These days, the libraries in Haines, Klukwan and Skagway mean much more to residents and visitors than checking out a book or two. The facilities are hubs for educational functions and information gathering via the internet. Patrons use the free web access to find jobs, file taxes and scholarly and cultural pursuits. But proposed cuts from both the House and Senate Finance committees call for a 100-percent reduction to the program that funds library internet connections.
Miles Curtis goes online every day at the public library in Haines. But it’s not to scope out the latest deals on Amazon or update his Twitter account. Curtis says he’s in the throes of a legal battle.
“The legal situation we’re in has a caused a lot of financial hardships, which makes it difficult to maintain internet and the related equipment at home. We’ve relied on the library almost exclusively in the last year or so.”
Maintaining a home connection in Haines, Klukwan or Skagway isn’t easy on the wallet. Especially a connection that runs faster than a snail’s pace and offers a reasonable amount of data. For example, in Haines and Skagway, a midrange plan from Alaska Power and Telephone will run about 80 bucks a month, plus a setup fee.
“It became so costly and we weren’t able to keep up with the bills so we had to go ahead and shut it down.”
So, if the money that funds wireless internet and video conferencing at the library goes away, Curtis says he’s not sure what he and his wife would do.
Last year, the Online With Libraries, or OWL, funding was threatened, too. And like this year’s campaign to reduce the deficit, the program was originally slated to be axed in its entirety. But it survived completely intact.
Patty Brown is the director of the Haines library. She says this year is different.
“I think this year it’s more just trying to look at covering at what’s looking like great losses to the state, so they’re cutting a lot of different areas,” Brown says. “For the rural and remote communities, it’s very much a critical service.”
If the cuts go through, Brown says the library in Haines would lose its federal match dollars also. That means the library would no longer be able to offer wireless internet service or video conferencing – two services the public has come to rely on. In total, OWL costs a little over $760,000 each year to serve 45 libraries across the state. Brown says that’s a small price to pay for a lifeline.
“Many of the libraries are paying about 2 percent of their internet costs, but if they had to take on the OWL funds, they’d be paying 22 percent of the cost and hoping the federal e-rate dollars wouldn’t be affected.”
In February, typically the library’s slowest month, according to Brown, the wired, desktop computers were used 1,900 times, while wireless usage topped 1,200.
Aside from the day-to-day financials, job searches and yearly PFD applications, Brown says the internet access and video conferencing offers opportunities for higher learning, professional advancement and cultural exchanges. Also, many people rely on the library access to correspond with family and loved ones around the world. If OWL gets disconnected, and they lose federal dollars as a result, the Haines Library could be on the hook for upward of $40,000. Brown says, at the very least, they would go from paying $1,900 annually to almost $13,000.
It’s a huge jump, Brown says.
Jessie Morgan is the cultural coordinator at the library in Haines. She says cultural exchanges occur often via video conferencing, saving residents the hefty cost of flying to events across the state. She adds that the library in Klukwan uses online video sessions for language programs.
In Skagway, the library is also vulnerable to the loss of video conferencing, but not wireless because of municipality funding. Director Julene Brown – no relation to the Haines’ library director – says video conferencing is often used for job training and online classes.
“It’s taken off, and people are just starting to see the many opportunities that it brings us,” Julene Brown says. “It’s just kind of ironic to see these state agencies that are trying to figure out how to deliver services with the budget cuts that they’re face. This video conferencing is one way they’re able to do that.”
Back in Haines, Miles Curtis says with the world becoming increasingly paperless, access to the web is no longer just a privilege.
“It’s gotten to a point where I would consider it a right,” he says. “Everything is going in the direction where it would be difficult to function, and have access to the information that everyone should be entitled to.”
Both library directors urge those who want to help to go online and sign a petition opposing the cuts. You can log on for free at the library.