Monday, June 9, 2014

Peter Porco: Closing of Archives Hurts Alaska's Creative Writers

When the National Archives in Anchorage closes its doors for good at 4 p.m. June 20 and nearly all of its massive trove of documents, letters, diaries, photos, maps, sketches, and films are shipped off to Seattle, the historical and cultural injury to Alaska will be huge. That’s not my view alone but is the opinion also of historians like J. Pennelope Goforth, John Cloe, and Stephen Haycox; legal advocates like Averil Lerman; journalists like Charles Wohlforth and Michael Carey; Alaska Native researchers like lawyer Ella Anagick, all of whom live in Anchorage, as well as Mary Breu of South Carolina, author of the 2009 book Last Letters from Attu, and Marla Williams of Kenmore, Wash., writer, producer and director of the 2005 documentary, Aleut Story.

All of them and many others have used the National Archives Pacific Alaska Region facility for important, productive ends and, in the case of  Ella Anagick, who was raised in Unalakleet, to discover her personal file from student days in the late 1960s at Mount Edgecumbe boarding school.

The records held in Anchorage by NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) were generated by some 60 federal agencies. The enormous pile includes more than 19,000 cubic feet of material—12,000 cubic feet of archival items and 7,500 cubic feet of federal records that will eventually become archived and made accessible to the public. More than 80 percent of it is due to leave the state by July 31. The rest is going to Juneau.

These materials exhaustively document U.S. government activities in the Territory and State of Alaska going back to the 1867 Purchase and earlier. For most of Alaska’s long affiliation with the United States, when you talk about its history, you’re talking about the history of the federal government.

How many authors of books about Alaska have dipped into those primary source materials for some of their facts? But now the more pertinent question is, How many future histories, biographies, and documentaries will become more difficult to write for Alaskans who can’t afford an extended stay in Seattle, or even in Juneau?

Let me extend the question to embrace a cultural aspect of this event that’s seldom considered: How many imaginative works—novels, short stories, poems, plays and film scripts—will not be created, or will become more difficult and costly to research, after we lose access to those raw materials—some of them no doubt still unexamined after having been boxed away years ago?

I have only recently started to visit the federal archives here because of my interest in the events of World War II in Alaska, not as a historian or journalist primarily but as a writer of scripts. I had planned to start browsing the local holdings in earnest sometime later this year but now have stepped up my visits with panicky urgency because I have mere weeks to do it. On the recommendation of a helpful, sympathetic worker at the facility, I bought a portable hand-held scanner to scoop up a greater number of documents and upload to my laptop. But that will give me no more than the proverbial drop in the ocean. What truly dismays me is what I don’t know is hidden there.
Researchers generally hunt along certain data paths they consider relevant to their topics. But during the journey—as anyone who’s ever used an online search engine knows—they often discover surprising avenues of information, stuff they did not know about.
“A lot of the time you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it,” says J. Pennelope Goforth, author of Sailing the Mail in Alaska and other works on Alaska’s maritime history.
Here’s a personal example of research serendipity. In among the many boxes that comprise “Anchorage Criminal Cases 1902-1960,” which is a particular record group I recently consulted for the infamous case in which Russian Jack Marunenko was charged with first-degree murder in 1937, I happened to look into an unrelated case out of curiosity.

In December 1943, Stanley Eugene Thompson, a 50-year-old cab driver, and a woman named Tommy Martin were arrested in Anchorage and charged with “setting up and keeping a bawdy house.” In a short typed statement filed during his trial in U.S. District Court and likely read aloud to the jury, Thompson said he lived in a two-room house, a “small yellow building,” near the corner of Ninth Avenue and H Street.

“About six or seven days ago,” Thompson went on, “I took two soldiers and a girl down to my place to have a party and charged them $4.00 for the use of my place... They stayed there about an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half, whereafter I took them back to town. I don’t remember who the boys were but they were soldiers in uniform. I don’t remember who the girl was, except that she was rather tall and fairly good looking and had brown hair. I don’t recall how she was dressed nor the place where I went to call for her, nor the place where I took her afterwards.”

The plain sheet of paper with Thompson’s statement lies in a folder that, along with a dozen other Criminal Court files from the federal era, is stored in a box inside the “Stacks,” the blocky windowless concrete building on Third Avenue opposite the Marx Brothers restaurant that only NARA employees ever enter. The file consists almost entirely of routine court documents—motions filed, names of lawyers, instructions to the jury, all of which are boring if you’re looking for the heart of what’s conjured by the words “bawdy house.” In contrast, the cab driver’s testament is as vivid and colorful as his little yellow house might have appeared in the gray December twilight.

Most of all, the brief Thompson statement is a living germ. For a writer who wishes to evoke, say, wartime Anchorage, the scant details Thompson gave the jury may be just enough to ignite the imagination. The two soldiers in uniform: Were they stationed at Fort Richardson, or had they come to the big town from a base in the Aleutians? Were they headed to the South Pacific now that the Japanese had been booted from Alaska? Would they survive the war? The boys perhaps carried a bottle of whiskey.

And our hooker. She’s tall. She’s “fairly good looking.” Maybe wearing a dark coat, green and blue sweater, maroon knee-length skirt, proud of her bosom and pretty legs. Her brown hair floats back and down in waves. Anchorage, home to only 3,500 people before the war, is now teeming with soldiers and civilians. Hotels are full. New construction has slowed for the winter and city authorities are asking citizens to put up strangers in their houses. The lady is earning good money. The soldiers are happy. They had wanted only an hour, then decided to stay a little longer. But somebody was watching. It’s doubtful the boys’ sergeant cared. So did Anchorage in 1943 have the equivalent of a vice squad? Had Thompson or Martin pissed off somebody—or each other? Was an Anchorage marshal tired of the cold and itching to score an arrest?

