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The end of a project

An archivist’s work is never done. Or so it just seems some days. But occasionally projects do end and the one I’m referring to today is our Alan May Aleutian expeditions photographs project. Last year the Alaska State Library and the Institute for Museum and Library Services gave us funding to place 500 images from the Alan May collection online in the Alaska’s Digital Archives. Apparently my grant report for that was due Sept 1st, but because of a variety of delays, I’m finishing it off today.

So why should you care about this project? A few reasons. First, there’s now 500 more images online in the Alaska’s Digital Archives relating primarily to the Aleutians in the pre-WW2 period that show villages that no longer exist. And places where archeaological expeditions removed cultural objects and human remains and sent those Outside.

Odd aside: I ran into the former head of Archives (Dennis Walle) at the grocery store last week and while talking, I told him about the digitization project. He reminisced about receiving a call from a Washington State coroner’s office a few years back after a headless skeleton was found on Alan May’s property in Wenatchee and wanted to know if May had brought human remains home with him from the expeditions since apparently the bones were quite old. Neither Dennis nor I could recall Alan mentioning such a thing in his diaries, and Dennis never heard what became of the puzzle, but there you go.

Back to the project. So that’s why it should matter to you and here’s why it should matter to us (and thus to you, potentially). First, every time we select images or documents to go on the Digital Archives, we’re making an appraisal choice about how important this material is to share. Not that we don’t share it anyhow, at least for on-site researchers, but we’re effectively pushing these materials to a wider audience in doing so. And while I think we have pretty good instincts for those kinds of decisions, and we’ve all had some serious training in appraisal as well as use needs, there’s always that unknown piece. What might a researcher make of something?

Well, the only way to find that out is to put stuff out there and figure out what gets used. Unfortunately the software that runs the Digital Archives  doesn’t allow us to track usage of each item in the database. (Are you paying attention OCLC? This is really irritating!) So we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, use evidence from the people who may contact us for access later to further collection materials, increased use of the finding aid to the collection. Often circumstantial evidence.

We’ve had some of it with this project which goes to show how important it is for us to share some of our materials via the web for the benefit of researchers that can probably never visit us in person. One was an email we received in June regarding the May photographs we’d put up of the expedition visit to the Commander Islands. Those had barely been up for 2 weeks when a researcher in Russia emailed us, very excited about these images being online. The Commander Islands are now largely uninhabited but in the late 1930s when May visited there, there were several outposts of the Soviet (Stalinist) state in a few villages in the Islands. These included some state-sponsored research projects like sea otter farming. Documentation of these villages and people and projects (with descriptive captions) may exist in Russia today, but according to this researcher, they’re not so easily found. So the materials we posted were a treat for him.

At any rate, if you’d like to see some of the wonderful photographs from the May collection, go to the Alaska’s Digital Archives site and just type in Alan May. You’ll get 500 hits.  If you want to see more, or you want to read through some of the diaries, you can come visit us and do so. And if you’re not able to come visit us, the good news is that one of the retired Anthropology professors here at UAA has recently edited and annotated the May Aleutian expedition diaries for publication and we’re hoping those will come out sometime in the next few years. We’ll let you know when they do.