Facing leaps in the sales of e-readers and changing information consumption habits, how are our libraries doing? How will they survive? In this week's post, we look at the state of Alaska's libraries.

Editor’s Note: Rasmuson Foundation has been a strong supporter of Alaska’s libraries, making $12.5 million in total awards over the past 42 years. Since 2000, the Foundation has awarded more than $5 million for library construction projects in Haines, Delta Junction, Homer, Girdwood, Kenai, Seward, Sutton, Skagway, Ketchikan and Petersburg.This post is adapted from a November 2011 staff update provided to the Foundation’s board of directors.
Teen Underground is Anchorage Library's space for teen patrons.

Teen Underground is Anchorage Library's space for teen patrons.

Have you been to your public library lately? Did you notice anything different? Because chances are your local library has gone through some significant changes in the last few years.

Some changes so subtle you may not have noticed, like an increase in the variety of programs. But others are more dramatic, like faster internet speeds and new equipment that will connect Alaskans to each other regardless of geographic location.

Why the changes? Because your needs have changed.

Libraries in general are constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of their communities, and Alaska’s libraries are no different. How that change is manifesting itself within the state’s 90 public/community libraries varies widely and is influenced by a range of factors such as location and community resources.

Generally, more people are visiting libraries today than they did 10 years ago, and people are using them differently than they have in the past. See library use statistics from the chart below. While technology has contributed to these changes, it is not the sole factor.

library useage

As recently as a decade ago, many patrons had a transaction-oriented relationship with their library, meaning they would go to the library to check out a book and then leave. Today, libraries are destinations, playing a dual role of research institution and community gathering place. Several factors have contributed to this shift.

With the passage of the Electronic Government Act in 2002 and other state, local and federal government initiatives, the role of public libraries as online access points has become increasingly vital. Despite greater statewide availability, home-Internet services remain cost prohibitive for some people, leaving the library as the best Internet option. Demand for public computers far exceeds supply, forcing libraries to set strict usage limits. Anecdotally, Alaskans are using library computers to apply for their PFDs, file tax returns, write resumes, apply for jobs and participate in online classes.

Free Internet and computer access are not the only services attracting patrons. Total circulation in Alaska increased 19% the last 10 years and the number of people attending library programs across the state increased 16%. While libraries have traditionally offered a range of quality children’s programs, more focus has been placed on retaining kids as customers as they grow older.

An artist's view of the interior of a new Ketchikan Library.

An artist's view of the interior of a new Ketchikan Library.

The Kenai, Haines, and Anchorage Loussac libraries, for example, have dedicated teen areas, and statewide participation in young-adult programming grew 5% between 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, adult program attendance increased 32% between 2005 and 2010 as more people took advantage of free or low-cost educational classes.

Another feature driving people to libraries is meeting room facilities. Fairbanks’ Noel Wien Library has four study rooms that were used 4,033 times in 2010. In addition to being utilized for traditional purposes like group study sessions, they are increasingly reserved for a range of other business, civic and recreational activities.

Rural libraries

Libraries in rural communities play a critical part in allowing residents to stay engaged with the rest of the state. Currently, this role is hindered by a significant digital divide. Internet speeds in communities like Dillingham and Barrow remain frustratingly slow. In 2010, Rasmuson Foundation joined with the U.S. Department of Commerce, State of Alaska and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in promising a combined $8.25 million to enhance Internet speeds at libraries throughout the state, increase the number of public-access computers in libraries, and provide staff training on how to use the new resources. The project, which is currently underway, will make additional tools available to the community, such as video conferencing. However, Alaska OWL (Online with Libraries) is only a three-year project. For rural libraries to be used to their full potential, a long-term solution for providing reliable, high-speed Internet access to rural Alaska is needed.


The new facility in Seward will bring the city's museum and library under one roof. The project received $4.7 million from the State of Alaska, and city residents approved a local tax to help finance the project.

The new facility in Seward will bring the city's museum and library under one roof. The project received $4.7 million from the State of Alaska, and city residents approved a local tax to help finance the project.

