Opinions

It’s time to reboot Alaska’s outdated libraries

1977 was a stellar year for space. “Star Wars” debuted on movie screens, and NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched. It’s also the year that the Noel Wien Library in Fairbanks was constructed. Since then, there have been 10 more entries in the Star Wars saga and 135 Space Shuttle missions. Yet, aside from a limited expansion in the 1990s, the Noel Wien Library remains exactly as it was designed in 1977.

Forty-three years ago, no one could have imagined today’s need for space, accessibility, electricity and something called broadband. Librarians at this main branch of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Public Library system figure out work-arounds for limited power, technology and access issues, a shortage of meeting space and lack of a computer learning lab, but there comes a time when the ability to provide services is detrimentally affected by structural deficits. That time is now.

Libraries are critical to our nation’s education and information infrastructure, offering equitable access to career advancement, economic opportunity and lifeline services free of charge. But aging libraries like this one eventually need to be expanded, modernized or replaced, and federal library construction funding ended in 1997.

As Congress looks to strengthen America’s infrastructure, libraries must be included. We have an opportunity to invest in our state right now with the Build America’s Libraries Act. This bipartisan legislation would allocate $5 billion to the renovation and construction of libraries nationwide, with an estimated $19.1 million for Alaska.

In recent years, we’ve seen a growing reliance on library technology. Alaska has 79 public library locations, which provided access to 946 computers and offered 10,461 programs for children and young adults in 2019. Libraries also provide vital access to job-seeker services, government services and spaces for communities and families to connect and engage in cultural programs.

The pandemic underscored this need, as workers, students and job seekers scrambled to find accessible technology and bandwidth to accomplish basic tasks when everything moved online. Digital access is critical for a functioning society, and trying to provide what’s needed with 1977 architecture is becoming increasingly difficult.

Despite its physical challenges, the Noel Wien Library hosts on average 26,000 visitors per month during non-pandemic years and holds more than 294,000 items in its collection. Every season has something to offer, including children’s reading programs in summer, adult learning and digital literacy offerings, and flowering gardens.

The library is planning a renovation and expansion. A capital campaign is underway to raise the remaining $2.7 million needed. Thanks to state matching funds available five years ago, and many dedicated supporters, the North Pole Library Branch relocated to a beautiful, debt-free new building. Without that type of financial resource available it makes the main branch renovation and expansion project much more difficult to complete.

Too many libraries in Alaska are hampered by outdated or inadequate facilities. An April 2020 libraries needs assessment, requested by the Alaska Library Association, identified a need for new construction, renovation and rehabilitation of more than $116 million in assessed facilities, and that figure doesn’t reflect ongoing repair and maintenance costs for buildings subject to our unique climate.

The Build America’s Libraries Act would address the challenges our libraries currently face, and pave the way for new and improved facilities. Rep. Don Young has been a leader by co-sponsoring this legislation, and it’s time to forge a new frontier by strengthening and sustaining our public library infrastructure for generations to come.

Jonas Lamb serves as president of the Alaska Library Association. Melissa Harter, MSLS, serves as library director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

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