The National Archives and Records Administration plans to close its facility in Anchorage this year, and aims to move the millions of pages of documents housed there to Seattle.
The closure, expected to be announced Tuesday, comes as part of a cost-cutting effort that the agency says will save more than $1 million annually, and includes consolidating other facilities in Philadelphia and Fort Worth, Tex.
The agency's staff was notified of the decision last week.
The timeline and process for the closure was not immediately clear, though the notice sent to employees said the Anchorage facility would be closed during the federal government's 2014 fiscal year, which ends in September. A NARA spokesman did not respond to requests for information on Monday
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Begich said in an email that the closure was a decision made by NARA, without the involvement of Congress.
News of the closure has spread "like wildfire" among Anchorage historians and researchers, said Katie Ringsmuth, an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the president of the Alaska Historical Society.
"It's just hard to put into words what a loss this would be to us," she said. "It would be devastating to see that national archives and all of the treasures that it holds, and those firsthand experiences of our past, disappear."
A spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that NARA plans to make its Anchorage records available on the Internet, though he did not provide additional details.
The Anchorage facility, on 3rd Avenue downtown, opened in 1990, and leases its space from the General Services Administration, the federal government's landlord arm. The office recorded 4,000 visits in 2001, according to an article in the Daily News at the time; more recent figures were not available Monday.
Its storage space is filled with 15-foot-tall shelves, which hold reams of records documenting Alaska's history: maps, photo albums, censuses, even reports of shipwrecks. The facility also maintains more recent documents on behalf of federal agencies.
The historical documents include files from the Coast Guard, such as pictures of the base on Kodiak Island, records of a lifesaving station in Nome, even pencil and ink sketches done by a Coast Guard member in the Aleutian Islands in the 1880s and 1890s that NARA says are "the earliest artistic drawings from the Revenue Cutter Service."
There are Alaska Railroad documents, records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and files from the New Deal-era Matanuska Colony Project, which relocated families from the Midwest to farm in the Matanuska Valley.
The federal archives are especially relevant in Alaska, which was a federal territory between its purchase from Russia in 1867 until it achieved statehood in 1959.
Ringsmuth, the historical society's president, has done research in the archives recently for a map project to commemorate Anchorage's centennial. She said she supports the idea of digitizing documents, but said it would take "an army of digitizers" to process the 12,000 cubic feet of historical records housed in the Anchorage facility.
"There's also something about holding a journal--actually seeing the written word on the page that someone who is there, at that time, experienced and wrote," Ringsmuth said.
Including presidential museums and libraries, NARA currently maintains facilities in 17 states, counting Alaska. Hawaii doesn't have one.
The notice sent to NARA staff last week says that the two employees who work at the Anchorage facility would be relocated, with the federal government paying their expenses.
NARA says it will save $1.5 million annually from the closure in Anchorage, and the consolidations in Texas and Philadelphia, according to the notice.
That money "can be reinvested in our staff and in programs that expand access, improve customer service, and increase public engagement with our records," the notice says.
The agency's budget request for the next fiscal year is $377 million, down $10 million from the year before.
Ringsmuth said that the historical society plans to write letters to the state's congressional delegation to make it clear how much members value the Anchorage archive.
The delegation was alerted to the closure in a letter sent last Thursday, according to Begich's spokeswoman, who added that her office has heard "a lot of concerns about the issue."
"Sen. Begich's office is in the process of talking with stakeholders and NARA to assess how researchers would be able to access the records should they move to Seattle," the spokeswoman wrote in an email.
Felling, the spokesman for Murkowski, emailed a similar statement, adding that "in light of the nation's growing deficit and the high cost of this aging and over-capacity facility, she is looking into approaches that have worked in similar situations nationwide."
Asked for details of the high costs, and about how the facility was over capacity, Felling said he would provide more information Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear how the planned closure of the Anchorage office would affect a separate, undeveloped property in Midtown that is owned by NARA.
NARA had eyed the parcel for a new building, and bought the nine-acre property for $3.5 million in 2004, but the project stalled. Mayor Dan Sullivan has since expressed interest in acquiring the parcel for use as a new transit center for the city.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