Fire-Threatened National Parks Archives Find Safe Home at University of California–Merced

There are many ways that public libraries have helped during the West coast’s wildfire seasons: providing Wi-Fi and charging stations, helping residents file insurance and FEMA claims, offering parking lots as food and supply drop-offs, and even opening their doors as cooling centers. In a more dramatic turn, the University of California–Merced Libraries stepped up to safeguard the archives and records of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in a last-minute evacuation.

masked parks workers in a line loading archival boxes from steel shelving into truck
Park Service staff loading collections onto trucks 
Photo Credit: Paul Hardwick, National Park Service

There are many ways that public libraries have helped during the West coast’s wildfire seasons: providing Wi-Fi and charging stations, helping residents file insurance and FEMA claims, offering parking lots as food and supply drop-offs, and even opening their doors as cooling centers. In a more dramatic turn, the University of California (UC)–Merced Libraries stepped up to safeguard the archives and records of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Parks in a last-minute evacuation.

Over the weekend of September 12–13, locals in the Sierra Nevada foothills region prepared to evacuate as the SQF (Sequoia) Complex wildfire encroached. The following Monday, SEKI Curator Ward Eldredge contacted Emily Lin, head of digital curation and scholarship at the UC Merced Libraries to let her know that the Castle Fire was moving toward the parks’ headquarters in Three Rivers.

Eldredge and Lin had worked together with SEKI archives before. In 2019, two collections were loaned to UC Merced to be digitized: superintendent reports dating back to the parks’ consolidation in 1943 and a set of panoramic photographs taken by Lester Moe, who traveled throughout the U.S. park system taking pictures from fire lookout stations. “We had been talking about the issue of safekeeping for the archives for some time,” noted Lin.

UC Merced’s location in the San Joaquin Valley is out of the risk zone for both fires and earthquakes, making its Kolligian Library a logical choice to relocate the SEKI material. Although they had previously held off making any decisions because of the library’s space constraints, when Eldredge got in touch late on the afternoon on September 14, said Lin, “there was really no question that we would step up as we could and bring the collections here for safekeeping.”

The fires were moving at the rate of several miles a day, giving the partners little time to move the collections. Because residents were evacuating their homes at the same time, there were no moving companies or truck rentals available. Finally, on Tuesday, Eldredge managed to locate a U-Haul, and Lin secured the truck used for university moving services. With the addition of a van from the park, that Wednesday they were able to pack up the entire archives—an estimated 600 linear feet of material, including archival boxes, 12 herbarium cabinets holding plant specimens, and other artifacts. The trucks were packed from floor to ceiling, “like bricks,” said Lin. “It was packed so tightly that nothing shifted” on the two-and-a-half hour drive to the university.

The entire collection arrived intact and was unpacked by UC Merced Library staff. “There were several lucky breaks—a compounding of good fortune. And a whole bunch of that was just the good will of UC Merced,” Eldredge told the Foothills Sun-Gazette. “There were parts of the collection that we wouldn’t have been able to get out without their help.”

“We're just really fortunate that everyone was able to pull together in that very short time frame,” Lin told LJ.

 

OFFERING SAFETY AND ACCESS

At approximately 150,000 square feet, the 15-year-old Kolligian Library had space constraints to consider even before adopting an outside archive. The library shares its four floors with other campus units, and houses its own special collections, including materials on the history of the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra Nevada region, and the University of California Cooperative Extension archive.

But thanks to a recent expansion and the decision to teach classes remotely this semester because of the pandemic, classroom space has been temporarily freed to hold the SEKI archives. Whether the materials will become a permanent part of UC Merced’s special collections is still under discussion.

hand pointing at pages in display case showing 2 old looking b&w photos of park views
Records detailing the original surveys and planning conducted for the High Sierra Trail
Photo Credit: Veronica Adrover, UC Merced

The archives include the 130-year history of the Sequoias, the country’s second-oldest national park, and documents dating to its founding; tens of thousands of photographs and negatives, including records from the Mather Mountain Party, whose exploration of the area helped lead to the creation of the National Park Service; early journals of guides and rangers; plant samples of every known species collected at the parks; and a collection of precious baskets from the Yokuts, some of the land’s earliest inhabitants. A search of one archival box recently turned up a docket book of arrests from a time when the park had its own court. Maps of individual sequoia trees within the parks and surrounding areas date back to the early 20th century, offering detailed information on the landscape. “Given the changes we're seeing now with the fires, to be able to go back in time to see what the land looked like over the past century—if that record were lost, we wouldn't know,” said Lin. “It's irreplaceable.”

onion skin paper with typing on it, large hole and tears on one side
Page from the Parks’ Superintendent Reports, photographed last year because of its condition and to demonstrate collection conservation need
Photo Credit: Heather Wagner

In addition to safety considerations, another benefit of bringing the SEKI archives to UC Merced is increased access for students, researchers, and the public. The library has the capacity to digitize the entire collection, which could then be made widely available on the California Digital Library’s Calisphere platform, and in turn through the Digital Public Library of America. “Being able to be that channel into that larger infrastructure, the larger digital space, is a tremendous benefit,” noted Lin. And the university’s existing collections, which reflect the development of agriculture and natural resources over the past century, would offer ample potential for cross-research.

“I think there is a will on both sides to keep [the SEKI archives] on campus in the library,” Lin told LJ. “Parks, as well as the university, see the value and the importance of keeping them here where they're safer and where's there this potential for digitization and greater access.”

UC Merced has already digitized superintendent reports and 1930s panoramic fire lookout station photographs from Yosemite National Park—another vulnerable location, as the Ferguson Fire, which burned 96,901 acres in 2018, proved. Lin is hoping to digitize Yosemite’s archives as well, and bring both collections together, before another emergency strikes.

“This really raises attention to the need to preserve these collections,” said Lin. “They capture the history of these lands, these resources, that could be erased by fires and natural disasters.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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