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Territorial court records to stay in Alaska

With closure of National Archives in Anchorage, documents head to Juneau

Posted: July 28, 2014 - 12:02am
Dean Dawson, Alaska State Archivist, watches as Candace Lein-Hayes, the Research Services Access Coordinator for the National Archives in Seattle, signs an agreement at the State Office Building on Friday to keep the state's territorial court documents at the new State Libraries, Archives and Museum facility in Juneau.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Dean Dawson, Alaska State Archivist, watches as Candace Lein-Hayes, the Research Services Access Coordinator for the National Archives in Seattle, signs an agreement at the State Office Building on Friday to keep the state's territorial court documents at the new State Libraries, Archives and Museum facility in Juneau.

When it was announced that the National Archives in Anchorage would be closing, many Alaskans panicked, worrying the state would be saying goodbye to a lot of its history. Fortunately, a compromise was reached between the National Archives and Alaska State Archives — a deal sealed Friday during a noon ceremony at the Alaska State Library.

In March the National Archives announced the closure of its Anchorage facility, along with two others. The research room closed in June and the facility will close permanently in
September.

Initially, all records held in the Anchorage facility were set to be transferred to Seattle — which had many Alaskans upset.

State Archivist Dean Dawson said many people contacted the National Archives, which “fielded several calls and irate emails.”

Alaska’s national delegation received a lot of calls as well.

“I requested that our records be kept in our state so our people can have access,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote in a letter. “In May, I was pleased to learn that the National Archives and Records Administration would transfer 92 percent of the Territorial Court Record Holdings to the Alaska State Archives.”

The panic and ire might have been unnecessary. Dawson said the Alaska State Archives had been involved in the discussion before the news was released to the public, and he felt confident an acceptable arrangement could be made.

“We thought there could be a middle ground,” Dawson said. “There’s not a qualified (facility) in the state to store all those records.”

They could, however take the territorial court records, which made sense to both parties since Alaska has a majority of those records already.

A lot of people were involved in working out a suitable arrangement.

“This opportunity to formally receive a priceless donation of Alaskan territorial court system records was made possible by the generosity of the National Archives and Records Administration, the strong and continued support of Alaska and Juneau’s legislative delegations, the office of the governor and the persistent advocacy of Alaska’s historical community,” Dawson said.

A letter was sent to national archivist David Ferriero advocating for the territorial records alone to stay in Alaska — “and they completely followed through with this reasonable solution,” Dawson said.

Dawson worked with the National Archives in Seattle through regional administrator Candace Lein-Hayes.

A team researched laws and regulations from other states, though Alaska is unique due to its long time as a territory, and ultimately senior leadership made a decision to leave the territorial court records in Alaska.

“From the get-go,” Dawson said, “Alaska had a strong argument for housing the records.”

With the availability of the State Library, Archives and Museum’s new “flawless” storage environment, they could effectively store the additional archives.

“Would we have been full to the gills, we wouldn’t have had much of an argument,” he said. “It was well-timed.”

The State Archives is in the process of moving archives from its remote Short Street storage facility to the new SLAM building. They will receive the territorial archives from Anchorage on Aug. 4, 7 and 8. The archives will arrive via the AlCan highway and the Haines-Juneau Ferry.

A number of guests gathered for Friday’s ceremony. Dawson and Lein-Hayes addressed the crowd and signed documents, making the transfer official. Sally Smith spoke as a representative of Sen. Mark Begich, while Dawson read aloud a letter from Sen. Murkowski.

Retired Judge Niesje Steinkruger shared the importance of the documents to Alaskan communities and her involvement with state and territorial records.

Individuals or groups who find themselves with such records often bring them to her.

“After I look them over, I bring them to the archives and they ask where I got them and I can never remember,” she said with a little laugh.

She brought with her a collection of birth, death and marriage records from Galena and Nulato which had been handed over to her. She provided the documents to Native corporation Doyon first, so they could copy and learn from the documents.

“These are critical documents, especially to our villages,” Steinkruger said.

The reason she got involved with records, and one of the reasons they can be so important, is because of the Morningside Hospital in Portland, where about 5,000 Alaskans deemed “insane” were taken between 1905 and 1968. Some were never heard from again. The court orders that placed them in the hospital can provide families with answers they wouldn’t otherwise have.

There are worries these documents will be taken, digitized and destroyed, Steinkruger said. People need reassurance that they will be safe and accessible.

“There’s a lot of territorialism with records,” Dawson said. “If you have them somewhere, you rarely want them to go anywhere else.”

The argument for keeping the records in Alaska, or in the more populous Anchorage, is based on providing access to the original documents, but records show there were not many users accessing records at the Anchorage facility.

With the advent of the Internet and so many searchable online databases, using microfilm has declined significantly, Lein-Hayes said.

While having the physical documents can be very meaningful, Steinkruger said during the ceremony, digitization makes information from those records available regardless of location.

Dawson is overseeing a multi-year imaging and digitization project with organization Family Search, which will photograph and catalog the state’s vital records free of charge in exchange for including the public records in their searchable genealogy database.

“Some of these NARA records we will digitize also,” Dawson said.

For the records that will not remain in Alaska, Dawson said there will be a lot of collaboration between the National Archives in Seattle and the State Archives in Juneau, as well as other archives.

“It doesn’t matter where the physical medium is these days,” Dawson said. “It’s all about access these days.”

Some things may change, but Alaska will still have its history pretty handy.

“The history of who we are as a state — as a people — is defined by our past,” Murkowski wrote. “The written records of those who came before us are part of who we are and how we came to be. And what better place for these valuable records to be than the new Statewide Library, Archives and Museum building in Juneau.”

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