HOONAH, Alaska, July 8, 2009 — -- 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.
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.
In Remote Alaska, an Online Lifeline
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.
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."