A Tale of Racism and Disaster Inspires a Triumph of Collaborative Community Storytelling

In this season of Harvey, Irma, Maria and the onslaught of other natural disaster, a multimedia project about a devastating 1948 flood near Portland has remarkable relevance.  The project, called the Vanport Mosaic, uses oral history and video to create a collective memory of the flood that wiped out the Portland-area  community of Vanport, destroying the homes of about 20,000 people and killing at least 15.   Librarians, both academic and public, played a key role in developing the Mosaic as it evolved into a digital portal.

The Vanport story begins as a remarkable tale of wartime enterprise, unfortunately offset by the shadows of racism.  World War II brought a huge expansion of shipbuilding around Portland, and the federal government joined with shipbuilder Henry Kaiser in building what became the world's largest public housing project, creating a community with housing for 40,000 people in 110 days.  Built on marshland next to the Columbia River, a system of dikes and embankments held back the water.   

A record snow melt and rain swelled the river, and the embankments broke on Memorial Day, 1948.   By that time, Vanport's population had dropped to about 20,000, including many African Americans who couldn't find housing anywhere else, and the area was suffering from abandonment and reduced upkeep.  Even as the waters swelled, authorities assured residents that they were safe.   The embankments broke and the entire community inundated and destroyed.

The Vanport Mosaic multimedia project is much more than a chronicle of the disaster -- through first person narrative, much of it from Vanport survivors, a growing archive of short video documentaries depicts the many deeply troubling aspects of the Vanport story.  It is a moving, very personal account of how racism and segregation determined the fates of so many people.

“We call it a mosaic because it is an incredible collective effort.Since the first public screening, we’ve never stopped.  Every time we do a screening, someone else wants to participate.  It was supposed to be six months, now it’s in its third year.”
— Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

In contrast to Portland's current image as a progressive hipster paradise, the city and the state of Oregon were known through much of the last century as among the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line.   When large numbers of African Americans migrated to Portland to work in war production, there was no room left in the city's one all-black neighborhood.   An estimated 6,000 blacks lived in Vanport at its peak.  And while Vanport was shaped by de facto racial segregation, its schools and community centers were integrated.  After the disaster, continuing racial segregation in Oregon vastly complicated resettlement of the survivors.

It was Portland's persistent lack of racial diversity that first prompted Vanport Mosaic co-director Laura Lo Forti to investigate the story.    "When I moved from New York, I found Portland unsettling because it's so white," she says.  "How could it become so homogenous."

Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

To explore how the story of Vanport still informs Portland's racial identity, Lo Forti and her team set out in 2014 to find Vanport residents to tell the story of the community, how it was wiped out, and the aftermath.  “The idea of the digital portal is a recent development because of the amount of stories and artifacts we've been collecting," Lo Forti says. We had no idea it was going to happen when we started!"  She continues: “We call it a mosaic because it is an incredible collective effort. Since the first public screening, we've never stopped.  Every time we do a screening, someone else wants to participate.  It was supposed to be six months, now it's in its third year."

Librarians take note -- libraries have played a crucial role in the Mosaic's development.   Both Portland State University and the archive of the Multnomah County library contributed archival material used in the short oral histories and in the related traveling exhibits. Archival photos have played a crucial role in developing the oral histories.  "Most people had never seen the photos," Lo Forti says.  "We would bring whatever material we could get our hands on -- this was the initial memory mining process."
Last June, Lo Forti joined with Portland State Head of Special Collections Cristine Paschild at an archivists' conference in a forum, "How do we build a community-centered archive?"  (PSU, now Oregon's largest university, has roots in Vanport -- it traces its beginnings to an extension college in Vanport)

Vanport was the only war housing complex in the US with its own public library, which was opened with 1000 books borrowed from the Portland Public Library.  One of the Mosaic's most recent finds are the reports from Vanport's librarian, which were given to the project by Multnomah County archivist Terry Baxter.

The story of the library, including readings from the librarian's official reports, will debut at the Vanport Mosaic festival this coming Memorial Day weekend (May 25-29, 2018).

Digital Fermentation: The Portland Library's Craft Beer Archive

You don’t have to walk too far in Portland to find a great mug of craft beer.  With about 70 craft breweries in the city, Portland has more craft breweries than any other US city, and Portland has gained the reputation as the craft brewery capital of the nation.

