North to the Future: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks | Archives Deep Dive

It sounds like a story from Jack London or Jon Krakauer: In 1966, two men traveled down the Yukon River in Alaska by canoe to recover papers from abandoned cabins. Paul McCarthy and H. Theodore “Ted” Ryberg were concerned that the generation of former gold miners who came to Alaska in the late 19th century were dying off, and they wanted to preserve that piece of Alaska history. Those explorations would prove pivotal to the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives formally founded by McCarthy in 1965 at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

old magazine cover
Young Klondike No. 28
Rare Books Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks

It sounds like a story from Jack London or Jon Krakauer: In 1966, two men traveled down the Yukon River in Alaska by canoe to recover papers from abandoned cabins. Paul McCarthy and H. Theodore “Ted” Ryberg were concerned that the generation of former gold miners who came to Alaska in the late 19th century were dying off, and they wanted to preserve that piece of Alaska history.

Those explorations would prove pivotal to the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives (APRCA) formally founded by McCarthy in 1965 at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

With the construction and deployment of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, the university and the library received a large influx of public revenue money that helped grow the archives, explained Rachel Cohen, archivist and curator of rare books and maps at APRCA. The university hired a full-time faculty member to help expand and catalog the collections in 1971.

The library and archives benefited from the generosity of the library’s namesake, Elmer Edwin Rasmuson, founder of the National Bank of Alaska. He collected rare books, paintings, and other items related to the history of Alaska, founding the Heritage Library at the bank. Eventually, he gave those books and materials to the university, as well as endowing the Alaska and Polar Regions collection in the 1980s. He was instrumental in the construction of the library and served as the president of the board of Trustees.

“He saw the university as a way of helping people of Alaska get access to things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to,” Cohen said. “Since Stanford and Harvard had rare book collections, he thought it was very important that we have one too.”

Within the archive, there are several categories: the Alaska Oral History, established in 1981; Alaska Film Archives and Historical Audio, begun in 1993; and the archives itself, Alaskana and Rare Books and Maps.

The archive also has affiliated collections. The library holds microfilm of Alaskan newspapers and newsletters, thanks to the Alaska Newspaper Project spearheaded by the Alaska State Library in 1991 as part of a nationwide project to preserve local papers. In 2013, the Alaska Native Language Archive also became affiliated with APRCA, but is not part of the archive itself.

Cohen estimates that the archive currently contains 15,000 oral histories, 23,000 motion picture materials, 17,000 rare book titles, 800 maps, 13,000+ cubic feet of archival holdings, 1,500 periodicals, 2 million photographs, and 95,000 books.



While many people have a lot of preconceptions of Alaska and the north polar region as empty wilderness, both have vibrant histories that go back centuries. The region “has an incredibly long history. People have been in Alaska for 12,000 years,” Cohen noted. Life is changing rapidly in the Arctic, subarctic, and southeastern regions of the state as a result of climate change, so preserving and remembering the past is particularly salient now.

Cohen also stressed the importance of regional collections because “I want communities in Alaska to be able to have documentation about their community close to them…it's tragic to me when people have to fly out to look at their stuff.”

The archives span the 15th through the 21st centuries. While most items are directly related to Alaska, the oldest is the Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated encyclopedia published in 1493, which Cohen noted has nothing to do with the region but is part of the rare book collection. Works from the 18th century document the initial exploration of the poles, and the collection “really got started in the 1860s,” according to Cohen, with records of the Russian-American company, which became the Alaska Commercial Company after the United States purchased Alaska. Because of early Russian exploration in Alaska, the collection holds many Russian-language books, as well as works in other Slavic and Scandinavian languages.

The archive’s film materials date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including copies of Thomas Edison’s films related to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–99 (the originals are at the Library of Congress). Cohen described the bulk of the film collection as “almost like home movies…a lot of people just doing stuff.” She noted that the archives has a lively YouTube channel, which posts clips once a week.

The Alaska Film Archive has also received scientific materials from glaciologist William Field and Bradford Washburn, a mountaineer and glacier photographer, who filmed their climbs over glaciers between 1925 and 1947. Cohen said, “You can't imagine doing that with the equipment that they’d have, which is plywood and rope.”

Currently, the archives are focusing on acquiring materials from interior Alaska and the Aleutian Island chain, as well as books about polar exploration, though their collections are entirely acquired through donations. The APRCA has been fortunate, she noted, with people entrusting their papers to the archive—particularly those who were there for the oil boom in the 1970s.

