to Central Park,” Cline said of the proposed 61-acre park in South Lake Union, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It was defeated with 53 percent of the vote in what some consider another lost opportunity. “Certainly Amazon doesn’t think so,” Cline added.
“Our photography in particular documents Seattle’s changing landscape and its changing cityscape,” Cline said. “Public works and construction continues apace, we’re still experiencing it and all you have to do is go through South Lake Union and count cranes.”
For all his experience looking back on the history of Seattle, and his skills as an archivist, Cline said he’s “terrible” at predicting what things will look like in another three decades.
“What I can tell you will happen is we’ll rely more on digital records,” Cline said. “That’s why whoever comes in to replace me is going to have to have a much deeper bench in the digital environment than I do. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve hired staff that understand this stuff way better than I do. And I was able to hire somebody who is only doing digital archives. And hopefully she can see the future a little better than I can around this stuff.
“One of the things that will happen is that in 30 years, somebody’s going to give this talk and a lot of the stuff is going to be from today forward. There’s going to be a lot of change in the city. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of change in the last decade with the development of South Lake Union and the intractable traffic that we’re dealing with.”
Beyond the growth and the traffic and Amazon, from a professional standpoint Cline cites the long-term protection of original materials as the “greatest problem that we’re facing as archivists.”
He said paper materials from 100 years ago can still be read, but digital records are tough, because “it doesn’t take that much to really destroy it. … One of the things you do in a digital environment which you don’t do so much in the hard copy environment is redundancy. At any give time you want to have multiple copies of stuff.”
As he made mention of possible server crashes that could wipe out records, Cline did say that there have been a lot of good things that have happened through technology over the years.
“When the digital environment first started to raise its ugly head, there was a lot of proprietary hardware and software out there, and the stuff wouldn’t talk to one another,” Cline said. “And now that’s changing quite a bit, there’s a lot of open source stuff and that’s quite helpful. And there’s a lot of free software out there for archivists to use, to manage records.
“So, I actually think I’m getting out at the right time,” he concluded, to laughter and a round of applause.