Last updated: March 23, 2021
The George C, Thomas Memorial Library was the 1915 location for an unprecedented meeting between six Tanana tribal chiefs and United States Government officials to discuss Alaska Native claims to the land and needs concerning work and education. This conference began the Alaska Native fight for compensation for land that was colonized by Russia and the United States. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed 56 years later in 1971. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established for-profit Alaska Native regional and village corporations and acceded to the corporations 38 million acres of land and $462,500,000.Built in 1909, the library building is an example of American missionary activity in Alaska. The City of Fairbanks purchased the library from the Episcopal Church in 1942, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough purchased the library in 1968. It remained a public library until 1977.
As of 2021, the landmark is privately owned and not open to the public.
The Episcopal Missionary Society in Alaska believed they had a responsibility to provide reading materials to people in isolated areas. According to local tradition, in 1905 eight “sourdoughs” (a colloquial term for an outsider who has lived in Alaska for a long time) from Fairbanks wrote to the Reverend Peter Trimble Rowe, first Episcopal Bishop in Alaska, asking for "mental food." In response, St. Matthew's Mission in Fairbanks, established in 1904, began to provide reading materials for the public and to operate a 24-hour reading room. Magazines and newspapers donated by Episcopal parishes throughout the United States were given away, mailed upon request.
In 1909, Mr. George C. Thomas, a layman interested in the Church's missionary work, donated money to construct a library building, and pledged $1,000 yearly for three years to maintain the building. Although Thomas never came to Alaska, in fact he died before the building was completed, the Board of Trustees decided unanimously to call the new library the George C. Thomas Memorial Library. The formal opening was Thursday evening, August 5, 1909, with speeches given by Archdeacon Stuck, who had donated the first books to open the reading room, and the Honorable James V. Wickersham, Territorial Delegate to Congress.
On July 5th and 6th of 1915, six chiefs, several village headmen, an interpreter, and an Episcopal missionary, the Reverend Guy H. Madara, represented the 1,200 to 1,500 Athabascan Indians in the region. The federal delegation included Alaska's Congressional delegate, Wickersham, two Alaska Engineering Commission representatives, and two land office men. The meeting, reportedly sought by Alaska Natives, brought attention to concerns over land claims, educational needs, and employment opportunities, particularly in the construction of the Alaska Railroad. Significantly, at the meeting the chiefs rejected the Government offer to establish reservations. The historic, unprecedented meeting began the Alaska Native struggle for recognition of their land rights and for an understanding of their cultures. The value of the conference was realized in 1971 when the United States Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The City of Fairbanks paid $1.00 for the lot, the building, and its entire contents to the Episcopal Church with one restriction—that the site always be used for a public library. Fire damage destroyed about one-third of the collection in October 1949. Local clubs provided money to refurnish the library, and contributions from individuals and libraries in the states replaced many books. On March 1, 1968 the Fairbanks North Star Borough assumed operation of the library. Today, the building looks almost exactly as it did in August 1909. As of 1972, the library collection included 6,500 books, a pamphlet collection and a special collection on geology and mining. Upon request, the library loaned books by mail to individuals in isolated areas.
Recognition of the George C. Thomas Memorial Library was given on February 23, 1972 when the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark.