History, politics, people of Oly WA

Review in five thoughts of “Olympia: a People’s History”

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Olympia, the city published a collection of historical essays. I picked it up a copy from the library a few days ago, and have a few thoughts.

1. I don’t like that the edition was hardback, I don’t like that the content is copyrighted. Hardback, 8.5×11 books are a bummer to read, seem worth keeping on your bookshelf as collectibles than actually reading them.

Also, while its not illegal for a local government entity to copyright a work, its not something I’m a big fan of. We should consider why the federal government is not allowed to copyright, and then think about why our taxes are used to put together content that we are not all free to use.

2. Using the phrase “People’s History” is curious. Typically, something titled “People’s History” is a reference to the seminal Howard Zinn history or an offshoot that Zinn himself edited. This book is obviously not of that series, and less obviously, doesn’t even follow the same theme.

3. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good sections in the book. The sections on Rebecca Howard, Women, the Chinese Community and (in part) Little Hollywood were what I thought the book would be. Unrepresented stories of Olympia’s history that don’t get told much.

Its interesting that the most fascinating chapter and a topic I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else (Rebecca Brown) was written by the least experienced of the writers.

4. Important points of history missed.

The essay on John Miller Murphy by Roger Easton was pretty good, but it paints Miller as a up from the bootstraps newspaperman. An important part Easton missed on Murphy’s return to Olympia in 1860 was that he came back to establish a Republican newspaper in 1860 near the beginning of the Civil War. Democrats up to that point had been in charge of territorial politics, but with the Democrats also leading the fight to secede in the South, Republicans were ready to take the advantage in Washington.

Daeg Aerlic Byrne’s essay on Little Hollywood misses the point on why the city in the late 30s worked to remove the shanytown. In the paragraph that he writes that “something changed” and that “no available document explains why” Olympia city fathers would want to do away with Little Hollywood, he Byrne also names what exactly changed. The year before the city moved to get rid of Little Hollywood, the state legislature began funding what would eventually become Capitol Lake. Before they built the lake, they had to get rid of the shantytown, its pretty simple.

5. Still worth checking out from the library too. The book itself is a bit high priced ($35), but it does go to a good cause (the Bigelow House museum). What this book did spell out to me is the need to collect and encourage ongoing scholarship about Olympia’s history.

Maybe after a year of selling the original run, why not post the essays online (minus copyrighted images) and develop an online historical journal?


  1. Mark Derricott

    I love the idea of a collaborative history wiki or whatever other platform can be used. What about getting people around here to share their memories on podcasts? Interview transcripts can be summarized and blog-ized.

    The historical society is doing some great work (indexing photos for example) but it appears to me that some of it could be more locally-based which would in turn draw more attention to some of our great and tragically underused sites (Bigelow House, Crosby, Henderson etc etc).

    The size? I'd have to say price point and since it's for the Bigelow House, I'll look the other way.

    Nice post, Emmett.

  2. tom hyde

    Nice post, didn't know this was out there.

    I'm interested as to why the copyright is a bummer. Okay, so the tax dollars argument makes a certain amount of sense and I am with you there up to a point but if you had written an essay, wouldn't you want it protected by copyright?

    And in the interests of history, who is recording the history of Olympia today? Is there anyone creating a memorable record like Jeffers did decades ago? Just interested …

  3. Emmett

    @Tom. I'm not against the individual writers copyrighting their own work before it gets put into a government document. My problem is with the city of Olympia holding a copyright for anything at all.

    I just can't get past the city protecting intellectual property with a copyright. I mean, if I'm a resident in Olympia, does that mean I can use the text, since it is held in common for me?

  4. tom hyde

    Emmett, okay gotcha, and I agree.

  5. Daeg Aerlic Byrne

    Thanks for your post. Great to see any discussion on the subject. I'm a little disappointed that you thought I missed the point, regarding the impending construction of Capitol Lake as the city's obvious motive for removal of the squatter's district. I had thought that I spelled that out pretty clearly. I didn't state it as bluntly as I might in conversation, hoping that I didn't need to be so heavy on assertion, when a clear presentation of documented fact would give the reader a chance to make their own assertions. There is a lot more to this story than can fit in an essay. What you get in the book is quite a broad range of styles, voices, and approaches to interpretation. I suspect the book itself will eventually have some value in gauging who we are in 2009, by looking at the represented range in the dialectic. Not sure about copyright issues. I hope to see more discussion and differences generated out of the book. The more the better. Cheers

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