Thursday, November 19, 2009

our library - an indoor field trip

A pocket watch that belonged to Soapy Smith.
A handwritten letter dated 1865 from William H. Seward.
Rockwell Kent’s book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.

These were just a few highlights of yesterday’s tour of the Z.J. Loussac Library’s Alaska Collection. Special Collections Librarian, Michael Catoggio, led a first-ever insiders’ tour of the library. Seven of us showed up to take the tour and learn about the depth of resources that are housed in our public library. Michael wanted to lead this tour partly to show writers, artists, book lovers and the curious what kinds of treasures we, the citizens of Anchorage, have in our library. (Some, likes those listed above, are valuable enough to reside in a locked vault.) The wealth of research material, inspiration, answers to questions we didn’t know we had. In this time of tight budgets, funding cuts and people who think that everything we need to know can be found on the internet, Michael was able to show us a sampling of what is in our library, particularly the Alaska Collection.

The collection is a repository for works by Alaskan authors; works about Alaska. Books, periodicals, oral histories, letters, photographs, early maps, government publications. A replica of the Liberty Bell. Anchorage high school year books. Like I said, we saw a sampling. There is so much more than could be covered in the hour-plus tour.

I’ll admit, I haven’t been a big library user in Anchorage. I don’t know why because as a kid I loved going to our Carnegie library in the small town where I grew up. My family always participated in the summer reading program. I remember sitting outside on the big brick and cement walls with my two younger brothers while waiting for Dad to pick us up on his way home from work.

Then, years ago, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, I discovered some treasures in the Golda Meir Library on campus. I found books about Milwaukee history and since I hadn’t grown up there, I was curious to learn a bit about its past. I remember reading the little tidbit about how two feuding city founders, one on each side of the Milwaukee River, led to downtown streets that even today have a jog in them where they cross the river because two men didn’t want their streets to ever be joined. Funny thing was, no native Milwaukeeans I knew had heard the story.

Though an English major, I always enjoyed history. Not the “we fought these people in this war” history, but the quirky pieces of history that cause me to say “Oh, that’s why..."

So when Brian, another tour participant, opened the book containing the minutes from the first assembly meeting of the newly formed City of Anchorage, 1920, we all paused as he read about ordinances that required children to not be out late at night and curtains to not cover the windows of pool halls. I could have sat down right there and read the type-written pages. This is history. And, yes, this is where stories are born. What was going on behind the curtained pool hall windows? I want to know! Find me the newspaper so I can read more!

After having my eyes opened to the archives contained in the library, after having had the opportunity to peak at our history in a section of the library where I’d never ventured, now I want to go back. Just to wander the stacks of the circular room on the second floor and pull out pieces of Alaska history. Because digging into my adopted city’s history is another way to become a part of it, as important as voting, staying up to see the northern lights or watching a sled dog race. Thanks to Michael, I’ve had a chance to step through that door and so can anyone else. It’s all yours.