My Turn: Act now to preserve our state history

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

On Jan. 3, 1959, Alaskans awoke to the news that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had signed the bill which admitted us as the 49th state in the union.

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As we approach the 50th anniversary of that momentous day, we have an opportunity to remember those who made that achievement possible, along with all of the people and events which helped create the state that we all enjoy today. The new State Library, Archive, and Museum (SLAM) project will help us to remember our past and create a greater state over the next 50 years.

The Alaska Historical Library and Museum was founded in 1900 by the U.S. Congress. Four years before statehood, the state library was given a separate home. In 1968, the city of Juneau built a new museum to house the collection and turned it over to the state of Alaska to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Seward's purchase from Russia. The state archives were founded two years later, and moved into their current location in 1975. Now is the time to act in order to preserve our history by combining and expanding the state library, archive, and museum into a comprehensive and accessible facility.

These facilities provide a benefit to the entire state. The three collections host the diaries of Alaska's pioneers and the official papers of every governor; 175,000 historical photographs and thousands of years of visual arts; the original state constitution, the original drawings for the state flag, and original artifacts of Native peoples, pioneers, and sourdoughs. Between them, they are a coherent and comprehensive collection, internationally recognized by scholars of Alaska history and culture. Beyond displaying their collections in its current facilities, SLAM puts on traveling exhibits that visit other parts of the state; makes loans to museums and libraries to help locals create their own displays by complementing their own collections; provides technical support and conservation services to local libraries, museums and historical societies; and shares research and information with scholars in all fields. Unfortunately, the condition of the physical plant is preventing them from fulfilling these crucial roles.

Currently, the state library is at capacity and experiencing water leaks, the state archive is structurally failing, and the state museum has been at capacity for more than 20 years. None of these collections have the capability for complete statewide digital access, cutting off the information they hold from many of our citizens. A facility that provides what these valuable resources deserve is overdue, and this anniversary celebration is the perfect time to turn previous plans into a real legacy for the state. In 2003, a plot of land bordering the current state museum was purchased for the SLAM project, and partial design funding was obtained in 2005.

This is why we support a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Johnny Ellis to make this project a reality. In Gov. Palin's initial capital budget, she has proposed to allocate $4.5 million for planning and design of this new facility. Unfortunately, this is only a beginning. The project will require our continued support and funding, and we encourage you to contact your legislators and ask them to keep this project alive. On this anniversary, we need to ensure that the riches of the past don't fade away, and that the future of the state library, archive, and museum is assured.

• Terrence Cole is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Office of Public History. Sven Haakanson Jr. is the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and was recently named a Macarthur Fellow, one of 24 scholars nationwide to receive the $500,000 "genius grant."

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