One of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes has canceled state funding for broadband internet in Alaska libraries. The roughly $670,000 in savings could have far-reaching consequences for Alaska’s smallest towns.
The state’s website for Alaska Online With Libraries has a pink banner informing visitors that the program has been terminated. Video conferences will end and no assistance awards will be issued next year. The OWL program ceased to exist at the end of June.
Librarians say it’s a big deal.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Haines Library Director Caroline Goolsby. “OWL pays for over half of our internet. And we use a lot of bandwidth.”
Haines was among about 100 local libraries that used the program. Goolsby said the community will have to make up the difference through fundraising. Raising an extra $7,600 a year won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible for Haines.
“Friends of the Library will have to fundraise. We are very lucky in that we have a community who supports us and love us and sees the value in the work we do here,” she said.
Grant-funded programs like summer lunches for students are not in jeopardy. And — in Haines at least — the internet access itself won’t change anytime soon. Goolsby said it’s a basic service of any library, and they’re locked into their contract.
But that’s not the case everywhere. Take Port Lions, a small community on Kodiak Island: Librarian Angel Sanders said the OWL program provided Port Lion’s digital gateway.
“Without the internet, people aren’t gonna have it out here. A majority of the community doesn’t have internet at home,” she said.
That’s because reliable internet is expensive in rural Alaska. The state’s contribution through OWL was nearly $7,000 a year. That’s not a lot of money, until you factor in Port Lion’s population: fewer than 200 people.
The cut jeopardizes the federal funding that pays for most of the internet bills in small communities. If local libraries can’t make up for the state’s contribution, they lose their federal funding as well.
“Many of those communities simply won’t be able to afford broadband connectivity,” said Alaska Library Association President Robert Barr. “And so not only will they not be able to participate in the video conferencing piece of OWL, but they simply won’t have a reliable or — I hesitate to say speedy because it’s already not that speedy — but connection to the internet at all.”
Back in February, the Alaska State Library surveyed community libraries that participate in the OWL program. A few said they weren’t sure they could continue to offer internet without their share of the roughly $670,000 in state support. This included several which offered the only public internet in town.
Barr said the Alaska’s libraries have seen cuts before. But not like this.
“It makes it incredibly hard to plan for the future when it’s not just a gradual glide path, but it’s just a steep sort of cliff,” he said.
Erin Hardin — spokesperson for the Department of Education and Early Development, which administers the program — said the agency is working to tie up loose ends with the local libraries.
“To let them know that, you know, the funding was vetoed for the FY 20 budget and collect their final internet award reports. And provide any wrap up support that’s needed, ” she said.
The video conferencing equipment will remain — that’s how far-flung communities participate in things like legislative call-ins. And Hardin said local libraries can still use the technology if they pay their own way.
Back in Haines, Goolsby is optimistic about the library’s future even if she’s troubled by the cuts.
“The library will still be here. The library is not closing down,” she said. “You will have to take us out of here on gurneys before we give up serving the community of Haines because we love what we do. And — it’s Alaska! We’re gonna give it a go.”
That’s good news for the half-dozen patrons outside, waiting patiently for the library’s doors to open at 10 a.m.
The OWL program will remain shut down unless at least 45 legislators vote to override the governor’s veto by Friday.