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Time to preserve Alaska's history

Posted: April 16, 2012 - 8:49am

Many Alaskans may not have heard about the dire condition of Alaska State Library, Archives, and Museums in Juneau. The state's treasures of records, historical photographs, and museum artifacts are at great risk in the present facilities. They are too small, technologically insufficient, outdated, and structurally deficient. The collections are not connected physically or digitally for statewide access. The State Archives building is literally splitting in two, as the rear half was constructed on bedrock and the front half on failed pilings. The front half of the archives building is sinking, with walls cracking, doors shifting, and water pipes splitting. The Alaska Historical Collections in the State Office Building are out of space. The collections are also at risk of severe deterioration as there are no temperature and humidity controls for the preservation of the materials.

The August 17, 2009 flooding of the Alaska State Archives, when the roof failed during a rainstorm and water-damaged Territorial and State records, illustrates the critical need for a new facility. The staff and volunteers had only 48 to 72 hours to save about 1,000 boxes of records before mold could set in. Pipes have broken in Library rooms, the Museum, and Archives in recent years. Just last week the Archives and Museum had water leaks.

Among the priceless items are diaries of Alaska's pioneers from the Klondike and Alaska Gold Rushes (1896-1914), the original Alaska State Constitution, 175,000 historical photographs, and more than 34,000 cataloged museum artifacts.  The Alaska Native artifacts, amounting to more than 15,000 objects, are outstanding.  Objects from daily life, as well as ceremonial and sacred objects, include those from Alaskan Aleut, Athabascan, Eskimo, and Northwest Coast groups. Together, the collections of the State Library, Archives, and Museums are internationally recognized by scholars of Alaska history and culture.

The Alaska State Libraries, Archives, and Museums programs provide services that reach far beyond Juneau. The State Library provides statewide research assistance to the public and to state agencies; promotes local libraries through grants, training, and consulting; and coordinates a statewide inter-library loan program. The State Archives holds the official government records going back to 1874, including Territorial and State gubernatorial, legislative, and court records. The Alaska State Museums (Juneau and Sitka) provides traveling exhibits that visit throughout the state; makes loans to museums for their exhibits and programs; and provides technical support and conservation services to local museums, historical societies, and cultural centers. The three agencies assist a wide variety of researchers, including students, teachers, school librarians; government employees; attorneys; anthropologists, historians, museum curators; genealogists; film producers; and the media.

Alaska needs a modern facility to house, protect, and showcase its history. A new, combined library, archives, and museums building will bring together staff and resources and create an efficient resource. The integration of space and services will give Alaskans access to a unified collection, both physically and digitally, to these rich collections. It would help a great deal to have a state-of-the-art facility that can assist Alaskans with Alaska history and culture projects, digitization projects, educational and public outreach programs; and protect their rights due under state and federal laws. For more information about the project, including new building facts, activities, and updates, please visit this website: www.alaskalamp.blogspot.com.

It is time to move this project forward. Governor Sean Parnell is to be commended for including $20 million in his FY 2013 capital budget for the project. A total of $94.5 million is needed to construct the building. In 2010, the Alaska voters supported the project in the statewide bond proposition. The State Library, Archives, and Museums project is ready to begin construction. Land has been purchased, and the planning and design work is done. This project is supported by a coalition of groups around the state -- the Alaska Historical Society, Alaska Library Association, Cook Inlet Historical Society, Friends of the Alaska State Museum, Friends of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum, and Museums Alaska, and by past administrations from both political parties. Hopefully, the State Legislature will add their full support to Governor Parnell's initiative and approve construction funding.

On behalf of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, Alaska Historical Society, Alaska Library Association, and other like-minded groups who have endorsed this critical project, I urge the Legislature to appropriate the construction funds. I ask Alaskans to write to Governor Parnell and to members of the Legislature to let them know you support this project. The new facility will greatly enhance the capability to provide services while providing essential protection and preservation of Alaska's irreplaceable history and cultural heritage.

Bruce Parham retired as director of the National Archives at Anchorage in 2011. He serves on the Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board and the Cook Inlet Historical Society Board.

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