Success Story: Broadband Links Alaska Library Users to a Wider World

Craig, Alaska (population: 1,397) is a picturesque fishing and logging village on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s southeastern archipelago. It’s also extremely remote. Juneau, the state capital, is 220 miles away. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is 720 miles distant. “You want to go to Wal-Mart?” asks Amy Marshall, who runs Craig’s library. “You get in a car for an hour, then go four hours by ferry to Juneau. That’s remote.”

Craig also is isolated technologically. Until recently the town had only limited Internet access, primarily in the library Marshall manages. “But I had data limits,” she says. “So when the library was closed I had to turn off the wireless hub. At 5 o’clock, when I closed, I’d hear people outside using their laptops yelling ‘Noooo!’”

But now the Craig Public Library offers residents an unlimited broadband connection, as well as new desktop and laptop computers they can use to access the Web. It’s all part of the Alaska Online With Libraries (OWL) Project, which is designed to help bring Internet access to Alaskans and improve the computing capabilities of public libraries throughout the state. OWL is funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Library.

Craig’s high-speed Internet system, along with a number of similar systems serving other Alaska libraries, was designed and implemented by GCI SchoolAccess, a division of telecommunications provider GCI.

The Alaska State Library is charged with making a wide range of library services available to Alaskans. This includes offering library science and consulting services to all types of libraries; serving as the primary research library for state government; and collecting Alaska-related material.

Even more than libraries elsewhere, the Alaska State Library finds that many libraries look to its leadership to help communities obtain access to computers and Internet connections. These connections can be transforming for Alaskans living in isolated communities and villages, creating access to educational, social, and economic opportunities previously unavailable.

People outside of Alaska often have a difficult time grasping the sheer size of the state. Laid over a map of the Lower 48, Alaska and its southern archipelago and western islands extend from Florida to California. That scale makes it impossible to link remote communities via wired Internet access, meaning many areas had limited or no access to the information superhighway that has changed the world.

Even where satellite broadband was available, its cost is prohibitive for most people. “The only logical place to set up broadband connections is in a school or public library,” says Sue Sherif, head of library development for the Alaska State Library system. “Otherwise it costs too much for most people to subscribe at home.”

Overcoming that hurdle in the first year of the project meant equipping 37 libraries with new broadband connection equipment including satellite dishes in the most remote areas. Public libraries in all areas of the state are receiving updated PCs or laptops to take advantage of the new capabilities and ensure the wait times for access are not excessive. Each library not only would became a public library computing center, but also would serve as a videoconference network endpoint. In the project’s second phase a similar number of public libraries, particularly ones that are located within community schools, will come on board.

In 2011 OWL began rolling out to libraries that lacked reliable or affordable Internet access. Those included libraries such as the one in Craig, where librarian Marshall has seen huge changes as a result of the new access.

“It’s just awesome,” she says. “We now have a videoconference feature that we are having a lot of fun with. I do something with kids where we write song lyrics – we don’t tell them they’re learning anything – and send them to Nashville. Down there a songwriter writes music, then over the Internet we can jam with her.”

Marshall also has people come in on fishing boats, pull out a Kindle, and download books from the Alaska State Library. “Before I had to say, ‘I can’t help you’ – we didn’t have a connection that would support it. But now we do, and it is awesome – everyone is loving this.”

The same thing is happening in and near Juneau, where OWL has allowed the main library there, as well as two branches, to give patrons much broader and more usable Web access.

“We’ve really had two very successful programs for kids via the new videoconferencing equipment,” says Jonas Lamb, outreach librarian for the Juneau Public Library. “One is Dazzling Dinosaurs, which takes students on a virtual visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta (Canada). They got to see Tyrannosaurus Rex and some other great dinosaurs. Another is Storytime, which features our U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, reading to youngsters.”

In some cases the OWL access provides a town’s only real connection to the outside. That’s the case in tiny Lake Minchumina, located almost squarely in the center of Alaska and populated by all of 19 people during the winter.

“Entertainment is always a big daily use,” says Shawna Hytry, librarian in Lake Minchumina. “PBS Kids, sports, gaming, movies, Skype, radio, NASCAR, looking at photos, sending photos or receiving photos via email, history, poetry, genealogy – all those things.  Facebook is huge.  We are so remote and far from family it is the best way to keep in touch.”

“People also make reservations, conduct business, read the newspaper – we only get the Sunday newspaper out here, and it’s at least a week old when it reaches us. And homeschoolers often use the computers and internet for online classes.”

Adults appreciate the chance to learn online as well. Especially popular is a link to the state library that gives patrons access to equipment manuals. With them, people can repair the snow machines, chain saws, and other pieces of equipment that are essential to life in Alaska’s remote interior. “If your chainsaw is broken you can't cut your firewood to heat your house for the winter,” says Hytry. “If your snow machine or four-wheeler is broken you'll have to haul water by foot with a wagon.”

Through OWL, aspiring authors also have a chance to hit the big time. A program called “Pitchapaloooza” is a recent videoconference network event that brings prominent literary agents to Alaska, where they listen to book pitches from local residents. The agents can’t make it to every town and village in the state, of course, so many Pitchapalooza participants made their pitches using the OWL connection in their community library.

The success of OWL depends on reliable connections to the Internet. GCI’s deep experience in taking the web to remote parts of Alaska had paid off. In communities where GCI already had a presence, it was a relatively simple matter to run an additional cable to the community library to make the OWL connection via GCI’s satellite connection and land-based lines.

In other communities, GCI installed a satellite receiving dish and supporting equipment, secured the site, and connected the local library’s computers to the new service. With OWL, libraries now have reliable access to connections, providing 1.5mps of download speeds and upload speeds – fast enough symmetrical connections to make video conferencing and other data-intensive or interactive applications possible. And that’s making a lot of library patrons happy. “We’re having fun with it,” says Marshall. “But OWL also is bringing to us things we otherwise just wouldn’t have.”

  • "Our goals are never about the technology, but about instruction using technology in a variety of ways. GCI has been flexible and responsive enough to support our instructional integration as we have grown and changed as an organization."

    - John Concilus, Director of Educational Technology, Bering Strait School District