The State of Utah vs Joe Hill

by Jack Oldham

The project I chose to profile is the “The State of Utah vs Joe Hill,” which was created by the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service.  This is an active project that looks to tell the story of Joe Hill who was a Sedish-American labor leader and activist.  In 1915, Hill was convicted of the murders of two men in Salt Lake City.  The night of the murders, Hill appeared at the office of a doctor with his own gunshot wound, causing suspicion that he was involved.  Hill’s trial and subsequent execution spurred international headlines and discussion about his innocence and whether or not he was being targeted for his work as a prominent labor organizer.

“The State of Utah vs. Joe Hill” serves as a digital exhibit on Utah’s state archive’s web page.  The goal of this project is to fully digitize and transcribe records related to Joe Hill, his trial, and the international conversation that it created.  In order to make these records publicly available and accessible, the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service is asking the public to help with the transcription process.  There are currently three collections available for the public to transcribe, “Governor Spry Joseph Hillstrom Case Records,” “Governor Spry Joseph Hillstrom Petitions,” and “Governor Spry Joseph Hillstrom Correspondence.”  This project appears to have reached an enthusiastic and participatory audience as more than half of the materials have been accurately transcribed in just over a month.

Looking at this project from an advocacy and outreach perspective, I was struck by the use of crowdsourcing transcription and how that works to the benefit of the institution in more than one way.  As we have discussed in class, government archives oftentimes find it difficult to access an adequate amount of funding.  Crowdsourcing serves as an interesting strategy to keep costs low while also increasing institutional productivity.  Furthermore, crowdsourcing looks to be an effective method of outreach for institutions as they can thoroughly engage with a wide audience.  In this case, the Utah State Archives are certainly looking to serve their people in an effort to help create a community, specifically for Utahns and individuals interested in labor history in the United States.  This is a particularly effective way to create a larger and more involved community during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Given our inability to gather and come together in person, crowdsourcing through the internet is a great solution that helps further the institution’s goal of community building.  This goal of the project aligns with the institution’s mission and values to provide its citizens with a more complete understanding of Utah and its people.

Another important aspect of this project is related to Joe Hill’s innocence.  There is much evidence that indicates that Joe Hill was innocent and received unjust treatment from the Utah Justice System.  By digitizing and transcribing this collection, the Utah State archives are providing documentary evidence of past wrongdoing against citizens.  In doing so, the institution is providing greater transparency and accountability to the Utah state government.  There also seems to be an element of attempted inreach in the Joe Hill project.  By detailing the past transgressions of the state government, the Utah archives can inform and remind the government of its commitment to serving its citizens with transparency and justice.  Greater engagement with the public and those within the Utah state government are laid out as key goals in the Archives’ “Outreach and Advocacy Guide.”

Further Reading

“The State of Utah vs. Joe Hill” special project:

Utah Division of Archives and Records Service “Outreach and Advocacy Guide”: