The library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks had an inauspicious beginning. According to Ted Ryberg (the university’s librarian in 1970), while the university’s predecessor, the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, began classes on Sept. 18, 1922, the college library had a slower start, not accessioning its first book until 10 days later. The college was perennially short of funds, but through the efforts of its first president, Charles Bunnell, its library amassed over 2,000 volumes during the college’s first year.
Bunnell’s long-term goal was to acquire “everything ... published on Alaska by Alaskans.” That goal has been amply met in the university’s modern, Rasmuson Library, which is one of largest libraries in Alaska, and the state’s premier research library.
From 1922 until 1935 the library was housed in Old Main building, which stood where the Bunnell Building is now. In 1935 the library moved to the newly-finished second floor of the college gymnasium (now Signer’s Hall). By 1960, when it moved to the newly-constructed Bunnell Building, the library housed slightly more than 70,000 volumes.
In all its locations, the library was pressed for space, and discussions about building a new facility began soon after the library moved into the Bunnell Building. Planning for a new library began in 1961, and a new facility might have been built sooner had state funding not been consumed in dealing with the aftermath of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.
Funding was finally approved in 1966, and except for disruptions caused by the 1967 Chena River flood, construction proceeded until the Rasmuson Library was completed in 1970. The library is named in honor of Elmer E. Rasmuson, ardent university supporter and former President of the Board of Regents.
Francis Bernardo Mayer, an Anchorage architect, designed the library, as well as the adjacent fine-arts complex. Mayer was responsible for designing many Alaskan public buildings during the mid-20th century, including Grant Hall at Alaska Methodist University, the Anchorage International Airport North Terminal, and UAF’s Bunnell Building.
The library and fine arts complex were designed in the International Style. The structures are built of poured concrete, with a pebble-dash exterior finish (pebbles sprayed on and pressed into the still-wet concrete). They have flat roofs with wide cantilevered eaves that appear to float over the arched window-bays located just below the cornice.
At the time of the library’s 1970 opening, the six-story 113,156-square-foot building housed almost 220,000 volumes, with the capacity to house 400,000 volumes. However, within a decade the facility contained over 740,000 volumes, forcing the university to add 68,616 square-feet of space in 1985. The new expansion allowed the library to establish the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives department. The facility received additional renovations and modifications in 2001.
With the expansion of its holdings to include more than just books, the library states that it now houses over 1.2 million items. In addition to its general collections, the library houses special collections including microforms; government documents; manuscripts and historic photographs; the Alaska Film Archives, containing Alaska-related films and video; the Alaska Native Languages Archive, managed by the Alaska Native Languages Center; a rare book and map collection (one of the world’s best collections focused on polar regions); an oral history collection; and the Alaska book and periodical collection.
In addition, the library has numerous electronic media resources including online databases, books and streaming video. A number of the library’s holdings such as select historic photographs and oral history recordings are also available online (no need to visit campus) through websites such as Project Jukebox and the Alaska Digital Archives.
The library welcomes the general public, school visits, and researchers from around the world.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
“Buildings of Alaska.” Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
Correspondence with Karen Jensen, the Director of Libraries at the Rasmuson Library
“Dedication of Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska on May 3, 1970 with William O’Neill, Ted Ryberg, Terence Armstrong and William Wood” (sound recording). UAF Oral History collection
Elmer E. Rasmuson Library webpage
“Rasmuson Library, UAF.” From “UA Journey” webpage