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UAF archivist makes Alaska history accessible to all

May 11, 2019
In this Monday, April 15, 2019 photo, Marge Thompson, a digital image specialist, demonstrates a large-format camera she uses for archiving images at Digital Photographic Services in the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. Thompson is in charge of the library's Digital Photographic Services and Alaska History Store, which includes digitizing and archiving historic images and documents, as well as offering the most popular for sale. (Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP)
In this Monday, April 15, 2019 photo, Marge Thompson, a digital image specialist, demonstrates a large-format camera she uses for archiving images at Digital Photographic Services in the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. Thompson is in charge of the library's Digital Photographic Services and Alaska History Store, which includes digitizing and archiving historic images and documents, as well as offering the most popular for sale. (Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — On the third floor of the Rasmuson Library, just past the periodicals, is Room 334, a little-known office with an important purpose. Brightly lit with a litany of cameras, computers, printers and scanners, the Digital Photographic Services and Alaska History Store work to connect Alaskans with the past.

For 11 years, Marge Thompson has been a digital image specialist in the office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks: digitizing, archiving, reprinting and selling copies of documents ranging from pictures and negatives of early Fairbanks to maps, rare books, artworks, theses, scrapbooks and more.

Thompson said the job is a terrific fit.

“I’m interested in photography, have been for most of my life — particularly black and white — and I also love history.”

On a Monday afternoon, she was bouncing between printing promotional signs to be displayed in the library and digitizing scrapbooks from the estate of Constance Helmericks, which had been donated to the archives. But digitizing and archiving historical photographs is only half of Thompson’s task.

“Access is the most important part. Making people aware and getting more people enthused about the history of Alaska and Fairbanks,” she said.

Thompson manages approximately 400 images for sale through the Alaska History Store (including a small physical presence in her office), while adding to the growing body of more than 35,000 items in Alaska’s Digital Archives.

As Thompson puts it, photos in the history store start around 1901 and taper off by the 1950s, “the first 45 years or so of early Fairbanks history.”

Connecting Alaskans to the past recently hit home for Thompson, when a woman tracked down a photo of her grandparents on the digital archives and came to Digital Photographic Services for a reprint.

“I don’t think her family actually had any photographs of them. She didn’t have a hard copy photo, and now she does,” Thompson said.

Her work at the library began with recording newspapers on film.

“It was a statewide project, and I did all the papers on a prescribed list north of the Alaska Range,” she recalled.

And while her job filming newspapers only lasted a few years before taking over Digital Photographic Services, Thompson now serves on the advisory board for Alaska’s Digital Newspaper Program.

The grant-funded program is part of the Alaska State Library, which digitally preserves and provides free access to historical newspapers.

Thompson’s task is to advises on “where to look for microfilms out there and how to choose the best quality.”

Equipment and technology have come a long way since Thompson first started filming newspapers. Her lab includes state of the art large-format cameras, recording software, and printers for every step of the process.

Even something simple such as a document scanner is high-tech, saving images in PDF/A-1a, the most archival form of a PDF, which is required by the Library of Congress.

Thompson described the high-tech equipment as “definitely above and beyond what most people are ever exposed to.”

And even though keeping up-to-date can be quite a challenge, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I can’t make the quality as good as it can possibly be, I’m not interested in doing the job. ... We have to pay very close attention to what the industry is doing and make sure we keep our standards up to date,” she said.

An accomplished photographer in her own right, Thompson is a previous recipient of the Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation.

Nowadays, Thompson spends more time with photographs that belong to other people than her own, which offers exciting opportunities.

She was lucky enough to work on a collection of world-renowned photographer Bradford Washburn’s glass plate collection of mountains and mountaineering.

But her favorite image of all?

“It’s a picture of a little boy who’s playing in a basin of water or something like that. ... He’s just squatting down and just got the big happiest smile on his face. We called it ‘Good Clean Fun.’”

Want to see “Good Clean Fun” on the Alaska History Store website?

The accession number is 89-166-405; as Thompson noted, with the lighthearted seriousness of someone who spends her days peering into history, “Accession numbers are very important.”

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Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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