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National Archives departure impacts broad community

By | June 10, 2014 - 5:39 pm

The National Archives in Anchorage is closing its doors to researchers in less than two weeks, despite impassioned pleas by historians and researchers. But they aren’t the only ones who use the stacks of historical records.

The National Archives building in downtown Anchorage

The National Archives building in downtown Anchorage

Playwright Peter Porco sits in the white-walled research room of the National Archives in Anchorage. He’s searching through stacks of old papers from Adak in the 1940s.

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“I mean here’s another one, hand-written,” he says as he holds up an old work memo. “I’m gonna take a picture of this because I just think it’s so neat… oh wow! A cigarette burn.” He’s quickly distracted by the pale green paper with a memo about chow passes. “We got a cigarette burn in a piece of paper! I mean that’s so silly… but now you really get a picture of this guy sitting at a desk…”

Porco is looking for information for his series of plays on life in the Aleutians during World War II. He says the archives do more than just store history, they inspire creativity. “I’m trying to get as a clear a picture of what it’s like to live and be there at that time.”

The National Archives and Records Administration officials say they’re closing the facility’s doors because of low numbers of visitors — only 352 per year on average since 2009. More than half of the reference requests are written. Closing the facility and transferring about 75 percent of the holdings to Seattle will save NARA about $500,000 per year.

At the request of the state’s Congressional delegation, the other 25 percent of the records will go to the state archives in Juneau. Among them are most of the territorial court records that are held at NARA. They include everything from civil and criminal court dockets to coroner’s inquests.

Kip Knudsen with the governor’s office says they looked into many options for keeping all of the records in Alaska, like moving them to the archives in Juneau. “I have a feeling that’s probably outside our budget desires, but we looked at all options. The federal employees were not really very enthusiastic about all of them, quite frankly, and they were even a little bit resistant to leaving the territorial court records.”

Knudsen says the governor’s office even did a survey of all of the state agencies to see how they would be impacted by the Archives closing. He says it will be an inconvenience, but it’s not devastating.

Other organizations in the state, like the Alaska Federation of Natives, say moving the Archives is more than just an inconvenience. The Archives include everything from village census records from before statehood to histories of fur seal hunts in the Pribilof Islands.

“Well it’s going to create a huge void and vacuum in the native community,” says Nicole Borromeo, AFN’s general counsel. “I’ve personally been down to the archives, doing research, and the information there is just phenomenal. It’s a living history. And to have that removed from our community is going to leave an impact.”

Borromeo says her organization is still working with Alaska’s Congressional delegation to try to get more records to stay.

NARA plans to eventually make all of the records available online. But the agency does not have any money set aside to digitize Alaska’s history. They are accepting recommendations for what should be prioritized until the end of the month. State Historian Jo Antonson says she prefers the records stay in Alaska, but digitization could work if Alaskans participate in the process.

“It’s so important for Alaskans to speak up, speak out, about what records they need to have access to,” she says. “And after the list is compiled we need to keep vigilant to make sure that plans become action to make things digitized and become available.”

NARA is considering having citizen archivists, like Peter Porco, help with the process.

Back in the research room he leans over the table with his digital camera and portable scanner, capturing what he can. But he says it doesn’t work for everything.

“This is a 1941-43 blueprint or something,” he says referring to his find from earlier in the day. “It filled the entire table plus and no, there’s no way you’re going to digitize that.”

He has until June 20th to try.

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