The Alaska State Senate has voted to reject pay raises for the governor and his commissioners.
The decision was rooted in politics as well as policy. Sen. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, carried the bill, and he said the salary recommendations from the State Officers Compensation Commission were appropriate. But:
MEYER: It’s just in these times of tight budgets and deficit spending, we cannot afford these recommendations at this time.
The state is facing a $2 billion shortfall, and the pay raises would cost over $200,000.
The bill was approved unanimously and now needs a vote from the House.
Gov. Sean Parnell has already said he would refuse to take a pay raise, but that he thought his cabinet deserved a salary hike.
The ability to monitor several volcano’s in Alaska is being diminished due to funding constraints. The Alaska Volcano Observatory confirms that all of the monitoring instruments and stations at the Fourpeaked Volcano on the Alaska Peninsula have failed.
John Power is the Scientist in Charge for AVO.
“The cause is not completely known but the most likely thing is deferred maintenance. Maintenance that has not been performed. It’s beginning to catch up to us.”
Power confirms that AVO will continue to use satellite data, infrasound, and first hand reports from pilots to detect signs of eruptive activity. The Fourpeaked Volcano lies within the Katmai National Preserve and there have been no reported historical eruptions of the volcano. The announcement that the monitoring equipment on the Fourpeaked Volcano was not working comes on the heels of last month’s announcement that the same thing had occurred at the Aniakchak Volcano, also on the Alaska Peninsula. In total there are 5 volcano’s in Alaska that have monitoring equipment on them that are not currently working.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory is a joint program of the United States Geological Survey, the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the State of Alaska’s Division of Geophysical Surveys. The Observatory was created in 1988.
A former Juneau Empire reporter says she was fired when she refused to set up a meeting between the publisher and a legislator on a bill that affects newspapers.
Jennifer Canfield left her job as state capital reporter last week.
The last few years at the Empire have been marked by turnover and some uncertainty as its parent company struggled financially.
Municipalities buy space in newspapers to publish notices on certain information, like raising taxes, meetings, and foreclosures. House Bill 275 would give municipalities another option – publish the information electronically, to be accessed on a municipal website.
Rep. Mike Hawker is the main sponsor of the bill. He says it would empower municipalities to find the most cost effective way to operate.
“It’s information that we have determined that it is in the public necessity and good that it’s made available and, as time has progressed and moved forward, there are alternatives to the traditional newspaper route of publication that might actually even do a better and more efficient and effective job of informing a public.”
Juneau Empire publisher Ruston Burton disagrees.
“It’s a common legislative move that’s made in a lot of states, it’s been made before, trying to basically take public information and hide it behind a website that nobody goes to essentially.”
After state government reporter Jennifer Canfield pointed out the bill to Burton, he asked her to set up a meeting with Rep. Hawker. Burton said he intended Canfield be present at the meeting as well.
“In my mind, I’m thinking that as we’re sitting with him, she’s asking the questions – a reporter would be asking the questions about, you know, ‘Why are you wanting to push this bill? What’s the reason behind it? What instigated it to make you feel it was super important?’ It’s pretty simple. There’s somebody pushing a bill, we want to know why, and we’re going to tell the story about it.”
Reporter Canfield didn’t think it was so simple. She didn’t want to do it.
“There really needs to be a firewall between the business side and the editorial side and I think any journalist understands that implicitly,” says Canfield.
To Burton, it was just a meeting. He says the Empire has a financial stake if HB275 passes, but says his concern is not about the money. He says less than 1 percent of the paper’s total revenue comes from municipal notices.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time when I asked and I didn’t expect such a push back on it either. I don’t know that there’s anything unethical about saying, ‘Hey we’re going to go talk to this guy that’s trying to push a bill and I want to be there when you’re talking to him and you can report the news.’”
Canfield made it clear she didn’t want to set up the meeting.
“It was insisted that I do it, and eventually the conversation got to the point where I was told that if I didn’t do it, our working relationship could not continue. I again expressed my ethical concerns and I was fired.”