Library funding

Few factors will have a greater impact on future library usage than funding. Libraries have become gathering spots because they have had the resources to meet public demand. Alaska libraries receive about 89% of their operating funds from their municipality, a combined 5% from the state and federal governments and 5% from other sources. Given the reliance on local tax dollars, library budgets are highly susceptible to economic swings. The Anchorage Public Library has seen its funding shrink from 4.02% of the total municipality budget to 1.75% in the last decade and has had to cut staff, close branch libraries and adjust hours as a result. While not as dramatic, funding for the Juneau and Fairbanks public libraries has been flat in recent years, remaining around 2% and 5% respectively, of their municipal budgets.

In addition to providing some operating revenue, the State of Alaska allocated $30,267,000 over the last two years for 10 library capital projects. The Library Construction and Major Expansion Matching Program was established in 2008. Funding thus far has come as a legislative addition to the capital budget rather than through the Governor’s recommended capital budget. While it is anticipated that additional dollars will be made available for library construction in FY2013, future funding is contingent on appropriation. Fairbanks/North Pole, Sitka, Talkeetna, Juneau/Mendenhall Valley, Wasilla, Togiak, and Coffman Cove will seek funds in the upcoming session.

To be eligible, libraries must fill out the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development’s (DCCED) 10-page grant application which is scored by a committee. The State can award up to 50% of project costs, with a minimum 20% cash match required if the applicant is a local government. Priority is given to communities that do not have a public library. Expansion projects are not eligible for funding under this program unless they increase the building’s square footage by a minimum of 30%. As such, planned upgrades to the Anchorage and Fairbanks libraries fall outside of this grant program.

Building libraries for the future

Because public libraries are evolving as the needs of their individual communities change, open, flexible spaces are important pieces of any future library project.

The most successful library projects will have significant community engagement and be constructed to meet the community’s foreseeable needs. They will have numerous electrical outlets to accommodate computer labs and laptops and be wired to accommodate future technology when it becomes available.

Thanks to Alaska’s robust inter-library loan program, new libraries will likely have smaller, more focused book collections which will be stored in lower, more accessible shelving units.

Since libraries are being used for a greater range of purposes, new libraries will be designed with public spaces where groups can gather. Large multi-purpose rooms capable of accommodating community gatherings and smaller intimate spaces for private meetings are important fixtures. Space currently allocated to DVDs and reference materials should be placed next to areas of anticipated growth like public computer labs so they can be reconstituted as digital formatting becomes more reliable.

Comfortable furniture made for reading is a feature of new libraries, including this one in Kenai.

Comfortable furniture made for reading is a feature of new libraries, including this one in Kenai.

Furniture will also look different, with more emphasis on creating a comfortable environment.

Bigger is not always better when it comes to libraries. Single-floor designs are better able to support lean staffing levels and can be more energy efficient, especially when equipped with high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment. One national consultant stated that one-stop-shop libraries could eventually be replaced with smaller facilities that are spread-out in convenient locations throughout the community. These facilities would have a heavy technology focus with smaller, rotating print collections and may be located in retail space.

While e-books have become increasingly popular the last 18 months, librarians disagree on how soon or how much they will affect Alaska’s public libraries. Some predicted as much as half of all collections will be in digital format in the next decade. Others argue technology is evolving so quickly that e-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, could quickly be supplanted by a new format. But with the publishing industry currently unsettled on how to profitably deliver their product electronically to libraries, and libraries still focusing on delivering services to the masses, print collections are here to stay for the foreseeable future. In FY2009, books accounted for 5.6% of library expenditures statewide, compared to less than 1% on electronic materials which include e-books.

Modern libraries are collaborative centers where people can go not just to find information, but to collaborate, engage and create something new. The key to new facilities is flexibility and efficiency. Flexibility will allow libraries to evolve as community needs and technology changes. Efficiency will help protect against shrinking or flat budgets and increasing operating costs. Overall, libraries remain as relevant as ever to all Alaskans and are essential resources for maintaining an educated, competitive and connected populace.