Thirty years ago, the Washington State Historical Society’s board of trustees, headed by publisher and historian John M. McClelland Jr., founded Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History. The trustees envisioned Columbia as a quarterly history journal that would introduce recent scholarship to a popular audience. The inaugural issue, published and distributed to Historical Society members in spring 1987, included articles on Northwest history topics, several short features, book reviews, and a commentary in which McClelland outlined the goal for the fledgling publication: “To overcome widespread apathy about acquiring knowledge of what has gone before….” He went on to say that “publishing history attractively packaged and interestingly written” was about more than education—it was about pride in “what has been accomplished by the people who have struggled to develop this northwest corner of the nation….” Since that first issue, Columbia has remained true to its purpose, informing and engaging readers with lavishly illustrated articles on a wide range of topics, written by a pantheon of leading writers and scholars. Illustrations include photographs, maps, drawings, paintings, and ephemera from repositories throughout the region—but most often from the Society’s own collections.
Columbia’s success in meeting its goals is reflected in the scholars who choose to publish in Columbia as well as the numerous Pacific Northwest history educators who find the magazine a valuable teaching tool. Schools, libraries, and heritage organizations account for roughly ten percent of the Society’s membership; each of those memberships makes the magazine available to additional readers. The magazine’s accessibility is extended by its online presence with archived articles and digital editions as well as the Columbia Anthology, which offers a snapshot of Washington history as presented in the pages of Columbia. Historians Robert Carriker (who taught college-level Pacific Northwest history for forty-seven years) and Charles LeWarne (who wrote the high school textbook for Washington history courses) made the initial selection of sixty articles that can be downloaded or read free online.
The Historical Society recently received the prestigious Board Award of Excellence from the Washington Museum Association, acknowledging “the important role Columbia has played over the years.” Recognition by peer institutions and the magazine’s thirty-year existence are perhaps the strongest testimonies to its success in achieving the founders’ vision.