Photo and Story by Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka
In the three years since Sheldon Jackson College has closed, there’s been much attention directed on the efforts of the trustees to settle the school’s debts while leaving something behind for some future institution. That legacy will not include a library. Earlier this year SJ’s trustees announced that a transaction was underway to sell the Stratton Library to the state for just over $2-million. The building will join the Sheldon Jackson Museum next door and become part of the state museum system. But only the building is going to the state. The future of the collections inside is a longer story.
Local librarians have been working hard to redistribute the most valuable items in the Stratton collection. Earlier this month (December 2010) the public had the unusual opportunity to buy books right off the shelf.
“I don’t want to disrespect the collection, because it’s a phenomenal collection. But it’s a collection without a home.”
Ginny Blackson was Sheldon Jackson College’s last librarian. She knows down to the last Dewey decimal point what’s in this building.
“Forty-eight thousand individual books, most of which are part of a general liberal arts academic collection. You walk into any small liberal arts college in America and these books will be there…. There are novels, educational materials, literary criticism. There’s really something for everyone.”
Around twenty-five people bought advance tickets to the sale.
“My name is Frank Roth and I taught at Sheldon Jackson for thirty years. It’s called Anabaptism, A Social History by Clasen. It’s a University of Cornell Press, and there I found it. Oh my, it’s a wonderful book.”
“And you have a second book there, too?”
“Oh, this is Modern English Usage by Fowler. My father had a copy of this on the kitchen table. He was trying to make us speak perfect English.”
“I’m Stephanie Ask. I’ve got a ton of good stuff – I’ve filled up two huge boxes actually. I’m trying to escape now before I get more.”
“What are you looking for, mainly?”
“In particular I’m looking for books that I can use in my classroom, and I also found some plays that I can use. I’m just amazed that I can get these books in such good condition for such a cheap price. There are some real steals here, so I’m leaving with a smile on my face.”
Stephanie Ask teaches English and Theater at Sitka High School. It’s interesting that several boxes of Stratton books are headed to her classroom, since that’s pretty much where they came from. For most of Sheldon Jackson’s 129-year history, books were stored in the school’s classrooms. Stratton was built in 1974, and the collection assembled by Dr. Evelyn Bonner and catalogued under the Library of Congress system. Her disapproving glower seems to haunt this sale for those of us who remember her. Breaking up a library is a difficult undertaking on many fronts.
“My name is Bill Davis, I’m shopping primarily for Alaskana stuff. And to tell you the truth, I’m looking also for Nancy’s studies that she donated to the library a long time ago – we’ve found one or two. The others are missing.”
Davis and his wife Nancy Yaw Davis are uncharacteristically somber today. Nancy is a published academic anthropologist. Her father, Leslie Yaw, was president of Sheldon Jackson during what will probably become known as its heyday, in the middle of the last century.
“That’s an emotional tie that you can try to get some distance from. It’s not easy… It’s kind of a heart-wrenching experience to walk into a library and see all these wonderful resources and wonder what’s going to happen to them.”
For many close to the college, the eventual disposal of the Stratton collection has loomed large. Ginny Blackson, who now works at Sitka High School, and other members of the Sitka Library Association have worked relentlessly to ensure that irreplaceable materials have been protected. Blackson, in fact, within two weeks of the school’s closure made arrangements to loan to the National Park Service 850 glass plate negatives taken by the early Alaskan photographer E.W. Merrill. The Park Service likely will purchase the plates. Likewise, an extensive collection of early 20th century Alaskana collected by customs agent C.L. Andrews has been given to Sitka’s Kettleson Library.
Over three-thousand books from Stratton’s less rare Alaskana collection, and some of its general academic collection are now circulating in at Kettleson, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and the Sitka School District libraries – known collectively as the Sitka Library Consortium. Stratton’s theological collection has been shipped out to Alaska Christian College in Soldatna, which has just constructed a new library. The Sitka Tribe took twelve shelves-full of Stratton’s Native American collection for their new library. The Sitka Fine Arts Camp took part of the Arts collection. The Sitka Sound Science Center took books specific to hatcheries and fisheries biology.
Kari Sagel, the librarian at Blatchley Middle School, made sure that Stratton’s folklore collection was removed intact, and placed with the consortium.
Most of this work of boxing and shipping the various collections was funded by a state resources rescue grant. What’s left at Stratton could be called the “best of the rest.” But for many shoppers, like Trista Patterson, browsing in a library and browsing in a bookstore are worlds apart.
“How you put a value on a library is nothing I’ve been even able to wrap my brain around. So what I was looking for was just the experience. And then you get inside and you see Louisa May Alcott and Thoreau and all of these incredible, unique pieces of work from native history, and Alaskan history.”
Patterson is an academic – an economist. She’s not happy to see a library collection – a part of the “commons” – privatized. On the one hand, she thinks it reflects our times, on the other, it’s better than the alternative.
“I wouldn’t want any of these books to get wasted in any way. So, if they can go to great people that would really appreciate them, all the better.”
Around 30,000 books remain in Stratton. The Sitka Library Association plans at least one more sale before the building is transferred to the state.
Download Audio (MP3)