Is the public aware that the Soul of Alaska is about to be shipped to a warehouse in Sand Point, Washington? Alaska's National Archives facility in Anchorage is being closed on June 20. Although this has been justified as an annual budget cutting measure, the back story reveals political manipulation gone wrong.
In December 2013, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for purchase of the 9-acre 40th Avenue Midtown parcel owned by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), to be used as a Midtown transit facility. This parcel was funded and reserved by the late Sen. Ted Stevens for a future permanent home for the National Archives in Alaska. The current facility being shut down is in the old federal jail on Third Avenue.
Our congressional delegation responded to lobbying with HR 3786 enabling legislation filed by Congressman Don Young and now pending passage. HR 3786 would allow sale receipts to go to NARA, rather than the U.S. Treasury, thus avoiding strict General Services Administration procurement regulations. This also ignored the fact that funding for a true market-value purchase was not in hand. Now that "Rome is burning," our senators are inquiring about efficient records digitization. NARA simply saw an opportunity to balance its shrinking budget. It is very unlikely that NARA would have attempted to close a National Archives facility in a state better known for influential public leadership.
The Alaska National Archives contains ongoing federal records and Alaska records dating back to its purchase in 1867. It isn't valid to establish the value of a records facility by the number of visits received over a given period. An archive is a stand-alone vital resource, its existence sufficiently justified by being available when needed. Sen. Stevens' vision was to provide the public ready local access, as opposed to necessarily mounting an expensive research expedition to the Seattle area.
Alaska historic records are a mix of textual documents, architectural drawings, maps, photographs and microfilm. These are largely not cataloged, let alone digitized. Non-Alaskans are not trusted to fully understand Alaska historical values well enough to guarantee preservation and even retention of our vital records. And regarding digitization, non-Alaskans are to establish priorities for timely digitization of our mixed records? Really?
Typical among users who find value in the archives are genealogists, historians, veterans, Native organizations, government agencies, educators and students, nonprofit organizations, environmentalists, land researchers, archaeologists, architects, museum curators, authors and reporters.
It is disrespectful of Alaska to attempt to balance the NARA budget by closing the Alaska National Archives facility and selling off the permanent site. Who knows what additional collusion is involved behind the scenes? It is disrespectful to single out relatively remote Alaska when a large number of National Archives facilities in other states are much more closely located for ready public access. It is further disrespectful of Sen. Stevens' knowledgeable vision in bringing the National Archives to Alaska, to provide our public with ready local access.
My wife and I are stakeholders in two Alaska historical societies and a genealogical society. We fully understand the value of ready local access to historical records. Eventual accountability aside, can this closure be stopped? Of course it can. How? Public opposition expressed by more than a few outraged historians. Politicians should consider who controls the factual interpretation of political legacies, without spin. Oh ... right ... historians ... hmm. The Soul of Alaska is priceless.
Bob Baldwin describes himself as an "outraged Alaska historian." He lives in Anchorage.
By BOB BALDWIN