Cuts to universities could threaten Alaska’s unified library catalog

The Sitka Public Library is among the more than 80 local systems that share collections statewide.

The Sitka Public Library is among the more than 80 local systems that share collections statewide. (Photo by Bill Foster/KCAW)

Library workers across the state are concerned Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to Alaska’s university system could threaten a statewide library service that allows patrons to request more than 3 million titles from libraries across the state.

The governor’s line-item budget vetoes wouldn’t automatically doom the Alaska Library Catalog. But Juneau Public Libraries director Robert Barr — who pulls double-duty as board president for the Alaska Library Association — said that because the statewide catalog is largely dependent on the University of Alaska system, its days could be numbered.

“I have a hard time seeing UAA and UAF and UAS continuing to support that service with cuts of this magnitude,” he said Monday.

Barr explained how the Alaska Library Catalog works: “If you live in Juneau, and there’s an item that you want that’s not owned locally in Juneau, but it is in Fairbanks, we’ll get it for you and vice versa,” he said.

The materials are couriered on the road system. If the libraries aren’t in communities with roads, they go by mail. It’s a free service available to more than 90% of the state population. The network links 87 libraries run by municipalities, school districts and university campuses.

“It’s been a vision of libraries for a long time to figure out a way to create a statewide system to do something like this,” said university librarian Mike Robinson, who helped build the system at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“But it was very hard to sit down on paper and plan it, you know, from scratch,” he told CoastAlaska. “Who was going to come up with the money? How are we going to do it? So it evolved organically over time, which is great, but it’s housed within the UAA infrastructure.”

Much of this infrastructure could soon face the chopping block: Dunleavy’s line-item budget veto eliminated $130 million from the university’s budget. University officials warn that will mean more than a thousand jobs lost unless the Legislature overrides the governor’s veto. That has Robinson and Barr worried about the three support staff that help run the catalog at UAA.

“Once the belt starts tightening, it could be easy to get in a hole where the whole system gets underfunded,” Robinson said.

As it stands, patrons in Talkeetna, for example, can request a book in Wasilla. But cuts to the universities could take Alaska’s public libraries back in time. Before the statewide catalog, Barr said, “You would instead only have access to a library catalog per your local community.”

The Alaska Legislature is slated to review this and 181 other line-item vetoes this week. It takes 45 votes to override a governor’s veto, and lawmakers have only until Friday to do so.

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