Meet Caitlin Oiye Coon at Densho

by Kai Uchida

One of the most prominent community archives in Asian America is Densho. Translating as “to pass on,” it is an organization that is dedicated to providing resources and archival material related to the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans and Japanese American heritage. Densho was founded in 1996, and emerged as a community archive that sought to preserve the voices and memories of those who experienced incarceration firsthand. Densho operates as a nontraditional archive that follows the post-custodial model of collection policy. This means that they work directly and primarily with Japanese families to digitize letters, family photo albums, military papers, and other documents relevant to their incarceration, then return them to their owners. They also work with National Archives and Records Administration and several schools within the University of California to digitize at risk documents and to locate and process other materials relating to Japanese cultural heritage. Caitlin Oiye Coon is Densho’s Lead Digital Archivist, and I spoke to her about her role in Densho’s evolution and her shifting priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coon came to Densho in 2012 and arrived with a background as a historian and with a recently acquired master’s degree in Archives and Records Management from San Jose State University. As Densho’s resident digital archivist, Caitlin manages a team of two part-time and two full-time archivists who operate as digitization technicians. Processing is the bulk of their labor, and they conduct significant amount of item-level description on a weekly basis. Using software that they produced at Densho, they create metadata for a wide variety of objects but are renowned for their oral histories. Perhaps their most visible outreach initiative that serves their mostly Japanese-American donor and scholarly user base, their oral history series represents the essence of their mission at Densho. By interviewing and filming Nisei testimony, Densho not only provided a means by which survivors of incarceration could disclose what had been a previously difficult subject to navigate in Japanese-American families but also filled a historical gap that had lacked direct testimony from survivors.

Through the pandemic, Densho has been uniquely adaptable and prepared for the realities of remote work and outreach and has found success with recent events. This is due to the structure and nature of Densho as a hybrid organization. Caitlin says that they can attribute this success to two main reasons. First, Densho’s post custodial and digital model meant that work on processing collections and allowing users to browse collections remained unimpeded. Second, their methods of outreach were already nontraditional because user engagement was already prioritized within the context of remote access. With many Japanese-Americans using their time during the pandemic to pursue genealogy, workshops run by Caitlin on building family trees tripled in attendance through Zoom meetings. Indeed, Coon identifies Densho’s most recent and ambitious new outreach project – a podcast produced by Japanese American brother-sister team Hana and Noah Maruyama about the history of the incarceration called Campu – as a vital part of Densho’s push for a younger audience’s attention to Densho’s collection. Their experiment with this new media medium has proven popular enough for a second season to already be in the planning stages.

However, there are more than a fair share of downsides, challenges, and disadvantages with which Caitlin has had to contend. The intense competition for grant money, funding, and ensuring the long-term life of Densho’s repositories and its staff continues to be an inherent problem. Much of these problems stem from the fact that Densho is not only a non-traditional archive with no physical on site space to exhibit their collections, but also because they are a community archive that receives far less attention compared to traditional and more academically aligned repositories.  While they are a nationally recognized organization that is better known than many other community archives, they still receive little attention or consideration from traditional grants from the likes of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. To counteract this lack of attention and to organize archives collectively to find consistent funding and support, Caitlin has partnered Densho with the Community Archives Collaborative, which is a network that seeks to build connections between community repositories and share ideas and practices that allow for them to become their best advocates.

Caitlin’s role within Densho speaks to how Japanese Americans are taking the lead as stewards of their heritage and memory in building community archives like Densho. Indeed, their post custodial and digitized model ensures that collections can be accessed remotely and kept firmly in the hands of the Japanese Americans. In light of remote access being more important than ever to repositories and the increasing importance of community archives for marginalized and vulnerable nonwhite communities, Densho and its archivists are positioned to thrive as an instructive example of how community repositories should serve their users.