Paul McCarthy


To collect materials for the newly established archives at the University of Alaska library, Paul McCarthy employed an unusual vehicle: a canoe.

In 1966, McCarthy and Ted Ryberg, the library’s director, paddled down the Yukon River, saving documents, newspapers and other abandoned materials they found in old cabins between Eagle and Circle.

Building on that beginning, the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives in the Rasmuson Library today contains a vast treasure of historical records. It holds 11,000 rare books and maps, more than 20,000 linear feet of archives and manuscripts, more than a million photographs, tens of thousands of historical films and videotapes, and over 11,000 hours of oral history recordings.

McCarthy was behind much of that growth.

McCarthy, his wife, Lucy, and the first two of their four children arrived in Fairbanks in 1964. They initially lived in the subdivision next to Ballaine Lake, which was a fairly “classy” spot before the permafrost began to melt, McCarthy said in a 2016 interview.

“But we had to carry our own water. In winter we’d use a sled. In the summer a cart or I would backpack five gallons on my back ʾcause the water was terrible, just terrible,” he said. “[One of] the early tests for [potable] water was if you used the water and mixed it with bourbon or alcohol of any kind, it would turn black. And it turned black, let me tell you.”

McCarthy worked his way up from archivist to director and then dean of libraries. A highlight was helping James Michener with research for his book, “Alaska.” The library loaned him an office in the archives.

“And we set up probably 30 interviews with university faculty,” McCarthy said. “He had read widely, and he had I think a photographic memory.”

McCarthy retired in 1994 but since then has continued to be involved with the library. He served stints as acting director and dean. In 2015, the 50th anniversary of the archives’ founding, the library named the archives’ research room after him.

In recent years, McCarthy also has developed an expertise in sports photography; readers who look at the fine print in newspapers and other publications will have seen his name on the credit line next to many hundreds of photos.

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