Canfield says she got notice of her termination the day after being asked to set up the meeting. She says being fired is a direct consequence of her saying no.
“In our conversation it was pretty clear that was the reason.”
Burton says the two events are unrelated.
“A decision had been made long before there was ever anybody asking for a meeting with Hawker,” says Burton.
Canfield is not the first reporter to abruptly lose their job at the Empire. In 2012, state government reporter Pat Forgey was dismissed from the paper; he went on to cover the capitol for the Alaska Dispatch. His replacement at the Empire, Andrew Miller, quit after just one day, claiming the work environment was “dysfunctional.”
At the time of the interview, Burton still hadn’t set up an interview with Hawker but says he plans to.
Editor’s note: Story updated to clarify that Canfield initially notified Burton about the bill.
After spending Sunday listening to stakeholders’ committee comments on Northern District proposals, the state’s Board of Fisheries Monday morning got down to deliberations on central Cook Inlet management changes. The Board unanimously approved a proposal to ensure escapement goals for the Northern District.
The Board unanimously approved substitute language for a proposal  initially sponsored by commercial drifters intending to modify the plan to ensure escapement goals for the Northern District.
But the language the Board approved was put forward by the Matanuska Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission. Commission member Larry Engle says the board’s approval of the substitute expands harvest opportunities for the drift fishery during the early part of the fishing season, while it expands fishing areas for the drift fleet until July fifteenth. After that date, until the end of the month, the drift fleet harvest will be restricted to allow more fish passage into the Northern District.
“So it was kind of a balancing act, and the whole issue surrounded around conservation. Every board member talked about this, and they couldn’t predict exactly how this was ultimately going to turn out, but things have gotten so bad in terms of fish passage through the Northern District, escapements, the closures and its impacts on tens of thousands of Alaskans, that they knew they had to try something different. And they did. “
Engle says the changes to Central District drift management is one of the most critical issues at the meeting. He says the drift fleet will be able to catch more fish up front at the start of the season, while later season restrictions on commercial harvesters will allow more fish for Northern Cook Inlet. Mac Minard, a consultant for the Mat Su Fish and Wildlife Commission says sports harvests should benefit.
“It will deliver tens of thousands, if a hundred thousand coho North into the streams and waters of the Northern District. There will be an immediate and measurable effect in those fisheries for local anglers this fall. “
The move affects all salmon headed for the Northern District. Engle says Board members put concerns about conservation of the stocks over allegiance to harvest groups. Board actions can be reconsidered within 24 hours.
Marine Debris used to be mostly nets, buoys and fishing gear but now it includes plastic bottles, bottle caps, and styrophone. It’s everywhere, there’s nowhere to put it and more is coming every day. Johanna Eurich reports on a new museum exhibit highlighting the problem.
Alaska State Troopers rescued a group of tourists late Friday night after they got stuck in their vehicle trying to get to a lodge about 20 miles north of Fairbanks near Chatanika on an outing to view the aurora borealis.
The Iditarod Trail Committee is considering moving the restart of the race from Willow to Fairbanks. Saturday’s statement says that the ceremonial start will take place on March 1st in Anchorage as planned, and that the current plan is to have the restart, where the competitive part of the race truly begins, in Willow the next day. But there are concerns about trail conditions between Rainy Pass and Nikolai. If the trail isn’t acceptable by the beginning of next week, the restart will be moved to Fairbanks on March 3rd.
Moving the start of the race would mean logistical challenges for race officials and mushers. In addition, many Mat-Su Valley businesses bring in significant income during the Iditarod.
Now, race officials, mushers, fans, and business owners will be watching the weather forecast, hoping for good news. A final decision is expected sometime next Monday.
Allen Moore has won the Yukon Quest International Sled dog Race for the second consecutive year. Moore’s team is known for its petite stature, perky ears and wagging tails and they didn’t disappoint. They jumped in harness and yelped after arriving at Takhini Hot Springs 30 miles outside of Whitehorse.
