Wisla on the Sound: Information Grounds and Identity in Seattle's Polish Community

Researcher: Tom Dobrowolsky, MLIS Student, The Information School University of Washington

A popular, patriotic, Polish folk song, Plynie Wisla Plynie, states

"the Wisla flows across the Polish countryside . . . and as long as the Wisla flows, Poland will endure."

Poland's longest river, the Wisla flows the length of the country, from the southern mountain ranges to the Baltic Sea in the north and drains 2/3 of Poland. As it touches so many, the Wisla remains a powerful symbol of the Polish nation. It finally enters the sea near the port city of Gdynia. This is Seattle's sister city. In Seattle, Radio Wisla takes to the airwaves every Sunday evening. A relatively new information outlet in the Seattle-area, Radio Wisla complements the existing information networks of the Polish-American community in the Puget Sound. This network spans physical places - a church, a cultural center, and a deli, for example -- as well as virtual media - listservs to web sites.

Sociologists have studied communities for decades. Several studies of Polish communities were published in the early 20th century, while later studies were conducted on contemporary Polish-American populations in cities other than Seattle. Although they are all rich ethnographies, these studies examined their communities largely through older frameworks, none of which relate to information science. Most of these studies equated community with neighborhood. These days, however, most communities are no longer confined by neighborhood boundaries. Seattle's small, though active, Polish-American community is a prime example. Transcending any one neighborhood, this social network comprises several social hubs, events, and gathering places in order to actively promote Polish culture and to connect Polish-Americans with their ethnic roots.

What are the characteristics of these community places? Who goes there and why? What is the extent of the social networks making up the Polish-American community in Seattle? What, then, are the community's information grounds? What sorts of information do people find out there? And how do information grounds and other places maintain Polish identity and foster connections to Polish heritage?

In this ethnographic study, I am interviewing community members and conducting participant observation in popular gathering places. Observations involve detailed descriptions of community spaces such as a coffee shop, a church, a delicatessen, and a cultural center which recently celebrated its 86th anniversary. In addition to the places themselves, the study aims to describe events, the people and groups, and the social phenomena within these locales. Additionally, key informants and members of the community - such as business leaders, a priest, and radio broadcasters, for example - are being interviewed in order to gauge how they find community information, where they go to find it, and to whom they speak. They are also asked about various facets of the community, their role(s) within it, and their meaningful anecdotes about it.

In addition to providing a vibrant description of the social, virtual, and cultural landscapes of Seattle's Polish-American community, I anticipate that these narratives will identify various information grounds and how they are used to radiate community information. I seek to demonstrate how the social nature of information exchange, via information grounds, establishes a sense of community and cultivates Polish identity within this geographically disparate social network.


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