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Barrow's beating heart: A library at the top of the world

  • Author: Kirsten Swann
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2016

Built between the tundra and the ocean, Barrow's library stands out.

The location is unforgettable—less than half a mile from the shore of the frigid Chukchi Sea. The monthly Internet bill is staggering—approximately $7,000, according to library administrators. The potted plant that stretches up to the ceiling in the main reading room just might be the tallest living tree in town. Yet the most remarkable parts of the Tuzzy Consortium Library sit on the shelves, in the armchairs and reading nooks, behind the desks and in rows of neatly stored archival boxes in a back room.

The northernmost public library in the United States is a guardian of Arctic culture and history, a gathering place for the tight-knit Inupiat community it serves and an invaluable connection to the outside world.

Some call it Barrow's living room.

On a frigid afternoon in late November, that's exactly what it feels like. People of all ages browse Facebook and other websites on the library's desktop computers. An elderly woman flips through a magazine in an armchair by a window. A young mother chases a toddler through the bookshelves; a man carves baleen on a table in the conference room.

Then there's David Ongley, the widely respected library director who's worked at Tuzzy for the past two decades. Despite all his time there, Ongley still considers himself a guest in Barrow's living room.

"We try to be a community center," he said, sipping a cup of tea in his modest back office. "And this is an Inupiat community, first and foremost."

Part of Ilisagvik College, Barrow's two-year tribal school, Tuzzy Consortium Library spans the length of the North Slope. There are branches in Wainwright, Point Lay, Point Hope, Nuiqsut, Kaktovik, Atqasuk and Anaktuvuk Pass, but the main library in Barrow is the beating heart of it all.

Here, there are story hours, family movie nights, science talks and an adult book club. The bulletin board near the front door is papered with announcements about other community events; a bake sale, a holiday bazaar, cooking and yoga classes, an upcoming election.

The library facilities were expanded and upgraded during a multimillion-dollar renovation project several years ago. Now, there's a room for teens, a room for Ilisagvik College classes and another room with the videoconferencing equipment necessary for a teacher to lead a class in remote Atqasuk three times a week.

For Ongley, running a library at the top of the world means cultivating a collection that pays homage to the region's cultural values and traditional ways of life. It's a labor of love.

Many of the books that fill Tuzzy's shelves focus on Arctic peoples and places, from Northern Alaska to Canada, Russia and Scandinavian countries. Often, the library materials aren't books at all, because Arctic cultures embrace oral storytelling over the written word, Ongley said.

"We have a very strong video collection, and we try to purchase just about anything we can get our hands on that has been filmed or recorded on those [Arctic] cultures," the library director said. "Those are very popular. I can't tell you how many copies of 'The Fast Runner' we've been through."

During his tenure at the library, Ongley has sought to build a place that caters to the community around it—developing Tuzzy's collection, founding the Alaska Library Association's Native Issues Round Table and helping create the AKLA's Culturally Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries

His dedication to Barrow's library hasn't gone unnoticed.

In 2006, he was recognized by the international Library Journal. In 2009, Ongley was honored by the American Indian Library Association for his efforts on behalf of Alaska Native library patrons. Librarians around the state continue to praise his work.

"On the most fundamental level, the job of the library is to collect things and make them accessible," said Tyson Rinio of Fairbanks, current chairman of the AKLA Native Issues Round Table. "And you need to collect things that people want."

For libraries in indigenous communities like Barrow, that means presenting relatable material in familiar languages and formats, and preserving and recognizing Native cultures as the living, breathing things that they are.

"I think David's doing that, and it's very rare," Rinio said.

Besides the books, audio recordings and videos that line the shelves in the front of the library, the Tuzzy Consortium Library is home to an extensive archival collection. There are old documents from Barrow's now-defunct Naval Arctic Research Lab—shipping and receiving records, personnel files, environmental information and legal documents, occasionally mundane yet invaluable catalogues of days past in the far north.

Then there's the Tundra Times, the iconic newspaper written by and for Alaska Natives for more than 30 years. When the paper ceased publication in 1997, the archives and copyrights were acquired by Barrow's Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, which then turned it over to the local library.

The newspaper archives are brimming with regional history. You can find everything from articles about political issues to Yup'ik poetry to dog race schedules, state game board happenings and stories about the Alaska Natives who helped build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Anyone anywhere in the world can read those stories, because many old editions of the Tundra Times are now available digitally via the Tuzzy Consortium website.

Through Barrow's public library, people can explore the North Slope's past and present, sharing Inupiat culture and heritage with future generations and the outside world.

Between 300 and 400 people visit the library every day—nearly 10 percent of the entire community. Some people spend hours here; some are daily visitors. Ongley's work is paying off.

"I like to consider it the best small library in Alaska," he said, smiling.

This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at

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