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Field Report: Alaska
By Sarah Bosarge
December 3, 2002

Aurora in Fairbanks

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."

Happy DogsOf 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 service).

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

Alaska State Library

Flat Stanley Visits Fairbanks-A Week in the Life of a Librarian

Statewide Library Electronic Doorway

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