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Anchorage's branch libraries mirror neighborhood needs

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 2, 2013

Libraries used to be places of quiet introspection and learning, serving as central storehouses of information, one-stop shops for all of society's knowledge. Today, they are still places of learning and quiet concentration, books are still displayed on stacks, and the Dewey decimal system is still used in catalogs. But technology and the interests of patrons have changed.

With almost any bit of information now available via the Internet, libraries themselves are concentrating on being more than just places to research a term paper or read a young child a book. Meeting the specific needs of a portion of a city is something that makes branch libraries -- smaller, more flexible and community-focused -- an important part of any city's library system. With the Municipality of Anchorage's main information treasury, the Z.J. Loussac Library, showing its age and the city's neighborhoods so varied and widely spread, branch libraries are critical.

The Anchorage library system has four branch locations: In Mountain View, Muldoon, Eagle River and, 45 minutes south of the Anchorage Bowl, in the alpine community of Girdwood. Each branch offers computer access, books, DVDs and programs for kids and adults. But each is also unique -- a reflection of the communities they serve.

For example, patrons can borrow a ukulele from the branch library at Mountain View, a neighborhood recently named the nation's most ethnically diverse, and one heavily populated with people from the Pacific Islands, where ukuleles are popular. But the instrument, like the library that lends it out, has a wide appeal in northeast Anchorage.

"We have found that a lot of our Thai users are also checking out the Ukuleles," said Mountain View branch manager Elizabeth Nikolai.

The Mountain View branch library -- on the corner of the Clark Middle School parking lot -- is Anchorage's newest, opening in 2010. The branch is usually full of more than 130 teens on weekday afternoons. Nearby Clark Middle School lets out at 2:45 p.m. After-school activities don't begin until 4 o'clock, so students have time to study. That's why, on most weekdays, the Mountain View library becomes a late afternoon home to many middle-school students. They use computers there to surf the Web, play video games and (sometimes) do homework. But its proximity to a school is the main reason for the flood of teens.

"The library is a safe place for the kids to explore," Nikolai said.

At the Loussac Library, Anchorage's flagship location, an expanded space complete with an enclosed area for teen-specific books and movies and comfortable chairs was created to attract young users, but it has already become too small. At Mountain View, chairs scattered around the book stacks serve the same purpose.

"Teens are not going to hang out where the babies are," said Toni McPherson, the Anchorage library system's community relations director.

But schoolchildren aren't the only ones who crowd the Mountain View library.

Much of Mountain View lives near or below the poverty line and many residents don't have computers at home. Nikolai said the branch's adult clientele frequently uses the library computers to check for apartments and jobs on craigslist, file for social security, WIC, and other state and federal benefits, including unemployment. But Facebook is also a draw, and a legitimate one, according to Nikolai.

"For many of our users, checking Facebook is a real need," Nikolai said. "Especially if they moved to Alaska from another state or country, checking on Facebook may be the only way they can check on their family or keep up with what's happening."

Meeting space is also a priority for the Mountain View branch. The library has two small rooms used for everything from citizenship tutoring to social service appointments.

The Muldoon branch library, in East Anchorage, serves similar needs. The Eagle River branch, about 18 miles north of Anchorage's city center, is a bit different because it serves a relatively economically stable area and population. The Eagle River branch has the highest circulation of all Anchorage branch libraries.

"People in Eagle River don't seem to use other branches. They tend to want to be able to stay in Eagle River," said Sherri Douglass, the Anchorage library system's assistant director of public services.

In Girdwood -- home to a ski area and backcountry recreation hotspot 38 miles southeast of Anchorage -- a transient and relatively young population means outdoor skill and skiing books are popular.

Cities of similar size and make-up to Anchorage have, on average, nine library locations. Anchorage has just four, which is why each is so important to the people who live nearby. That's a mission Anchorage library managers are working to expand.

"We are constantly adding programs, and trying to get the word out that the library is more than just a house for books," McPherson said.

Getting young people and teens inside the library is only half the battle for branch library staffers -- keeping them interested in everything the library has to offer is the real challenge.

"We lose them in their late teens and 20s and get them back when they have kids of their own, because as fantastic as technology is, Google will never read a story to your kid," Nikolai said.

The preceding report is part two of a two-part series. The first, focusing on the Z.J. Loussac Library, is available here. Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com

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