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Changing Arctic

Librarians Meet in Fairbanks, Confer About Sharing Diverse Arctic, Antarctic Collections

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Tim Ellis/KUAC
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Twenty-eight librarians and archivists who manage the growing body of knowledge about Earth’s polar regions gathered in Fairbanks last week. Much of the talk during the 2016 Polar Libraries Colloquy focused on how to digitize and share centuries of knowledge on the circumpolar north and south.

Ever since the UAF Rasmuson Library’s Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives opened its doors 50 years ago, its collection has been growing. As has demand for all that knowledge, which library spokeswoman Suzanne Bishop says includes troves of information like the detailed accounts left by the first European colonizers.

“The Russian-American Company,” Bishop said, “kept very good logs of the communities they were in – how many skins they were getting in a season, how much food they were selling at their stores, what the weather was like – all of that information is important and really relevant to the scientific community, to the humanities...”   

Andrew Gray is the librarian for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, and he says one of the biggest challenges polar librarians face is discovering and obtaining information derived from diverse and sometimes hard-to-find studies.

“A lot of material that’s been published on the poles has been, rather than being in mainstream scientific journals or in books, it’s been in very obscure technical reports,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that’s been done by military and government organizations for example, which don’t always published their research very well.”

Gray, who helped host the 2012 colloquy in Cambridge, says the librarians’ work in recent years has been greatly helped through digitizing collections, which has enabled them to share them quickly over the Internet. He says that’s essential as researchers focus greater attention on the Arctic and Antarctic, both of which are undergoing epochal transition due to climate change.

“A lot of the archival collections are from relatively early research,” he said. “And the way that the poles are changing so fast, those early collections are of incredible value to researchers now.”

Bishop says digitization was a common theme in presentations given during the colloquy. She said it enables the librarians to connect “whole territories in Canada, all the libraries, with polar information, so that it really broadens the access for researchers, for the curious public and anyone who wants to have access to that information.”

Gray agrees digitization has enabled the librarians to make their collections available to people who live in the far north, who previously were unable to access the information. But colloquy participants from Edmonton, Alberta, who work with libraries in the far-north Canadian territory of Nunavut, say they still face persistent technological and institutional hurdles.

“We’ve got a lot of these cultural-heritage collections that can be and have been digitized,” he said. “But they’re sitting in the south of Canada. We want to get them up to those communities to the north.”

Only a few of the colloquy participants came from above the Arctic Circle, including a couple from Alaska’s North Slope and a few from northern Finland. Gray says the librarians from Rovaniemi, Finland, gave fellow participants an enthusiastic talk about their community, where the 2018 colloquy will be held.