Alaska public libraries 2013

Recently I returned from an annual meeting of Alaskan public library directors in Girdwood (south of Anchorage). Thanks to the Alaska Library Association and state library staff, I was there to present to them about several topics (nearly 9 hours of presentation). They also allowed me to sit in on their reflections on the past year, a round robin of successes and challenges (limited to 11 minutes apiece).

They were a terrific bunch of people. These are people who do what they do for love, and it shows.

Below are some of the key themes from that most interesting discussion.

- Infrastructure. I thought we had "frontier" libraries in Colorado. But of the 18 library directors in the room, 10 of their home towns were literally not on the state roads. You could not drive there. Sometimes you could get there by ferry. Often, only by plane, or, I presume, dog sled.

-  They also have what has to be the worst bandwidth situation in the nation. While many of the libraries at Girdwood (thanks to the Online With Libraries or OWL project) have gotten up to 1.5 megabits; most US libraries have already decided that pipeline is too small. And there are still some remote libraries trying to get that far.

- Right now, there are lots of building projects in Alaska, significantly (but not exclusively) funded by the state. This followed a lot of DirLead lobbying,  I gather. I saw pictures of several new and beautiful buildings. The common theme: the fundraising (matching moneys) were almost always the result not of librarians, but of local civic leaders. They stepped up, invested the time, did the asks, and were justifiably proud of the results.

- Alaska has quite a mix of authorizing authorities: there are elected governing boards, appointed boards, advisory boards, friends boards (in various states of health), and often, no boards at all. Likewise, there's quite a mix of levels of community support, ranging from the apathetic to the fiercely supportive.

- Most of the libraries were running on very tight budgets generally. Despite remarkable government programs in several areas (most Alaskans get an annual stipend from the state, mostly from oil money, ranging from $300 to $20,000), there is strong anti-tax sentiment and complaining. There are jurisdictional conflicts between cities and "boroughs" (which are, if I understand correctly, non-municipal areas surrounding cities, something like counties, I suppose). Some of the cities and boroughs are requesting librarians to track which patrons, exactly, use and pay for what. But also a few cities attempted library cuts that were utterly and completely quelled by significant shows of public support.

- Most Alaskan libraries are short staffed. I mean by that that they might have two full time people and one part-time person, and are open 6 or 7 days a week.

- Speaking of hours, some libraries are experimenting with opening on Friday night. Everywhere they try it, it's well-used.

- A lot of library directors expressed interest in the relatively rare (in Alaska) "self-check" technology. They get the chief values of the move: first, it liberates staff from repetitive motions and grunt work, allowing them to do more meaningful tasks; second, it frees up space for other public uses; and third (and less obviously) it empowers greater patron privacy. In a small town, you may not want your neighbors to know what you're checking out. Now, you can check it out yourself. But few libraries had much in the ways of savings to invest in this technology, despite the obvious benefits, and (in our case) quick payback of the investment.

- Libraries are helping their communities in all kinds of ways. At least two of them have gotten into the passport business, which is in high demand in some fishing ports.

- I was interested to hear that more than one public library director had experienced political pressure to just shut up. That is, they were pressured to be silent about various community issues, even if all they were doing was providing space for the public to talk about them. Some library directors feared, or had already been threatened with, retaliation up to and including the loss of their jobs. That speaks to a lot of fear and bullying on the part of (some) elected officials, who seem to prefer ignorance to an informed and involved citizenry.

- There is strong use, everywhere, in libraries of all sizes, of access to technology, whether PCs or wireless. People now look to libraries as an essential link in job seeking, filling out various state forms, and more.

- Most of the Alaskan libraries represented at the meeting worked with city IT departments, and there are distinct tensions between cities and libraries. It's not surprising. City IT departments are all about security. Public libraries are all about access. That's a fundamental conflict of interest. Nonetheless, many cities are trying to absorb library IT functions. So far, it not only doesn't work, it significantly reduces citizen access to information. Most small libraries have only the "IT-lite" training that the state library's OWL project has been able to offer.

- More generally, all libraries are having trouble attracting the IT support skills they need.

- Rising consortia: a Sirsi Dynix consortia, expertly managed, now serves over half the population in the state, and accomplished a relatively smooth merging of systems. There are a lot of SIRSI libraries in the state, but so far the Anchorage-area and Juneau libraries (academic, special, and public) make up the new consortium.  Look for it to grow -- and to tackle ebook issues.

- There is a strong general interest in open source software, but it sounds like only Homer and Haines have open source ILSs.

- There is a LOT of generational turnover. Boomer directors are stepping down. Millennials, often without a lot of prior work experience, are stepping up to leadership roles. (I can't help but think there's an entrepreneurial opportunity there. And I have some ideas about how to address it. Stay tuned.)

- As alluded to briefly above, several people reported the decline of Friends of the Library groups. This seemed to be about another generational turnover.

- Last year, another Colorado library director, Pam Sandlian Smith of Anythink (Adams County, Colorado), presented to the group. She clearly made an impression. A couple of them have done away with Dewey and adopted a more bookstore type display system. They like Coloradans in Alaska. We're seen as innovators and experimenters. And we are.

- Tribal issues. In some communities, there was a clear conflict between oral culture and the more text-based orientation of the public library. In others, a "place name story board" on Microsoft table computers really energized and connected with native people, especially (but not limited to) youth. Many libraries seemed to be moving into more local history preservation, with a digital assist.

- The Alaska-based Ramusen Foundation is a very powerful force and funder. They seem to have their hands in many library efforts around the state. (They don't give grants OUTSIDE of Alaska, it seems.)

- Several Alaskan libraries reported significant problems with inebriated patrons. In some cases, human services centers have started requiring a breath test before they can enter or sleep in a shelter. One director told a story about gently shaking the chair of someone who had passed out a table. "Sir," she said, "you're in the library." He roused himself and bellowed, "Sh*t! I'm in the library!?" which all agreed would be a terrific T-shirt slogan.

- There is far more awareness of the need for, and power of, early literacy programs.

- In Alaska, as in much of the nation, school library programs are failing fast.  Often, there's no library in the schools at all. School librarians are politically isolated, at the mercy of principals, and despite the evidence of their powerful contribution to academic achievement, lack advocates.

I should also say that one library director, now retiring, reported something interesting. One day, she told me, she shot two bears. Before then, she mostly had been constrained to musk oxen and elk. In case the point is not clear, do NOT mess with librarians.

In some ways, Alaska is more like Colorado than any other state I've visited. They have mountains and wilderness. They also have an ocean. On the whole, I felt extremely privileged to visit with my colleagues, and get a read on the issues there.

One disappointment: I got up at 2 a.m. to go outside my hotel and search the sky for the Northern Lights. It was raining.


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