The chief operating officer of the National Archives and Records Association offered a defense Tuesday for his agency's decision to shutter its Anchorage branch, which he said costs more than $500,000 annually to keep open even as it recorded just 535 visits last year.
"When you look at the outliers, when you realize the millions of visitors we serve nationwide, and the shifts we're seeing as far as how people use records, a business model where we maintain or increase locally focused facilities is not sustainable," said Jay Bosanko, NARA's chief operating officer.
Bosanko declined to comment on the status of a separate, nine-acre property in Midtown owned by NARA that Anchorage officials are seeking to acquire as the site for a new transit center. But also on Tuesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski released a letter she sent to NARA's director that suggests the agency wants to get rid of the property.
"I am told that NARA's chief financial officer and other staff have begun discussions with the General Services Administration regarding the land's potential sale," Murkowski wrote, adding that she hoped the archives could arrange a direct sale to the city. (The GSA is the federal government's landlord arm.)
NARA is under financial pressure, and on Monday proposed a new budget of $377 million, which is $10 million below last year's. Along with the closure of its facility in downtown Anchorage this year, the agency plans to consolidate two archives offices into one in both Philadelphia and Fort Worth, Tex., within the next two years, which would save $1.3 million annually.
In a written statement distributed Tuesday, NARA said that the roughly 12,000 cubic feet of historical records in Anchorage would be moved to Seattle, where the agency would begin to digitize them.
That process, Bosanko acknowledged, is not an "easy, inexpensive silver bullet that will relieve peoples' concerns."
He said the agency plans to talk with "stakeholders," including researchers, historians, and people with interest in genealogy and tribal affairs, to determine which records would be digitized first.
Bosanko declined to give a timeline for how quickly NARA would finish digitizing portions of the records, but said that "as soon as records start arriving in Seattle, we'll be beginning to start to assess them."
Historians and researchers are angrily opposing the move to close the archives, which Bosanko said is an agency decision that is not subject to outside review.
Nonetheless, one Alaska Historical Society board member, J. Pennelope Goforth, emailed Sen. Mark Begich's office to outline her objections, which include potential impacts on ongoing research connected to Anchorage's centennial.
She also said she was worried about the cost of flying to Seattle to review records transferred there, and was concerned that it could be impossible for local historians and archivists to sort through all the agency's records and flag ones they want to keep in the state before they're shipped to Washington.
"I suspect I may be only the first of many phone calls, letters, and emails you will be receiving about this ill-conceived plan to deprive us of our federal historical records," Goforth wrote.
Bosanko, NARA's chief operating officer, defended the decision by stressing that there are many states across the country without their own archives facilities.
In fact, Alaska's facility only opened in 1990, and at that time, records were actually transported from Seattle to the new office, according to John Scroggins, who said in an email that he was the NARA official who oversaw the development of the Anchorage outpost.
Bosanko said he was sympathetic to historians' concerns, and understood their "sense of loss."
"This decision was made by people who have basically committed their career to protecting, preserving the records that make up our documentary heritage as country," he said. "The idea of closing a facility is not something we take lightly, and it's not something that we're necessarily comfortable with. But in the end, it was the right thing to do."
By Nathaniel Herz