Alaska Research – The Digital Divide: A Guest Post by Michael Catoggio

So you’re working on that book.  You need some colorful background information on your setting.  Say you’ve set a novel in Nome or Fairbanks or Homer in 1954.  What did those towns look like?  What movies (if there WERE movie theaters) were playing in July of that year?  You’d like to look at some news stories from that period.  How much was a hamburger backs then?

And YOU, dear writer, are sitting in your warm cabin in Talkeetna or Homer or Haines thinking, heck, everything is online these days.  A quickie Google search and up comes the digital Nome Nugget – yes?


Here’s the continental divide regarding Alaskan resources – some things you can find in digital form and some you can only find in print form.  And the digital material can be further divided as follows – that which is freely available digitally and that which is available for a price.
So much for the concept that “everything is on the internet.”

So, since I’m (finally) retired, I thought I’d cast some light onto this murky terrain.  To exemplify this divide, let’s take two types of research materials – newspapers and books. 

Newspapers – some of the larger newspapers – Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks – have been digitized, roughly back to the mid-1980s.  EVERYTHING else – The Anchorage Times from July 1954, all of the other Alaska newspapers, aren’t.  You can get access to the digital papers through your local public library.  If you have a library card, say in Fairbanks, whether you know it or not, you have access to tons of digitized info via their library’s databases.

So, why can’t you access the Iditarod News or tons of older Alaskan papers online?  Well, mega-corporations are generally the folks buying up and digitizing content.  They create digital database then sell them to interested buyers.  Is there a market for the digitized Tok newspaper?  Probably not – not one that will make Thompson Reuters big bucks.  Ergo, the Tok newspaper and other Alaska papers sit on microfilm in select state libraries.

Books – Isn’t everything freely available on Google?  That’s what crackpot mayors will contend as they slash library budgets.  Well, if a book is in copyright, that is, if it has been published after 1923, it won’t be freely available on the internet.

You’ve heard of the Google Book Project.  Our friends at Google wish to digitize every book in the world.  As of this writing, this little project is on hold while the courts noodle about the implications for authors and publishers.

But when the scanning ceased, Google had dumped quite a load of content on their website. (Go to Google, click  on “more”, then onto “Google Books”).  So, anything published before 1923, say Bancroft’s History of Alaska published in the 1880s, can be found, full-text on Google Books.  Free.

Have you visited Alaska Digital Archives? (  This is a cooperative project involving our university libraries.  There is a growing collection of historical photographs and documents on the site.  But the photo collection herein represents only a fraction of photos available in Alaska libraries – e.g., the library at the Anchorage Museum only has about 10% of their photo collection on the Archives.

You’re getting the picture, yes?  Lots of stuff can be found on your home computer at 3am, but enormous quantities of resources are still in local libraries – just like in 1960.

Librarians are your best friends.  Go seek their help.  Too, you can hire fee-based researchers to help save you time.  Who can I recommend?  Oh…I’ve just started a research service for writers! 

2 thoughts on “Alaska Research – The Digital Divide: A Guest Post by Michael Catoggio”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Very helpful, Michael — thank you! And for some reason, it's exciting to know that a lot of AK material ISN'T available online. Makes the prospective search even more interesting.

  2. Bless you, Michael, I will put you on my bookmarks list! And I agree that internet resources are limited. I have found wonderful librarians in Anchorage, Nome, and Fairbanks who have helped me find treasures in their archives. I couldn't write historical fiction without libraries and museums.

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