I just got back from Australia. Okay, not really. Actually, I was in the UAA / APU Consortium Library, the building that looks like a gigantic bakery muffin, particularly when there’s snow on the ground. Warm, earthy oranges and reds draw the visitor in; the walls curve, ending at a spectacular wall of glass rising three stories. Sunlight streams in year round. The tables are perfect for delving into a project. I’m tempted to linger, but I head to the computers instead because I’ve discovered a bit of interlibrary system sorcery called World Cat, and I can’t leave it alone.
Imagine a cat stretching across the globe, paws extended, with nothing to stop her. World Cat allows anyone to visit libraries to find materials not available here. With a few keystrokes I traveled to Australia, searching for a book I’ve failed to find for years: Orphans of the Empire by Alan Gill. Here it is! And it’s available for interlibrary loan. Inside is the story of my English relatives, the Mapson children who were offered to Australia in a post World War I deceptively patriotic trade that virtually made them slaves until they came of age. I type in my request, thrilled that soon I’ll be holding that long desired book in my hands, reading the stories that will fill in another chink in my foggy family history.
If Alaskan history is what you’re after, try the online Archives Special Collection. Click on the category “Ordinary and Extraordinary Lives of Alaskan Women 1880-1960,” and up pop black-and-white photos of Alaskan women, captured for all time engaged in the business of everyday life: driving trucks, sawing logs, and packing herring. I fell in love with “Alaska Nellie” Lawing standing in the doorway of her Kenai Lake cabin. At age forty-two, alone, she moved to Alaska and became the first woman to receive a roadhouse contract from the railroad. Bears or blizzards, Nellie looks like she can handle them. I saw Helen Gillette, reporting at The Anchorage Daily News in 1952, the year I was born. She’s just doing her job, but looking at her fifty-four years later, I realize it’s much more than that. I automatically draft her into a warrior woman, who didn’t need the 1960’s Women’s Movement to have a career. Elsewhere, Mother Hopkins, age sixty-four, smiles for the camera as she mushes her dogs in a moment of recreation that is frozen (sorry—couldn’t resist) forever. On board the USCG Cutter Northwind, botanist Christine Heller balances a camera between her knees as she photographs a spray of flowers. Whenever possible, there is accompanying text to augment the story behind the photo. And better yet, hard copies of Christine Heller’s life are available in the library.
Thanks to this collection, Alaska’s past is not only still alive, it becomes experiential to the reader. Because it embraces the ordinary people who contributed to Alaska’s whole, people you might not otherwise know, you feel an intimate connection that demonstrates that no matter what life was like then, there are commonalities to how it is now.
One of the defining moments of my life came the day that the librarians sent me out of the children’s section to the rooms reserved for adults. I’d graduated from Trixie Belden and picture books and had no idea what came next. On that day when they opened the double doors, I stood there in awe. There were so many more books for me to read I couldn’t speak. And yet everyone else seemed to be taking them for granted. Not me. Not then, and not now. As I head past Foucault’s pendulum, climb the stairs to the second floor, and begin looking for the books on my list, I cherish the thrill that I will never run out of books to read.