Ross Coen: Archives Options

Having done research in half a dozen National Archives
facilities around the country, I’ve been following closely the news about
NARA’s Anchorage branch. I also appreciated Peter Porco’s June 9 posting on this blog in which he laments the closure of that facility and the transfer of
its Alaska records to Seattle (informally known as Sand Point for the boulevard
on which it is located).

I respect Mr. Porco’s concerns and believe he makes some very good points. But
I also happen to think the situation is not as dire as it’s been made out to
be, and in fact the transfer of records to Seattle opens opportunities for
Alaska scholars and writers.

In that spirit I offer here not exactly a rebuttal to Porco’s column but simply
an alternate view.

We should first remember that none of the Alaska records are going to
disappear. They’re simply being added to Seattle’s already extensive collection
of Alaska and Pacific Northwest materials.

One of Porco’s primary complaints is that innovative works of literature,
poetry, and history by Alaska writers will become fewer in number when locals
lose the ability to visit the Anchorage facility. It seems, however, that
Alaskans of creative mind who visit Sand Point will now be able to mine not only
those same records formerly housed in Anchorage but the Seattle holdings as
well. That sounds like a 2-for-1 deal to me.

Let’s also remember that Sand Point is just a couple miles from the University
of Washington, where Special Collections at Suzzallo-Allen Libraries has
Alaska-related records—including tens of thousands of photographs—that are
woefully underutilized by Alaska researchers.

I certainly empathize with Anchorageites who are losing their local facility.
But for those of us in Fairbanks, Juneau, Bethel, Nome, Kodiak, or anywhere
else, it’s not such a big deal. We all travel Outside at some point or another,
and giving oneself a four- or five-day stopover in Seattle is really no more
onerous than doing the same in Anchorage.

Finally there is the question of digitization. I agree with Porco, Charles
Wohlforth, Michael Carey, and others who have pointed out that the proposed
digitization and online posting of all Alaska records is a pipe dream. It’s
never going to happen. The records number in the millions, and the cost in both
time and money is so wildly prohibitive that anyone who thinks it can be done
is crazy.

But even if the tools and resources were there, I argue it shouldn’t be
done. Yes, in some cases it makes sense. Genealogical records, for example.

But anyone who has done archival research knows the only way to truly grasp the
context and relative significance of any document is to handle the thousand
documents that come before it in the file and the thousand that come after it.
You don’t get that from downloading a PDF on your laptop at your kitchen table.

As Porco pointed out, visiting an archive also allows you to meet and speak
with an archivist who will direct you to four or five relevant collections you
didn’t know about. The archivist is also likely to give you the names of other
researchers working in your field, creating networking opportunities you’d
never get from an online database. Some of this institutional knowledge will be
lost with the closure of the Anchorage facility, and that’s a shame. But give
the staff at Sand Point a chance. They’ll catch up.

Working in the archives also gives you the opportunity to meet the other
researchers and learn about their projects. It’s worth noting that every time
I’ve been in the Anchorage reading room I’ve been alone.

Over the past few months many writers whom I admire greatly have worked hard in
an effort to keep the Anchorage NARA facility open. I wish they had succeeded.
I really do. The fact they did not, however, need not be seen as a total
defeat. Opportunities still abound.

Ross Coen of
Fairbanks is currently a PhD student in history at the University of
Washington. His book
Fu-go: The Curious
History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America will be published by
University of Nebraska Press in November 2014.

1 thought on “Ross Coen: Archives Options”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Hi Ross, thanks for the post. I've been enjoying your WWII books as part of my research for a book about building the Alcan. 🙂

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