Although the Multnomah County (Portland area) Library has yet to install fermentation tanks and a tap room in its branches, the library has worked closely with the craft brewing community in the area to create an unusual and fascinating digital archive of Portland breweries, Portland Brew Stories

Librarian Erica Findley had just arrived at MCL in 2014 when project development launched, and she took on the role of project manager. “I think it’s a unique opportunity as a library to get involved in something that is really special in our community, and we know it’s something people want to knowmore about,” Findley says.   “It’s a cultural heritage collection that showcases the passion for beer in our community.  A lot of the breweries we worked with had been open only since the 2010s, and when breweries close, what is left behind for us to remember them?  We are preserving our history of that moment in time. It’s the only digital collection we know of this kind.”

 Brew Stories, one of five digital archives on the MCL site, includes a mix of video, stills and text reflecting the history and identity of 14 Portland breweries.  The launch of Brew Stories in 2015 came with a number of community events.  Yes, of course, there was a full-house kickoff event with six breweries (and tastings of their product), a historical lecture and video screenings.   Other events have included classes on cooking with beer and a Valentine’s Day event adding chocolate to beer.  Erica, whose official title is cataloging and metadata librarian, anticipates continuing interest, and she plans to generate new momentum with social media discussion and with adding new breweries to the gallery.

Interestingly, the launch of the Portland Brew Stories was inspired and assisted by another Oregon library beer archive, the Oregon Hops and BrewingArchive at Oregon State University, curated by archivist Tiah Edmunson-Morton, and established in 2013.

Findley will be telling the story of Portland Brew Stories at NMM in a professional development session, Wed. Oct. 25 at noon.   At press time, no information regarding the craft beer menu for the presentation was available.

Erica Profile.jpg

A Rare and Wonderful Library Faces Disruption

It's a small independent library, keeper of a unique and valuable collection of books and manuscripts on an issue of great regional significance, an issue that we should all care about.   And like many other libraries connected with streaming, it's a library facing the prospect of major disruption.

The library is the Streamnet Library.   And its collection is largely devoted to fish, salmon in particular.

Streamnet, in Portland, OR, has a collection of more than 80,000 physical and digital items that relate to the health of salmon in the Northwest, including many hard to find "grey" items, such as consultant's reports and official documents.  It is a vital source of information for fish biologists and fishery management agencies.  And it is an important resource for tribal members concerned with preserving a way of life and cultural tradition in which salmon play an important part.

Surprisingly, in a world where good environmental news seems scarce, the recent overall trend for the Northwest salmon population has been encouraging.  The past 25 years have seen an upward trend in the total number of salmon swimming upstream.  Unfortunately, the past two years experienced sudden and surprising dips.  In the most recent spring spawning season, experts had expected that 180,000 salmon would pass a key dam system in Oregon's Columbia River.  Well less than half that amount actually came.

We recently spoke with David Liberty, an archeologist, hunter, fisherman and TV show host who is also the assistant director of the Streamnet Library.  Liberty explained that experts aren't quite sure why the salmon population showed its sharp recent drop.

"The mystery of the Pacific Ocean is what people blame it on," Liberty said.  "They don't really know what happens in the ocean."   For Liberty, the connection with salmon runs deep.  He is a member of the Umatilla tribe and grew up fishing on the Umatilla River, a Columbia River tributary (that is now rich in salmon due to tribal fish management).  He was a salmon activist first, and a librarian second, and is blunt, politically outspoken, and committed. This year was the first time in memory when he didn't fish.  "If there's not many salmon in the river, I don't want to take any out," he said.  "I want them all to go up river and spawn."

While the sudden disappearance of so many salmon would seem to underscore the importance of Streamnet Libary's mission, the "small library with a big heart" is now facing disruption in the form of an uncertain funding future.

For close to a decade, Streamnet's funding has come from the Bonneville Power Authority, a federal agency that operates the huge dams on the mighty Pacific Northwest rivers.  Funding flows from the Authority through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's fish and wildlife program and is administered by the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

And there's politics involved.  The original funding agreement was based on a memo of understanding in which three of the four major tribal groups agreed not to bring any action against the Authority's dams.   The dams on the Columbia, the Snake and other Northwestern rivers are controversial -- it's been established that many salmon are killed both on the upstream and downstream journey, but there's a disagreement about the extent of the harm.  Environmentalists and tribal leaders argue that some or all of the dams should be dismantled.

With the political memo about to expire, Liberty expresses concern about Streamnet Library's future.   While it looks fairly likely that the library can make its budget with support from tribal funds and private trusts, he isn't looking forward to the grind of the annual scramble for funding.

In the meantime, the Streamnet Library is casting about for a new name.   Liberty insists that it has nothing to do with people confusing Streamnet for Netflix or Hulu.   Rather, Streamnet Libary doesn't accurately reflect the library's core mission and identity.   A shout out to the library's followers in a recent blog post didn't produce any great ideas.  All suggestions continue to be welcome.


