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Digital Bob

City museum makes Southeast historian's columns available online

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2006

There were times when Juneau seemed the obvious choice for Alaska's capital "because of population, location and wealth," a former journalist once wrote, and a downtown diner offering 40-cent lunches promised it would "never close again, day or night."

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Juneau, of course, did become capital. The diner, at the current location of the Viking Lounge & Billiards, eventually closed.

R.N. "Bob" DeArmond remembers. He wasn't there for all of it, but the nearly 95-year-old newspaper man dug up the history for his columns "Days of Yore," "Gastineau Bygones" and "News of the Gold Camp," which ran in Juneau in the 1970s and 1980s. "I enjoyed it," he said Monday from his home in Sitka.

Now, more than 700 of his history columns are accessible to the public on the Internet, in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum's "Digital Bob" project.

"He is an amazing man," museum Director Jane Lindsey said of DeArmond, who still writes a weekly column for the Sitka Sentinel. His Juneau columns include much local history, she added.

DeArmond has lived some history himself. Two decades before he served as assistant to the territorial governor, he rowed a boat from Sitka to Tacoma, Wash., in 1931, after the weekly newspaper he worked for in Juneau was sold. "I wrote a book about it," he said.

His history columns were based on research.

"I ran across a lot of things I couldn't write about," he said, chuckling.

"We needed to put this on the Web," Lindsey said. "We wanted to provide information that is not easily found."

Web link

Find "Digital Bob" through the city's Web site at http://www.juneau.org/parkrec/museum/forms/digitalbob/bobhome.php

The database covers what people were talking about long ago, such as May 5, 1897, when the Opera House management announced that no more family entertainments would be given unless there were guaranteed ticket sales sufficient to cover expenses.

Web visitors can type in "cigar" to look for a history of Juneau's cigar factory, or even the value of the cigar factory's inventory lost in the Opera House fire.

"We spent the entire last year working on it," Lindsey said. "We stayed away from his books." Although they are mentioned on the Web site, the Bob DeArmond Alaska History Project, they were more accessible than the columns from yellowing newspapers.

Museum staff members were surprised at a recent survey that showed how many people used their institution for research, Lindsey said. While there was plenty in the DeArmond columns to help people with historical research, there was no place where they were organized.

"The stars lined up," she said.

Volunteer Mike Blackwell came up with the idea for the searchable database, Lindsey said, but the museum still faced the task of getting it there from paper. "We thought we were going to have to go to Bangalore."

Then they discovered Anne Castle in Juneau had already been typing in Gastineau Bygones columns from old editions of the Juneau Empire that a friend had given her after cleaning out a home. The Empire granted educational-use permission for that, along with the "News of the Gold Camp." The Alaska State Historical Library granted permission to use pictures for the Web site.

Webmaster Patrick McGonegal built the database as volunteers continued gathering everything needed.

"Mike suggested we call it 'Digital Bob,'" Lindsey said.

Her favorite story, she said, may be from the June 9, 1978, Gastineau Bygones, telling of the arrest of Robert Stroud in 1909, two years before DeArmond was born and 53 years before Burt Lancaster portrayed Stroud in "The Birdman of Alcatraz."

"He writes it in an interesting way that pulls you into the experience," she said.

DeArmond said he is honored by compliments of his writing. "I had good teachers," he said from the Alaska Pioneer Home in Sitka.

He still recalls B.K. Daniels, his English teacher when he went to Tacoma for high school, talking not just about English, but in the fall of 1929 how the stock market was about to crash. "George Bush's speeches sound a lot like Herbert Hoover's, he said. "I wonder how many people remember Herbert Hoover's speeches."

He also is honored by the Web site and hopes it helps people's understanding of history. "I'd like to see more Alaska history in schools."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juenauempire.com.



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