But Moore’s win is bittersweet. What was expected to be a foot race to the finish, turned into a solo run after Eureka Musher Brent Sass sustained a minor head injury Sunday morning, roughly 80 miles from the finish line. The accident was clearly difficult for Moore as he crossed the finish line.
“It would have been interesting, especially for the media if Brent hadn’t have gotten injured, because we would have been neck in neck all the way here.” The Two-Rivers musher choked up as he talked about the race. “We’d have probably both slid around the corner right there. So, anyway, he said probably next year.”
This is Moore’s fourth top-ten finish in as many years. He also had to catch his breath when asked about his lead dog, Quito. “Quito’s been in every one of our races and she’s always been in the lead. She’s just the best dog a person could have. The last four year’s she’s run back-to-back Quests and Iditarods in lead and I wish we had a lot more like her.”
Quito led the team in single lead for much of the race. When she wasn’t running alone, she was running next to a tri-colored leader named Scruggs. Moore says he plans to be back for the race, and he expects Quito and Scruggs are likely to run the Quest again next year. “Well, I would hope so. Until she tells us she doesn’t want to do it anymore, and she’s hasn’t said that yet and she’s just six or seven, one of the two.”
There are still 12 teams on the trail. They will continue to make their way toward the finish line throughout the week. The finish line was relocated 30 miles from downtown Whitehorse due to weak ice on the Yukon River and poor trail conditions. The change and the elimination of American Summit outside of Eagle shortened the total distance by roughly 50 miles.
At midday, huge crowds of homeless men and women filter inside Beans Cafe in downtown Anchorage for meals and socializing. It can be noisy and chaotic. For many, it’s their only respite from the cold and dust outside on the city streets. But once a week, volunteers recently began serving up more than a hot meal. KSKA’s Daysha Eaton has the story.
Some of the homeless people ask about his jacket, others about his drum with the word Ahtna scrolled across the front and two red feathers on either side. Even more gather round when he brings out his stick and starts pounding out the beat.
His cousin Andrew wears a black hoodie and dances and sings at his side. During a recent one-day point in time survey, The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation found the majority of chronically homeless people in Anchorage – Around 70 percent of the 700 or so homeless people surveyed – self-identified as Alaska Native. Johns noticed too. He says he got the idea to start drumming at Beans while volunteering there a few weeks ago. At the end of the song, the audience let out sounds of approval.
28-year-old Johns grew up in Copper Center, or as he calls it Kluti Kaah. He is Ahtna and Gwich’en Athabascan. By his own account, Johns could have been among the men and women with substance abuse issues at beans. He spent his youth drinking to numb out emotions, he says, he did not know how to deal with. Traditional songs, drumming, dancing helped him find connection again get sober when he was 21. He says he was apprehensive about how he’d be received but something cool happened when he started drumming and singing at Beans.
“I just started singing. And it amazed me the respect that I got and the quietness that happened.”
Quietness followed by request after request for traditional Native songs from every corner of Alaska. Ed Pratt, who says he’s Tlingit from Huna and Juneau asked Johns to play a song to honor a friend who recently died.
Vernita Ballot who is Inupaq from Selawik, likes the drumming too.
“Driving me crazy. In a good, beautiful way. (Daysha: Does it remind you of home?) It remind me a lot of the way long ago people, Inupaq people, they used to drum too and dance. They taught me how. I know a little bit about it. But you know just to hear them drummin’ – it’s beautiful. I love it. Made me feel young again (laughs).”
“Our Native dancing and drumming, long ago, was kind of our form of going to church.”
That’s Ed Tiulana, a cultural programs coordinator at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
“Before western civilization came to Alaska and religion came to Alaska this was our way of making prayer to honor animals, our ancestors and the land and to share stories with everybody.”
Tiulana’s learned traditional drumming from his grandparents who come from King Island while he was growing up in Anchorage. He says they taught him that drums are used to replicate the sound of your mother’s heartbeat – that they help you relax, release energy and feel connection. With Alaska Native culture still in a transition from traditional to modern times, Tiulana says, the drum is a connection to healthy traditions and finding a way forward.
