The Jon Krakauer
best seller Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless,
a new college graduate who gave away all the money in his savings account
and then dropped out of society eventually making his way to Alaska
where he starved to death in the shadow of Denali.
Distance MLIS student
Wendy Zimmerman tells a similar story of selling her belongings and
driving to Alaska, but, of course, Wendy's story has a happier ending.
She thought she'd spend a summer, then decided to stick out an Alaska
winter, met her husband, and eventually got a job at the Fairbanks Northstar
Borough Public Library. She doesn't have any plans to leave.
I have to admit
that most of my ideas about Alaska come straight from Northern Exposure,
so I asked Wendy what living in Alaska and working in libraries there
is really like. For instance, how cold does it really get? Fairbanks
is in the middle of the state, the only city in the Alaskan interior
and is, technically, almost a desert, as they receive only about 11
inches of precipitation per year.
But don't start
thinking sand and sun. During her first winter there, Wendy experienced
two straight weeks of temperatures colder than 50 degrees BELOW zero!
"It's a dry cold," jokes Wendy. And a little investigating
on the Web convinces me that moose really do mosey
through town. But the human side of the Northern Exposure
mythology also seems to be true. Wendy says that Fairbanks is full of
individuals and misfits, but that they are the nicest people she's ever
met. She explains, "I think that because of the harshness of the
climate here, people feel a certain camaraderie and a social responsibility
to keep each other safe."
course, we are interested in libraries, so I asked Wendy about that
too. Wendy is a circulation assistant at the Noel
Wien Public Library, one of about 60 employees at this beautiful
public library renovated in 1998. Although her job is pretty much what
one would expect, there are a few interesting features of working in
Alaska. For example, when the temperature reaches 30 below, the library's
closing announcement lets patrons know they need to have a ride home.
Also, public libraries in Alaska provide services for remote patrons
who don't have access to a library branch. This means materials might
be delivered by sea plane, ski plane, kayak, snow mobile, or even dog
sled (but it's not the librarians who are the mushers; it's the postal
The mandate of
Alaskan public libraries is also to provide appropriate services to
patrons from indigenous cultures. (Alaska's indigenous peoples include
Aleut, Eskimo and Indian groups who differ from each other in ethnic
origin, language, and culture, and make up at least fifteen percent
of Alaska's population.) Librarians in the state composed a set of Culturally
Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries to help libraries
consider the needs of native patrons in program planning, materials
collection, and staff training. One example of how Alaskan libraries
are meeting the needs of native patrons is the Floating
Bookmobile Program which provides library materials to children
of parents working in summer fish camps along the Kuskokwim River.
There are also
opportunities for those interested in academic and special libraries
in Alaska. For example, the University
of Alaska at Fairbanks has the largest polar studies collection
in the world, as well as a state of the art bio-sciences
library. U of A at Anchorage is home to the Health Sciences Information
Service. Alyeska, the company that runs the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, also
employs a librarian and staff. The Juneau
Mineral Information Center, a Bureau of Land Management library,
contains more than 20,000 geologic and minerals publications in its
collection. For information on these and many other libraries, the Alaska
State Library keeps an online directory of libraries in the state.
Alaskan libraries are members of the Pacific
Northwest Library Association.
Alaska has always
held a bit of a mythological place in American history, and for many
still represents our only remaining wilderness frontier. But literacy
and education are also valued and there are opportunities for any librarian
with a bit of adventurer in them. Wendy says, "Living here makes
me feel like I'm participating in my own life rather than letting it
pass me by."
To discover more
about libraries in Alaska:
Alaska Library Association
Visits Fairbanks-A Week in the Life of a Librarian