Students, public can be history detectives in archives

The guardians on the third floor of the Consortium Library don’t wear badges or uniforms. They’re charged with safekeeping, not people, but the legacies people leave behind. The ties that bind the community they serve are photographs and pieces of paper that weave a connection between yesterday and today. Their mission: to collect and preserve.

“And to make available,” said Dennis Walle, the head of the Archives and Special Collections department in the Consortium Library. He’s been an archivist there since it opened in 1979.

The archives makes photographs and descriptions of its collections available on the Alaska’s Digital Archive Web site, a state project with many partners. But the descriptions online are mere summaries.

Any member of the public can access the materials in the archives to get a better look; they have the same privileges and priority of use as any professional researcher.

“We’re not scary,” said Arlene Schmuland, an archivist at the library. “The students are our focus.”

The first step in any research, Schmuland said, is to review secondary resources _” books and published papers. This is called a literature review. Once someone has an overall idea of what they’re looking for, Schmuland said, the most useful question to ask when considering primary sources is, “Which people or organizations would have had reason to document this?”

When someone walks into the archives to look at materials, they first fill out a form.

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“Basically it’s saying, ‘You won’t crayon on the records, and you won’t throw things at me,'” Schmuland said. “It’s a little more involved than that, but basically it’s our rules and regulations.”

The form also asks what the person is looking for so the archivist can help them find it and suggest other materials that might be useful. The archivist then retrieves the materials from the vault. Most documents can be handled directly, although no pens are allowed in the archives, and bare photographs _” those not sheathed in mylar _” must be handled with latex gloves.

Schmuland said copying charges in the archives are a little spendy. “It’s partly because we have one-of-a-kind items,” she said. “We can’t just send them through the auto-feed.”

Schmuland said that, contrary to what many people think about the archives, historians aren’t the biggest users. Scientists doing biological surveys come in to research the history of animal populations and harvests from anthropologists’ papers. Attorneys come in to research the original intent of a law by examining the recorded legislative debate surrounding it. And for a while, Star Trek fans were the archives’ biggest users.

They wanted to see pictures of Kate Mulgrew, the actor who plays Captain Janeway on “Startrek: Voyager.” She was in the cast of a production in Anchorage of “Philadelphia Story,” and the archives have pictures of the cast.

But Schmuland said students are the user group she tries to reach out to, and that use of the archives by students is on the rise.

“Once the students discover us,” Schmuland said, “they come back and start to get really excited about what they’re finding here and what they can do with it.”

History professor Stephen Haycox was associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the state-wide university assembly _” an advisory body to the UA president _” when the archives at UAA were created.

“If a university aspires to be a credible academic institution, it needs as much research capacity as possible,” Haycox said. “Part of that capability is primary historical documents.”

Haycox said his students use the archives library in many of his classes, including the Alaska history class he teaches. They are required to use primary-source documents in the history senior seminar he teaches. He said students in that class usually use the Consortium Library archives and may also use the National Archives branch in Anchorage, the Alaskana collection at the Loussac Library, or the photographic archives in the Anchorage Museum. All those archives are accessible to any member of the public.

Haycox said sometimes students come across blocks in their research and may end up working on a different story than they intended.

“You’re not going to go to archives all over the country and try to get grants for your research if you’re a student doing a project in the parameters of a 14-week course,” he said.

Sometimes researchers encounter a lack of materials when collections of individuals’ papers have had the personal diaries and letters extracted from them.

Schmuland said she recently had an executor of an estate come in with a collection, but the executor had thrown away all the diary entries of the deceased.

“Don’t tell me about things like that,” Schmuland said. “It makes me want to cry. This woman had been a public health nurse for 50 years. You just know this woman’s diaries were full of really important stuff from a perspective that isn’t often documented.”

Schmuland said every-day people don’t often think of donating their papers to the archives, but that those are the things people in the future will want to know about.

“And a lot of people don’t think about electronic documents as records,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, it’s e-mail, we’ll delete it.’ People are writing to each other more than ever, but we’re losing more because people are deleting it from their inboxes. And there’s so much being decided via e-mail or even the database systems on this campus that needs to be saved.”

Eventually the archives will have to get a server _” consideredtthe best practice for storing digital archives _” to store digital materials. In the meantime, Walle said, the Consortium Library archives is having a hard time processing what it does have.

“We need at least one more full-time processor,” he said. “We have 5,300 cubic feet of material back there, and much of it hasn’t been processed. You can do half a cubic foot to a whole cubic foot a day. Right now we’re processing a collections that’s about 80 boxes. At the same time, there’s a lot of pressure for us to be open more hours. But you can’t be open more hours and still maintain minimal security. You’ve always got to have someone watching the reading room.”