OWL Connects Libraries Statewide

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - 19:00

Imagine following a guide as he swims through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He holds up shells for you to see and points out colorful fish. You wave your hand to get his attention and ask a question. After listening to the answer, you continue exploring together: You and the other 50 people seated in Muldoon Neighborhood Library’s community room.

Maybe you attend a class at Loussac Library about starting a business along with students at the Chugiak-Eagle Neighborhood Library and six village libraries. Or take advantage of a class on treating animal hides taught by a hunter speaking from the Barrow library.

The wonder of videoconferencing has come to Alaska libraries statewide, and the sharing has just begun.

“Videoconferencing is such an intriguing tool,” said Anchorage Public Library Director Mary Jo Torgeson. “It will truly have an impact all over the state. Staff is having a wonderful time brainstorming program ideas, and that doesn’t even include all the ideas that local groups and individuals might have.”

Over the past few years, the Alaska State Library has been slowly rolling out a project that does more to bridge Alaska’s rural-urban gap than any initiative since the statewide telephone system. ASL’s Online With Libraries (OWL) is, in a word, all about connection.

Funded by the United States Department of Commerce, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the State of Alaska, the $8.2 million project was designed to improve the computing capabilities of public libraries throughout the state.

“We put new computer and videoconferencing equipment in 97 public libraries all over Alaska,” said Sue Sherif, the ASL OWL Project Manager. “We worked with GCI to increase Internet broadband speeds in 64 libraries.”

Each community has presented its own set of challenges. The vastness of the state complicated all aspects of the project: conducting training, delivering and installing equipment and building the broadband network – the most expensive and time-consuming aspect of the project.

OWL staff carefully evaluated each location to figure the best way to bring the program online and keep it sustainable. Remote areas short on tech help? OWL trains a local person and gives them a job 20 hours a week troubleshooting the equipment and teaching the staff. Scheduling and running teleconferences for nearly 100 libraries too complicated? OWL contracts with UAF to manage the videoconference schedule and facilitate the events. The solutions for any anticipated problems were built into the project.

Now, in village libraries that previously had limited Internet with strict data limits, access to broadband is changing lives. ASL has collected pages of stories about the creative ways OWL tools have been used:

• In Craig, the kids write song lyrics; a Nashville musician puts them to music and they jam together.

• The Juneau Library scheduled a virtual visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum where kids got to see dinosaurs on display.

• Literary agents listen to book pitches from Bush village residents.

• Fishermen download e-books and recorded books while in port.

• Rural villagers access equipment manual databases while repairing chain saws or snow machines.


Between September 2011 and 2012, 312 video conferences were held, including, job interviews, distance learning classes, a professional development writer’s workshop and numerous author presentations, according to Sherif.

With Anchorage Public Library finally joining the OWL network, program numbers will multiply. Watch the APL monthly calendar for the OWL logo marking the diverse events being planned. Local groups and residents will also be able to schedule video conferences. Go to the APL webpage – www.anchoragelibrary.org – for directions on scheduling and accessing the OWL network at your neighborhood library.


Toni Massari McPherson is APL’s Community Relations Coordinator.

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