Cohen also has a fondness for illustrations of Arctic animals made without the artists’ having seen them. “People are trying to draw a walrus but they don't know what a walrus looks like, so they just draw a seal with really giant teeth,” she said (the library staff’s nickname for them is “vampire seals”).

b&w photo of sled dog lying on floor next to table covered with trophies
Togo with his Trophies
The Lomen Family Papers, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The archive also holds an extensive collection about mushing—dogsled racing—including the official records of the Yukon Quest—the lesser-known 1,000-mile international dog sledding race—the records of Tok Dog Mushers’ Association, and documents of individual mushers, such as Leonhard Seppala, one of the original mushers of the famous Serum Run of 1925, where a relay of mushers carried a life-saving serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome to save the town from an outbreak of diphtheria. He and his team, led by his dog Togo, famously ran almost half of the journey. The archives hold many photos of sled dogs, as well as footage from local races.

The mushing collection, however, is more than just records of ultramarathons like the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, Cohen said. Mushing “is still used in a lot of communities, both recreationally but also for practical purposes.” It was a significant means for mail delivery through the 1920s, only phased out in 1965 with the ubiquity of planes, cars, and snow machines. Some of these materials have been digitized on the Project Jukebox website.



While the archives contain a significant amount of material about the state and polar regions, Cohen noted that she would like to see more documentation from the perspective of rural communities. The collection holds an abundance of records from outsiders who came to Indigenous and non-Indigenous villages to teach or do research, but there are not many “documents from the communities talking about themselves, rather than…being spoken [of] by visitors, missionaries, teachers, or people who are transient,” Cohen said.

Cohen questioned, however, whether the archives are the right place to preserve those records. Just as it’s important for archives to be located in their place of origin, communities may want to preserve their own archives locally, she said. There is no single answer, she noted. “I pretty firmly believe that communities should have self-determination, and they should get to decide what they want to do. If the community of Kotzebue wants us to hold their stuff, we’re happy to do that. But if the community wants to hold their own stuff, I think they should.”

The archive is used by students, documentarians, and researchers. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has a master’s degree in Northern Studies, and students in the program work closely with the APRCA. Cohen also noted that .librarians and archivists provide bibliographic and primary source instruction to students using the archive. Art students access the collection’s sketchbooks, maps, and other visual materials, and creative writing classes have explored its materials from Alaskan writers and poets. K–12 students use the archive to research their projects for the annual Alaska History Day contest—“like a science fair but with history topics,” Cohen explained.

In addition to providing scholarly access, an “Archives Movie Night” held during the winter offers “cheesy Alaska movies,” said Cohen. “It’s an opportunity to try to demystify the collections for our undergraduate students and eat popcorn.” In particular, she recommended the trailer for The Deadly Mantis.

The archives provided extensive research material for author James Michener’s book Alaska. Cohen also noted that Dan O’Neill mined the archive for his 2007 book The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement , about a 1958 proposal to detonate six nuclear bombs off the coast of Alaska to create a harbor in the name of finding peacetime uses for the H-bomb.

That plan was, understandably, controversial. “I tend to be of the view that if you’re not willing to do something in Boston Harbor, you shouldn't be doing it in Point Hope, Alaska,” Cohen said. “Just because there are fewer people up here does not somehow mean you should be blowing [things] up.” While the project failed, some radioactive material was buried in the tundra. Some scholars believe that the protest against the project was the birth of American environmental activism, noted Cohen.

Documentarians have accessed the archive for photos, film footage, or clips from oral histories. In the past year, said APRCA Film Archivist Angie Schmidt, “the Alaska Film Archives has provided historical clips for student research and for use in nearly 50 wide-ranging projects including podcasts, museum exhibits in Alaska and North Dakota, an Alaska Design Forum presentation shown in several Alaska cities, a documentary about the Trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaska Trappers Association presentations, in-state broadcasts about the Pribilof Islands and Alaska artists, and a London-produced travelogue series about the wonders of Alaska."

The collection has helped provide materials to museums, such as the Anchorage Museum exhibit on the Art of Bradford Washburn and a planned exhibition on sketchbooks and field notebooks at the Museum of the North, on the university campus.

Digitization projects at the library and archives have been ongoing since 1988, with an emphasis on materials not in other collections. Project Jukebox, the digital branch of the oral history project, offers access to oral history recordings with text, maps, and other relevant documents. In addition to the Alaska Film Archive YouTube channel, an estimated 40,000 photographs can be found on the Alaska Digital Archive site. Providing consistent digital access to the archive’s historical collections, noted Cohen, can be a challenge “in a state where stable internet connections are not guaranteed.”

The reading room is open by appointment from 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–4 p.m., Monday through Friday. For those who cannot visit in person, archivists can help with online access; they can be reached at

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