Last week I had the opportunity to attend and present at the Alaskan Library Association Conference (#AKLA) in Anchorage. As a North Carolinian who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and was therefore forced to read at least one Jack London short story or novel every single year that I was in public school, (which is the reason why I know a) the exact temperature at which spit freezes and b) that if you're planning to eat your dog to survive in the arctic tundra, you'd better come up with a plan B because your dog will know), I was SOOO excited to visit Alaska. Something about all of those tales of dogsleds and wilderness must have sunk into my DNA as I couldn't wait to leave the lower 48 and plant my feet in snow covered Alaskan snow. In short, I had high expectations for this trip. And let me tell you, they were met!
Although both my sessions went well, (I presented a 4 hour pre conference session on using technology to ramp up library programming and a concurrent session on leading from the library), I was most inspired by the warm and gentle people I met and the stories they told me about the crucial role that libraries play in the remote communities of rural Alaska.
These librarians, (some of whom serve as both the public and school librarians in their villages), spoke of being "the life lines" of their communities. “Even though we hope they’ll come home one day, we are trying to prepare our children for the world beyond our village,” they said. That said, in a village of only 86 people, one librarian serves a school of only 10 children (one of whom she adopted from a nearby village in order to a) save the child from the foster system and b) stop her own school from losing funding as a result of falling under 10-student enrollment). Through Alaska’s OWL (Online With Libraries) network, she is able to provide broadband access to a community with no paved roads, no cars and not a single store (they hunt and grow everything they eat, save the occasional gallon of milk which costs a whopping $36.00 and can only be accessed by plane or dogsled). These ladies gushed with pride telling me about how she connected their students with farmers in Virginia, a wild animal preserve in California and, in their words, “the world they would otherwise never know.” They said, it’s fitting that the library is also the emergency shelter during one of Alaska’s many earthquakes because “we save people every day.” When I commented on how much these ladies did for their villages one replied, “oh… they do so much more for me! I never have to cut my own wood or fix my own snow machine. They take care of me because they know the library takes care of them.”
We should all strive to be as significant and essential to our communities.
I should also mention how very impressed I was by Alaska's OWL network and their commitment to bringing broadband to even their most remote communities. During the conference's State of the State address, their State librarian and OWL project manager said, "Access to information is not a privilege, it's a right and in Alaska, soon everyone will have that right." Given the geographic and environmental barriers that, literally, stand between Alaska's few major cities and the rest of the state, this project is not only ambitious, but its success is beyond impressive. How many states, I wonder, don't have a single community that cannot be access by car, (Alaska has countless such communities), but that have yet to make as much progress in bringing broadband to its citizens?
Finally, I can't end this post without mentioning the role that Twitter played in getting me to Alaska. Long story short, I saw Nicole Roohi (@buzzinglibrarian) and Shannon Miller (@shannonmiller) tweeting about last year's conference, so I chimed in. Next thing I know, I'm in Alaska. Social media is amazing. And the connections we can make there for ourselves and our students are exceptionally powerful. If you're reading this post and you're not yet connected, now is the time. Now. Not tomorrow. Now. Do it.
Alaska, and its people, proved to be impossibly beautiful. It’s was an absolute honor to spend time with these amazing people. As is so often the case when I visit state conferences, but it's especially true this time, I feel I learned more from them than they did from me. Still, I'm so grateful for having had the opportunity to learn and share at AKLA and with the librarians of Alaska. Their work, and the difference they are making for the people of this state, make me proud to be a librarian.