Alaska is a small town

As much as archivists can try not to become attached to the collections they are working on, it happens. A student asked me (Veronica) the other day what my favorite collection at the Archives is, which one is the most interesting. My first thought was the collection I was currently processing, but then again, my favorite collection almost always seems to be the one I am currently working on. Every collection has a story, just like the people involved. And as an archivist, you become a part of that story as you describe it for others to understand.

Henry Bowen

Henry Bowen

One of my first projects at the Archives was digitizing the slides of Henry S. Kaiser, Jr. Kaiser was born with a heart defect and contracted tuberculosis in his late teens, which led to him spending three years at the Seward Sanitorium from 1950-1953. During his stay, he had a camera and began documenting everyday life at the Sanitorium. Many of those who were patients were Alaska Natives, and even though they were ill, most smiled while Henry snapped their photograph. I digitized all of the slides and added most to the Alaska Digital Archives. Henry was even able to caption most of the slides with each person’s name and origin.  Most people only had their photograph taken once, others numerous times. One person I became interested in was Henry Bowen, as he made a constant appearance among the slides. One of the captions for a photograph of him read, “Bowen with first clothes in five years. Happy Ending!!!” After seeing Henry Bowen in many photographs wearing the robes of a patient, I felt the excitement Henry Kaiser did. I was glad to know part of the story of Henry Bowen, and learn that he did survive and left the Sanitorium.

And then there were the Wemarks: McKenna and Joy Wemark, husband and wife. There were two photographs of McKenna, and one of the couple together. Henry Kaiser labeled the slides, indicating Joy Wemark as “Lap Land descent” and the couple from Wales, Alaska. Being new to Alaska, I quickly asked Arlene about “Lap Land descent,” as I had never come across that before, but in my quick Google search I learned that Lapland is a region that stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Arlene told me that some of the inhabitants of that region immigrated to Alaska due to requests from the American government to teach reindeer herding to Alaska Natives.  After I learned this new information, I quickly went on my way digitizing more slides.

The Wemarks.

The Wemarks.

After I finished digitizing the Henry Kaiser slides I moved on to a couple other projects. My most recent was to reprocess and describe the Charles V. Lucier papers. Lucier was an Alaskan anthropologist and archaeologist. He studied Eskimo culture and house ruins at Kotzebue Sound, and did a field study of the culture of the Noatak Eskimos in 1952. He taught in schools in Karluk and Talkeetna from 1952-1955, participated in the Cook Inlet Native Association and Urban Natives United dance groups (1965-1975), and was involved in recording folklore in the Seward Peninsula, Norton Sound, and Kotzebue Sound regions (1960-1978). The collection consists of his archaeology- and anthropology-related papers, correspondence, personal and family papers, and photographs, transparencies, and slides.

As I was updating the legacy finding aid to current standards, I came across his correspondence. Lucier had corresponded with many different people from all walks of life. But one folder title jumped out at me, “Joy Wemark.” My first thoughts were, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s a common name?” And then I read through the letters. Joy’s husband’s name was McKenna. And then I knew, Charles Lucier and his then wife, Grace, were friends with the Wemarks, the same Wemarks that spent time at the Seward Sanitorium. Their correspondence is mostly personal, including an invitation to the Wemarks’ daughter’s wedding.

And I was giddy. I promptly jumped out of my chair and went to Arlene, telling her this. I was an Archivist excited—when two collections with seemingly little or no connection are somehow connected. Especially when the Kaiser collection was my first project and I was given the choice of either Lucier’s papers or another collection for my second.

And then I wondered, what if I had processed a different collection and not Lucier’s, would I have even remembered about the Wemarks? Would the name have jumped out at me, or would I have forgotten about it? But I was able to gain an even greater context about their lives, from their photographs in one collection, to Joy’s letters in another, which Charles Lucier just happened to save. It is these little coincidences that help me love my job.

When I first started working here, I was told that Alaska is actually a small town. I never really believed it until I spent time with these two collections.