Alaska College’s Shutdown Threatens Historic Collections

Alaska College’s Shutdown Threatens Historic Collections

When Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska, shut down its operations last year, among the many logistical questions was what to do with the 48,000 items held by its Stratton Library. The oldest institution of higher education in the state, the 130-year-old school abruptly dismissed its 100 faculty and staff on June 29, 2007, following years of financial troubles.

Ginny Norris Blackson had been library director for less than a year when the closing was announced. Agreeing to serve as a paid consultant to deal with protection of the collection, Blackson’s immediate concern was the fragile collection of 923 plate-glass negatives by turn-of-the-20th-century photographer E. W. Merrill, which she arranged to be loaned to the National Park Service.

Blackson then turned her attention to the print materials, particularly the collection of some 1,000 rare and first edition books about Alaska from the personal library of customs official C. L. Andrews. Although she told American Libraries that summertime temperatures in the region can drop into the 40s, she wasn’t able to negotiate the restoration of heat to the building until October. By this time, the college had voided her consultant agreement, but she was allowed to continue on a volunteer basis.

Blackson and a group of around 20 librarians, museum workers, and other concerned individuals began moving the most valuable materials to a second-floor conference room that was far away from water pipes that could freeze and break. Libraries and archives across the state donated 300 Hollinger boxes, acid-free backing paper, and other archival supplies, and a dehumidifier was installed in the room in late October.

About 5,000 items are currently being stored in the conference room, including all the historical collections and the college’s archives, as well as paintings formerly housed in other campus buildings. However, Blackson said, there’s no room to add additional materials, noting, “We can’t fit anything else in and still allow air to circulate.”

About once a month the group met to sort through the library’s materials, a task complicated by a lack of access to the catalog following removal of the campus servers. Blackson said the most valuable tool was a typewritten catalog of the historical collections that had been prepared for James Michener when he was researching his 1988 novel Alaska at the library. However, the monthly sessions ended when the college hired a new firm to manage the campus in July.

Blackson said she was able to return to the library for the first time in several months on August 19, and “the only thing I can say is, it’s just awful.” The ceiling is leaking where the historical collections had been previously located, she said, adding that the humidity in the building is “unbelievable” and “the whole place smells musty.”

The college’s board of trustees has appointed a nine-member library advisory group comprised of librarians and community members, which has recommended that the Andrews collection be given to the Sitka’s Kettleson Memorial Library. However, Blackson said the trustees, who hope to reopen the school, are reluctant to relinquish any of the holdings, feeling that “the Stratton Library is the last jewel in our crown.”

At the August 12 trustees meeting, the local consortium, the Sitka Library Network, proposed that it be allowed to develop a plan for long-term dispersal of the collection. The first step would be to apply for grants to inventory the holdings; local libraries could then request items that are not in their collections. If the college were to reopen, the materials would be returned. The trustees approved the proposal in principle, but stopped short of putting it into effect by removing the word “implement,” Blackson said.

Blackson, who is now working as librarian at Sitka High School, fears that time is of the essence: “I don’t feel that anything that is unique or of historical significance should remain in the building much longer.” She observed that the college is at least $7 million in debt, with no revenue stream other than rental on a few of the buildings, and it cost more than $27,000 to heat the building in FY2006; since then, she noted, fuel costs have doubled.

Posted on August 22, 2008. Discuss.