Anchorage Daily News: Senator scans Alaska history at library

WASHINGTON -- Peering intently at a richly detailed 1914 fire insurance map of her hometown, Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Friday delighted in the precision, pointing out Ketchikan landmarks familiar to her childhood. "That's the public school where my grandmother taught!" Murkowski said, from an ornate walnut-paneled room in the Library of Congress. "This is fascinating!"

Murkowski, who sits on a Senate committee that oversees the Library of Congress, browsed through a collection of maps, oral histories, letters and photos pulled together by curators to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. She browsed the collection with James Billington, the librarian of Congress, as the two taped their conversation for "Alaska Report," a program she and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, host regularly for home state viewers.

Alaska's history is a "great, great story, and Americans are thirsty for great stories," Billington said. "And Alaska has given birth to a lot."

Some of the collection is available at the library only. But many materials are available online, giving Alaskans far from Washington, D.C., access to some of the most important documents in the state's history at the library's Web site, www.loc.gov. Murkowski asked the library to pull together the collection in part to emphasize just how much is available online. She also often recommends that visitors to Washington from Alaska walk across the street from the Capitol to visit the Library of Congress, the largest in the world.

"Not only can you come here and look and observe with your own eyes," Murkowski said, "but in your classroom in Barrow or at home sitting at your computer, you have access to our nation's treasures. This opens up the world."

Maps in the library's collection detail more than 200 years of state history, beginning with an 1802 Russian map that shows the coastline but has few details of anything north of the Seward Peninsula. There's also the official 1867 map of Alaska when the U.S. acquired it from Russia. Both are available online.

"You can get them in the remotest part of Alaska," Billington said.

Another Gold Rush-era map drawn by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1898 shows trails and steamboat routes to the gold and coal fields of Alaska. Then there's the first map of downtown Anchorage, drawn up by surveyors in 1915 to impose federal order on what was then a squatter's village -- the grid drawn nearly a century ago remains remarkably intact to this day.

The Ketchikan fire insurance map that captured Murkowski's attention is one of 700,000 such maps from across the country in the library's collection, dating mostly from 1880 to 1961, said John Hebert, chief of the library's geography and map division. The maps, drawn by a private company, were used by insurers underwriting fire policies from afar. There's even a fire insurance map drawn shortly before the 1881 shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., Hebert said, and yes, the OK Corral is on there.

Of all the maps in the collection, however, one perspective is missing, Hebert acknowledged. There are no maps reflecting how Native people in Alaska or other places viewed or navigated the land they inhabited -- and if anything like that exists, the library would be interested in acquiring them.

Beyond maps, there are video interviews with veterans, recordings of lost Native languages and Russian Orthodox Church music in Tlingit. Anyone who comes to the library in person can ask to see the journals from the Harriman expedition, the 1899 survey of the Alaska coastline.

There's even a 1903 letter to the Alaska Boundary Tribunal from President Teddy Roosevelt insisting that negotiators play fair but do everything in their power to bar the British and Canadians from claiming Sitka during international boundary negotiations.

"I hope the British will see reason," Roosevelt wrote, warning, "if they don't, it will be unpleasant for us, but it will be far more unpleasant for Great Britain and Canada."

"There are some good paragraphs in here," Murkowski said, chuckling, as she read the letter.

"We won that one," curator Daun Van Ee joked, later.

One of the more modern treasures comes in the form of oral histories given by war veterans from Alaska. Many such interviews are available online, at the Veteran's History Project, www.loc.gov/vets, a volunteer effort that encourages people across the country to interview the veterans in their lives. About 100 to 200 are submitted each week, said Bob Patrick, director of the project.

From Alaska, there is Mary Louise Rasmuson's account of enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II. Roy Bailey, an Alaska Native from Sitka, details his wartime experience during the Battle of the Bulge, and will be featured this November in an online showcase of Native American veterans.

Such interviews personalize history, making it more accessible to people from all walks of life, Billington said. And having many of the documents online gives the world a glimpse of American life and ingenuity, he added.

"It levels the playing field of access to the nation's memory," he said, "and also the records of America's creativity."

By:  By Erika Bolstad. Originally published by the Anchorage Daily News on September 14, 2009