Internet Keeps Remote Alaska Town Together

Photo: Internet Keeps Remote Alaska Town Together: Where to Get Web Access? At the Library, Which Gets New Life From It

Most days, when Terri Budke shows up to open the library in the tiny Tlingit Native American community of Hoonah, Alaska, she is greeted by a small crowd. Several people, mostly Native Americans, sit on the steps outside the library, pecking away on their laptop computers.

That may seem a bit odd to urban folks, so accustomed to Internet access and all the latest communications tools.

But in Hoonah, it's sort of a revolution because, without the small library and its wireless Internet service, which the community shares with the only school in town, the people here would be left behind. And, instead of a handful of folks, the library is full for nearly the entire 15 hours it is open every week.

"Isn't it wonderful," Budke said as she glanced around the crowded library.

People are returning to libraries in droves, largely because of the Internet.

Some had thought the Internet would kill libraries but, in many cases, it may be saving them. That's because in communities like Hoonah, where every penny matters, the library is the hottest ticket in town.

Some use their own computers, but most sit in front of the library's desktops, Hoonah's link to the outside world.

Free Internet Access Draws Residents

Budke estimates that up to half the people who visit her library are there because of free Internet access, and that's an important number because her annual budget is based partly on how many people use the facility. She hopes the visits this year will be high enough to justify replacing the desktop computers, now seven years old and dinosaurs in the rapid evolution of computers.

Unfortunately, libraries across the country have told researchers at the American Library Association that funding is not keeping up with the increase in use, especially in these difficult times, and it is particularly hard to maintain adequate staffing. Most libraries try to provide help to Internet users who are unfamiliar with the technology.

Hoonah is located on the northern tip of Chichagof Island, a huge chunk of wilderness that probably has more bears than humans. The community has about 850 residents, 70 percent of whom are Tlingits, descendents of the maritime nomads who have pulled their living from the sea here for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years.

It's not an easy life, especially these days. Logging, which supported many people, is virtually dead in the surrounding Tongass National Forest. Fishing and tourism, the latest source of a few bucks, are all that's left. When the big cruise ships come to town, tourists rule the day.

Historically, Hoonah has never had it easy. The village used to be in what is now Glacier Bay National Park, but advancing glaciers 200 years ago forced it to move 20 miles to the south to a beautiful natural harbor where "the north wind doesn't blow," according to local folklore.

Knowing the wind is important to fishermen who venture forth on the frigid waters of southeast Alaska, where someone dies nearly every year. If a boat capsizes, hypothermia can set in within a few minutes, and often there isn't another boat within miles.

There are many villages in Alaska that share Hoonah's heritage, and its tribulations. Much of the history of southeast Alaska is the story of what used to be here. Logging camps and canneries closed, entire communities moved on, leaving the past behind them.

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