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Fairbanks working to save historic documents

Posted: December 3, 2011 - 9:23pm

FAIRBANKS (AP) — The city is taking the next step in its quest to preserve historic city documents by applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant would provide as much as $40,000 to obtain expert advice on design parameters for a historical document room in City Hall. 

The city keeps some of its documents at City Hall, but the oldest and most fragile are stored at the Rasmuson Library on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. While the city appreciates being able to store them there, it would be better to have them all together, Fairbanks City Clerk Janey Hovenden said. 

“Your jaw would just drop to see the documents that are up at the Rasmuson Library. There are articles of incorporation and other important city documents. We have the first, written set of minutes from the first meeting back in 1903. We have birth and death and court records,” Hovenden said. “They’re keeping them safe, but we need to preserve them and have them here, in a nice, safe environment. They’re our documents.” 

The documents that remain at City Hall date from the early 1950s, and some are in bad shape. During a walk through the records room on a recent Friday afternoon, Hovenden pointed out items in urgent need of preservation. 

“Now, this binding right here is all disintegrating. And we can’t just flip through it even like this because it’s just too fragile.” Hovenden said, as she gingerly turned an age-darkened piece of paper bound in a cracked brown binder separating from its hinges. She then gestured at the ceiling above a large filing cabinet holding some of the documents.

“Look at this, there’s a fire sprinkler right over it. It would be ruined — our history would be ruined,” Hovenden said.

The city applied for and received a $6,000 grant from the NEH last year to hire a preservationist to travel to Fairbanks and assess the city’s needs. The $40,000 grant is the next stage of the process, and will help the city plan the document room’s environment.

“These are the kind of things the experts will tell us — that we will need to keep the room at a certain temperature, we’ll need to make sure that we do not have a wet sprinkler system, that the document should not be exposed to certain lighting, or it should be laid flat, or it should be on metal instead of wood,” Hovenden said. “We just don’t have that kind of expertise.”

Once the planning is completed, the building and outfitting of the room would be done by city workers, Hovenden said. The city would apply for another grant from the NEH, this time for up to $400,000, which would be used to preserve the documents and create a digital record of each. 

Hovenden hopes when the time comes the city will receive the $400,000 grant, and that it will be enough to cover the full cost of preservation.

“If it doesn’t pay for it, then I have to go before the council and the taxpayers for the difference. They could say ‘police officer, or preservation of paper,’ Hovenden said, moving both hands up and down as if balancing a scale. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality, but the key here is that at the end of this, these documents become accessible to the public.”

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