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How an Anchorage century leaps back to life from a searchable database

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 5
  • Published November 4

The front page of the Anchorage Times from July 23, 1917. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

The daily events of Anchorage's entire history can now be searched from a computer.

A Vermont company digitized the Anchorage Times from 1917 until its demise in 1992. A similar Anchorage Daily News archive now reaches back to 1970.

Using these databases is like exploring a forgotten country. Names that disappeared from memory decades ago now pop up in a search, perhaps the only published record of those lives. And with them, stories of great, tragic and mundane events.

At times in the past, both Anchorage papers were packed with headlines, sometimes with 10 on the front page. They detailed ordinary lives, including minor crimes and fires, but also club meetings, notable visitors, and the fine grain of community politics.

Going to the beginning of the city's history, the Anchorage Daily Times opens a fascinating view on the hourly details of frontier life.

Dozens of tiny stories note who checked in at each hotel, the success of a new water well, and train schedules, with daily service to Eklutna and Rabbit Creek. There is news of the city's first sidewalk and of officials getting ready to lay out the town of Wasilla.

I checked the paper of 100 years ago to the day. The Times celebrated impending victory in World War I. Election campaigns hit peak, with an editorial decrying dirty campaigning by Democrats. James Wickersham advertised for votes as Congressional delegate.

And that day's paper covered an issue much bigger than the editor yet grasped. It explained the symptoms of the Spanish flu, which had just arrived in Alaska. An ad for Loussac's Drug Store said to fight the flu with tablets of pine balsam with menthol and eucalyptus.

Over the winter of 1918-'19, the flu decimated communities here, wiping out some Alaska Native villages entirely, and changing Alaska forever. The pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers used to read through individual papers to find this kind of history. Without an exact date, searching was a nauseating process of spinning thousands of pages of microfilm.

Searching by keyword is like flying a jet rather than walking. A name brings up every mention through the decades. A search term for a major event brings up its original occurrence and every anniversary.

"I really couldn't go through 20 years of microfilm, and now I can do that in seconds," said Steve Rollins, dean of the Consortium Library at University of Alaska Anchorage. "It is really quite powerful. It becomes overwhelming in some searches."

Rollins helped make the project happen. A Vermont-based company called Newsbank had acquired rights to the old Anchorage Times, but could not profitably digitize it. Rollins put together a Newsbank representative with Ira Perman, director of the Atwood Foundation.

The foundation holds the fortune left by Bob Atwood, the longtime publisher of the Times, and his wife, Evangeline. Perman said the foundation agreed to pay Newsbank $400,000 to digitize the paper.

Kyle Carufe of Newsbank said the company sends microfilm of the paper to a plant in El Paso, Texas, where it is scanned into PDF files. Proprietary optical character recognition software indexes every word. He said the work is labor-intensive and costly.

Some years and dates from the middle of the last century aren't done, but Carufe said the entire project will be complete in four months. Digitized issues of the Anchorage Daily News go back to 1970 and earlier dates will be filled in.

Rollins said his library's subscription to Newsbank, which includes other papers and databases, costs UAA $28,448 a year. Researchers with university affiliation can use the database from anywhere (as can ADN staff), but members of the public have to go to Consortium Library and access it from a terminal there.

The Anchorage Public Library can't afford a subscription, said library director Mary Jo Torgeson, and isn't currently pursuing it, although the library does provide patrons who have library cards online access to the ADN starting from 1985, and to some other digital-age newspapers.

"We don't have the budget," Torgeson said. "Newsbank is one of those companies that really screws libraries. They are the only game in town. There's nothing we can do."

The decline of our library is only one aspect of Anchorage that has changed. Looking through the old papers, Atwood director Perman said the city had a different spirit.

An Anchorage Daily Times editorial of July 23, 1917, titled, "The Anchorage Spirit," enthused, "It is this spirit which has brought Anchorage from a tent town to a substantial city in two years."

The editor continued, "This spirit rightly directed would make a great city of Anchorage, even though we possessed but half the natural advantages we have. Given, however, the great resources which are tributary to this city, and the indomitable spirit of its citizens, there is no limit to the greatness which we may attain."

In 1935, E.A. Rasmuson, Evangeline's father, essentially gave the newspaper to his daughter and her newspaperman husband, Bob Atwood, inducing them to move from Massachusetts.

Anchorage had only 2,500 residents and, according to Atwood's autobiography, he was bored stiff. His paper embarked on a lifelong quest to make Anchorage bigger and more dynamic, including campaigning for statehood.

"When I came to town everyone knew the Atwoods. Or at least they pretended they did," Perman said.

He continued, "I don't know if we are better or worse now. We're a very different town. We had a sense of direction and mission as a town then, and we don't have that now. We're very diffuse."

I'd say better.

The Atwoods were royalty in a narrow social system. Atwood's paper could be brutally unfair to his enemies.

We don't have royalty anymore. Anchorage today prides itself on welcoming everyone. While we don't live up to our ideals, the Anchorage of today is dedicated to inclusion.

I hope that spirit is Anchorage's mission for the next century.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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