David Liberty, Streamnet

David Liberty, Streamnet

Reed College Library: Transformation in Scholarly Publishing, by Erin Gallagher, Reed College Library

This NW Corner entry was penned by Reed College Collection Services Librarian Erin Gallagher. We at NMM enjoyed reading Erin's writeup of her library's bold move in supporting an open-access journal publisher, especially one that's crowd-funded. Her supporting arguments include the idea that support of open-access is a moral imperative - one that, while largely unmeasurable as a benefit, may be worth the consideration of other institutions. (JPT)


It is no secret that many academic libraries operate on flat or reduced materials budgets and struggle to keep up with annual price increases for electronic content.  We are often faced with tough decisions on which resources to purchase or renew from year to year.  Call it the “crisis in scholarly publishing” or just call it business as usual, but either way, librarians have been exploring creative and strategic ways to make do with what we have for a long time.  

In such times of financial uncertainty, it is difficult to imagine funneling scarce funds to new and emerging initiatives, but a significant number of libraries are doing so.  Here at Reed College, we made the collective decision to financially support Knowledge Unlatched (KU).  KU states on their “About Us” page that their “...vision is a sustainable market where scholarly books and journals are freely accessible for each and every reader around the world”.  KU works toward this goal by partnering with scholarly press publishers to “unlatch” ebooks and journals in the Humanities and Social Sciences, making them freely available to anyone with Internet access.  The project is crowd funded by libraries and organizations who pledge various amounts of money toward the amount needed to unlatch these titles; if the goal amount is reached, the titles are released for public benefit.  We made the decision to use a small portion of our ebook funds to help support this new initiative based on a variety of factors:


  • Proof of sustainability.  At the time we pledged, KU was in their fourth round of unlatching open access ebooks; considering that we’ve seen promising open access initiatives fizzle out quickly, KU has an impressive track record.
  • Breadth of content.  The fourth round of unlatching included 343 titles published from 2005-2015 from 54 trusted university press and scholarly publishers.  Full title list here.
  • Accessibility.  All titles are available to download in full text via the OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks) platform.  We can easily make these titles discoverable in our library catalog by downloading free MARC records and/or activating them in our e-resources management system.
  • Local and global benefit.  KU provides libraries with institutional usage reports.  This means we will be able to determine some level of local benefit and usage beyond the obvious global benefit to supporting this initiative.  
  • Faculty outreach and education.  Reed’s support of KU provides a positive talking point for faculty, particularly as we initiate conversations on open access, open educational resources, and open data.  It shows that the library is “putting its money where its mouth is” in regard to open access publishing, and if faculty are given the opportunity to view local usage, they could develop increased awareness of how they are already using open access content in their teaching and research.
  • Moral imperative.  This one is more difficult to define and impossible to measure, but, at its core, librarianship is all about service.  We are in the business of providing our users with access to the materials they want, when they want them.  Sometimes, particularly in the case of expensive journal packages with ever-increasing subscription rates, we compromise our core values in order to provide the best service.  Initiatives like KU allow us to repurpose funding from traditional subscription models toward projects and initiatives that seek to transform scholarly publishing.


Traditional subscription and purchase models for journals, books, and other library materials are not going away anytime soon.  Though promising and inspiring, initiatives like KU are not seen as a means to an end.  In combination with other initiatives and services such as institutional repositories, KU is a step in the right direction toward a more open and sustainable scholarly publishing landscape.  We at Reed are proud to be supporters.  



Reed College Librarian Erin Gallagher

Reed College Librarian Erin Gallagher

Libros for Oregon: Oregon Libraries Take Advantage of the Guadalajara Book Fair (reprinted by permission of the Oregon Library Association Quarterly) by Deborah Gitlitz, Wilsonville, OR Public Library

Libros for Oregon: Oregon Libraries Take Advantage of the Guadalajara Book Fair (reprinted by permission of the Oregon Library Association Quarterly) by Deborah Gitlitz, Wilsonville, OR Public Library

Acquiring good books in Spanish for our libraries is a perennial challenge. We all want to enrich our collections with materials reflecting and honoring the experiences of people in our service populations, but this is often easier said than done. In the fall of 2015, a discussion arose on some Oregon library listservs (REFORMA and Libs-Or) about the challenge of connecting our patrons with culturally-appropriate, high-quality Spanish books. People lamented the comparative scarcity of satisfactory resources in the US and the difficulty of sending staff to the important Guadalajara book fair.