Internet Keeps Remote Alaska Town Together

It's easy for people to lose touch with the outside world. Cell phones work in few areas throughout an enormous aquatic environment with hundreds of bays and inlets that are far removed from communications facilities.

Even satellite phones don't work in many areas because high cliffs along the coastline block the line of sight to geosynchronous satellites, which hover low on the southern horizon.

So, Budke, like good librarians everywhere, seized on the opportunity to make her small library "more relevant to the community" by providing free Internet access.

The only other site in downtown Hoonah is a bar called The Office, and it isn't free. So the library is, literally, the community's primary link to the outside world. Not many here can afford the relatively high cost of commercial Internet servers, much less the computers to use them.

So, even when the library is closed, the Wi-Fi remains on, so anyone with a laptop can use it, even if they have to sit outside. Most of the users are local people, although members of the crews that bring the big ships into town also drop by the library, along with travelers who need a quiet place to work.

Library Is Critical Link for Millions

Last week, I filed my column from Sitka, another coastal community and the seat of power when Russians ruled Alaska. The library offers free access, and it was a standing-room-only crowd.

Indeed, the Internet has become a cornerstone in the changing world of library science. According to the American Library Association, 99 percent of U.S. public libraries offer free access to computers and the Internet. And 79 percent of U.S. public libraries are the only source of free public access in their communities, according to Larra Clark, who directs the association's annual survey of library funding and technology access.

From 2000 to 2005, the number of computers in libraries increased by 86 percent, contributing to a rise in the number of visits of 18.6 percent, according to the library association's most recent annual study. And a study to be released this fall will show a 14 percent jump in free Wi-Fi access among rural libraries in the past year.

For millions, it's a critical link.

These days, "people can't even apply for a job without Internet access," Clark said in a telephone interview. So libraries are trying to do what they have always done, she said, "ensuring public access to information for all members of the community."

Budke is convinced that her library is more crowded these days because of free Internet access, and she added that there's an additional benefit for many of her visitors.

"Sometimes," she said, "they also check out a book."

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