Compass: Treasure of Anchorage history belongs in Anchorage

The news that the National Archives in Anchorage will close has forced me to take some time from the book I am writing, the official centennial history of Anchorage, to express dismay at the serious loss this decision would be for our town.

The heart of our state's history is in these archives, preserved in the original documents written by those who came to the federal colony of Alaska long before it was a state.

The federal government created Anchorage and ran it for the first five years. The officials responsible for the new town communicated with memos and letters, and every step of our early history is documented, including confidential communications that bring out funny and unexpected details.

I've recently spent days poring over these original documents to write our history. I've done this for other books I've written. Each time I make many discoveries that have never been published before.

For example, I recently found the handwritten diary and time sheets of Jack Brown, the forest guard sent to Ship Creek in 1912, three years before Anchorage existed, which included his observations "exploring" Ship Creek, Chester Creek, Point Woronzof and the Eklutna Valley. Jack describes staking out the boundaries of Anchorage before town builders arrived, right after Congress passed the Alaska Railroad Act on March 14, 1914, exactly a century ago.

I'm not sure anyone has opened the pages of those diaries since he submitted them to his supervisor.

Of course records such as these will still exist if they are moved to Seattle. But they will not be used. As an author, I have accessed records in archives outside Alaska. The choices are to travel to the archives and spend several days there, or to hire a private researcher to do the work for you. Neither is practical unless you have a large budget, which historians rarely do.

Using a researcher in another city is expensive and uncertain. If available, they are uneven in their skills. In the best of circumstances, they need a lot of time to become familiar with the project before they can start. These searches require prior knowledge of what the archive holds and specific instructions for the researcher. Otherwise, an author can spend a lot of money and come up with little to show for it.

The research that more often produces historical discoveries requires sifting through files and developing a mental picture of the past. The times and personalities of the people involved slowly take shape. Finally, with enough awareness of the archive and the period it covers, a researcher has the insight to reconstruct history. Imagine doing that while paying for hotel bills and eating in restaurants in Seattle.

My work is funded by major publishers and grants, and I will rarely be able to afford the kind of work I like to do if the archives are in Seattle. Other researchers, who need more time and have less funding, will lose their opportunities completely.

The option of digitizing the records is laughable. The Archives hasn't had the budget even to create indexes for large blocks of records. There are more than 1,000 boxes of early records of the Alaska Railroad that have never been organized and are available only in a block. Digitizing all the records in the archives would cost many millions of dollars. Let's not kid ourselves that will ever happen.

In addition, many of the old paper records are only legible on close inspection. A previous generation thought putting records on microfilm would solve the problem of records storage. As a consequence, we have miles of illegible microfilm. Let's not create millions of illegible digital files and think we've solved anything.

Alaska's history is a long story of Alaskans fighting to control their own resources. Now, the resource of our history itself is threatened. By moving the records to Seattle, the National Archives will cut the heart out of Alaska's past. Our leaders need to take up the cause of their predecessors in the statehood movement, and Native claims fight, and so many other battles for Alaska's self-government, and keep our history at home.

Charles Wohlforth is an Anchorage writer, historian and former Assembly member.