From such few seeds and some additional research, a plausible fictional world could emerge. Unfortunately for Alaska writers, we are about to lose relatively easy access to kernels like these—which, for all we know, may exist in the Stacks by the thousands or even tens of thousands. (This particular case and other criminal court records are apparently headed to Juneau. I and other Southcentral residents can be happy these, as well as records of the Alaska Railroad, will remain in Alaska, but we’ll have no easier time perusing them than if they were in Seattle.)  

NARA officials in Washington say they are closing the Alaska facility because its users are too few to justify the half-million-dollar annual cost, out of a total budget of nearly $380 million dollars.

Yes, the numbers are small. Confusingly, NARA has given out several figures about local visitation since announcing the closing on March 11; the number of visits in the last fiscal year appears to be something more than 500.

But there’s a lot more to this story. Visitation to NARA facilities is down across the country, because what drives a lot of such visits is genealogical research, and people can now do that at their local libraries or at home. Moreover, to spend time at the Anchorage NARA is neither convenient nor comfortable. Anyone who visits the Anchorage facility has to pay for parking (or else park well away from the downtown core), and go during weekday business hours. Also, you will spend your research hours in an unattractive building—formerly the federal jailhouse—and do your browsing, with others, in a cramped space no bigger than the average bedroom.

NARA maintains four facilities in the Washington, D.C., area, three in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, and two in Denver. Why couldn’t the agency find a way to consolidate and shutter one of those instead, as it plans to do in cost-saving consolidations in Philadelphia and Fort Worth? (Jay Bosanko, NARA’s chief operating officer, declined to be interviewed by me. A NARA spokeswoman invited me to submit questions in writing. I submitted questions in writing, and the spokeswoman, Laura Diachenko, did not answer any of them.)

NARA has been admirably deft in appearing reasonable and generous, discussing the issue in a friendly, cooperative manner with Alaska Senators Murkowski and Begich, for example, and promising to give some 16 percent of its Alaska holdings to the State Library in Juneau. At the same time it has moved with breathtaking speed to a full shutdown little more than three months after first announcing the closure. (Several people, including myself, believe that NARA has intended this shut-down for several years).

NARA has told the members of our delegation and “stakeholders” who use the Archives that Alaskans should not worry.  In due course, the agency said, it will digitize the records leaving the state. Digitization does seem like a consolation. After all, the words Stanley Thompson used to tell his side of the bawdyhouse story are the same whether read on a digital device or on the original page.

Sure, it’s probably a good idea to convert to an online database all locally held records that are in fact scannable and can be found easily. The fly in that ointment, however, is that it’s going to take years if not decades to do that, assuming it’s done correctly. To create an online database that is easily searchable involves far more than the mere scanning of documents and photographs.

“The archival context and intellectual control of the records is very important,” NARA innovation officer Pamela Wright told the publication Government Computer News in April in a story about the Alaska shutdown. For every item scanned, technicians must create accompanying “metadata,” Wright said. The reporter explained to GCN’s readers that “it’s vital to know what file folder a particular item came from before it was digitized, what series of records that folder belonged to and what group it was a part of in order to maintain a hierarchy of context …”

In other words, when recording metadata, nothing is more essential than thoroughness and accuracy. A few weeks ago, Michael Carey wrote in the Anchorage Daily News about inaccuracies he found while searching certain online NARA records. In one particular case, he told of how only a painstaking researcher could resolve the issue of a missing diarist’s name. It required a time-consuming sequence of steps that no NARA technician was likely to follow, if he even knew how.

In its FY15 report to Congress, NARA said it has 12 billion items nationwide yet to digitize. Given that immense timeline, when exactly do you think the archives now held in Alaska will be online and searchable? Moving 19,000 cubic feet of materials and federal records to the Internet is not going to happen any time soon. NARA’s Bosanko said as much when he told ADN in March that digitizing the Alaska holdings is not the “easy, inexpensive silver bullet that will relieve peoples' concerns.”
Then there’s the human touch. To learn what’s in the Stacks and how to locate things—how to navigate through voluminous finding aids—takes time and often personal assistance. The technicians at the Anchorage NARA have been indispensable for me and I'm sure many others. There’s no digitizing them.

Nor can you digitize items that do not translate to the Web. I invite you to visit NARA’s Website and look at the pathetic online versions of the country’s founding documents, the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights. Talk about the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. The local NARA holds countless maps, large folded documents, diaphanous onion-skin carbons, and other materials whose eventual digital appearance will indeed be a pale version of the original.

True, the National Archives Pacific Alaska Region is not the only repository of invaluable historic materials in the state. The Rasmuson library in Fairbanks, the Consortium Library in Anchorage, the State Library in Juneau—each holds priceless original documentation of Alaska events, big and small, some of it going back to the Russian colonization. That stuff is not leaving. In fact, one recent example of a creative writer making inspired use of such archives to fashion literary art out of primary source material is Steam Laundry, the 2012 book of poems by Fairbanks writer and teacher Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. In the archives of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Nicole found letters and other documents by and about a woman who came into the Fairbanks area with her husband early last century. Using some of the material verbatim, turning over the rich ore of living details found in those documents to fill in gaps, the poet walked into the lady’s life and brought it forth anew. It was exactly the type of archival discovery that can lead to a transcendent glimpse into Alaska’s past.

So the question remains: In all those boxes to be wrapped and shipped out of state this summer, how many Alaska lives and stories might be found there that will be told by other than Alaska writers? Or never told at all?

1 comment:

Carola Von H. said...

Sorry to hear about the removal. I agree it's a loss. And right you are re the shortcomings of digitized documents vs.the original hard copies.