“Physical abuse, mental abuse, alcohol, drug abuse. You know, These things we tend to get lost in. And then we are disconnected from our culture. But when we hear our drumming and our singing, that fills an empty spot in our heart.”
A spot Johns says he’s excited to help fill with his drum.
“Our drum is like Medicine. Our drum is a tool for healing. And that’s what I was telling them while we were down there. You don’t just buy this thing at a store. You don’t get this at the hospital. It’s something that’s been passed down from generation to generation for a reason.”
Johns only knows songs from his region. He hopes Alaska Native people from other regions will join him to drum, sing and dance with the people at Beans Cafe soon.
Schools stayed open in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on Friday, despite high winds raking the area late Thursday night and were expected to continue through Friday afternoon.
A low pressure center moving into the Northern Gulf of Alaska, in combination with a high pressure area over the Interior, caused the winds. Palmer, Wasilla, Chickaloon and Sutton were affected by the winds, which reached 60 mph with gusts of up to 80 mph.
Casey Cook, the Mat- Su Borough’s emergency services director, said the wind was blowing up gravel from the roadways, and was kicking up a lot of dust. Schools were open, but other facilities were not
Cook said intermittent power outages were caused by the wind damage and that there was at least one injury blamed on the wind event.
Matanuska Electric Association reported that about 3,500 people were affected by power outages Thursday night and Friday morning, according to company spokeswoman Julie Estey.
Crews worked between Willow and Talkeetna to take down lines that needed repair. Additional crews had been called to help restore power to 500 MEA customers still without electricity noon on Friday.
An air quality advisory was in effect throughout the Mat-Su Borough, because of the dry air and the lack of snowfall in the area. The wind was kicking up dust and silt, and children, the elderly and persons with existing lung or heart disease were encouraged to stay indoors for the duration of the windy period.
Governor Sean Parnell is warning that Ketchikan’s lawsuit against the state over school funding might make him and lawmakers reluctant to fund Ketchikan projects.
In a visit to the community Thursday, Parnell discussed the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s lawsuit, which argues that municipalities in Alaska should not have to pay a local contribution for public education. If the suit is successful, it could hold the state accountable for hundreds of millions more in education spending and Parnell predicted potential repercussions.
Parnell confirmed some people’s worries here in Ketchikan. He said the lawsuit filed in January could jade his and other lawmakers perspective toward Ketchikan funding.
“When Ketchikan asks for money but yet the state might be on the hook in the lawsuit for more money, there’s kind of a reluctance or a reticence to step forward for other projects.,” Parnell said.
Parnell said he understands the frustration behind the lawsuit. But he thinks a local contribution for education is a good thing.
“I actually think a local contribution is important, I think it helps keep people connected to the school district and helps really make people interested and invested in the school district and the system that is here for our kids.”
- Emily Files – KRBD, Ketchikan
Governor Sean Parnell’s candid comments regarding Ketchikan’s lawsuit against the state over school funding drew some response. Sen. Bert Stedman, a Republican from Sitka, listened to the interview and said he believes it’s the right of every citizen to petition the government.
Stedman added he didn’t believe there will be any backlash against Ketchikan in the Legislature. He said a House bill submitted by North Pole Republican Tammie Wilson would do what the Ketchikan lawsuit is asking for, and he doesn’t believe North Pole will be discriminated against, either.
Ketchikan Assembly Member Agnes Moran, speaking for herself, said it would be unfortunate if there were repercussions. She said the lawsuit is the borough’s legal right, and Ketchikan isn’t the first municipality to sue the state.
Moran noted that the point of the lawsuit is not to avoid paying for schools, it’s to find a solution that’s fair to everyone. She said she was surprised to hear Parnell’s comments.
Moran said that if the community wasn’t obligated to pay a certain amount for local schools, Ketchikan wouldn’t need as much help with capital projects.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Fairbanks district is planning for a major funding shortfall. The district is anticipating cuts even if requested state and local funding increases come through.
A new public health campaign to eradicate fetal alcohol syndrome is in the works.
For nearly a year, a group made up of lawmakers, mental health advocates, and Native leaders have been working on a strategy to bring down the number of babies born with the disorder. The syndrome can cause birth defects, nervous system damage, and psychological problems.
The public-private partnership is called “Empowering Hope,” and on Friday, Sen. Pete Kelly called on his fellow lawmakers to support the initiative.
“As we’ve seen with seatbelts, smoking, drunk driving – so many things – that the hearts and minds of Americans and Alaskans can be changed if we focus, and if we identify a problem and we agree as a people that this problem needs to be dealt with.”
One of the key ideas the group has for preventing the syndrome is identifying “natural responders” in the community who can assist pregnant woman who might be likely to consume alcohol. The group also wants to help women identify their pregnancies as early as possible, as a way of stopping drinking early.
About two out of everyone hundred children born in Alaska are believed to have fetal alcohol syndrome, according the state Division of Public Health. Kelly says that many of the state’s social ills like suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse are associated with that high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome. In his speech on the Senate floor, Kelly said that each case of the syndrome costs the state millions of dollars in care and treatment. The Fairbanks Republican says the number is even higher when you factor incarceration costs for people with the syndrome who then go on to commit crimes.
“If we took a woman who we knew was going to give birth to a fetal alcohol syndrome child, and we flew them first class to Aruba and gave them a seaside five-star hotel, gave them 24-hour care and lavished them with luxuries, then flew them back and gave them a car as a prize — if we did that, we would be so far ahead in this state financially,” says Kelly.
Kelly filed two resolutions in support of the initiative, but has not asked for state funding for the project as of this time.
The Alaska House Energy Committee heard testimony this week from the Alaska Energy Authority. While the meeting was not initially intended to focus on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, a multitude of questions from legislators, as well as the presence of members of the Susitna River Coalition, prompted a shift that saw about half the meeting center around the proposed dam.
The first half of Wednesday’s Alaska House Energy Committee meeting was largely a combination of updates on AEA’s various projects as well as an information session for representatives trying to learn more about how the organization operates.
About half way through, however, questions and discussion shifted heavily toward one project in particular, the proposed multi-billion dollar hydroelectric project which would be built on the Susitna River.
In response to a question from Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Wasilla), AEA Executive Director Sara Fisher-Goad said that the land-access issues that led Gov. Sean Parnell to cut more than 90 percent of the project’s budget may be resolved soon.
“We are targeted to receive permit approval or land access approval this month, sometime,” Fisher-Goad said. “The issue is open to be able to revisit the budget issue with respect to where we’re at to be able to complete the studies.”
Wayne Dyok, Project Manager for Susitna-Watana, was asked by Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) about the safety of the ongoing field work, specifically concerning the death of bulldozer operator Donald Kiehl last May. Dyok said he believes that the layers of separation between AEA and Donald Kiehl’s company mean that the accident is not a reflection on what he described as a safe and successful field season.
“To me, it was like a supplier to a Hilton providing information,” Dyok said. “These days, what we’ve tried to do–I mean, anything where someone gets hurt is unacceptable–so we actually, after that, implemented safety procedures for even our consultants, our subcontractors, making sure they had safety plans all the way down.”
Both Fisher-Goad and Dyok expressed belief that the Susitna-Watana Project and gas-line projects are not in competition for energy, but are actually compatible, with the proposed dam providing energy, freeing natural gas to be used as a heating resource.
In a time when the governor is very clear about the state needing to “tighten its belt,” however, there are only so many dollars to spread around. At a press conference later in the day, the governor was noncommittal regarding whether he would recommend funding be restored to the Susitna-Watana Project if AEA is able to secure land access agreements this month.
“Once we’re to that point, I can make a determination of what is necessary to ask the legislature for’” he said. “Until that time, I don’t have a basis to go ask legislators for more money.”
Whether or not the governor recommends funding the $110 million that AEA says is needed to complete the dam’s pre-licensing process, there is indication that tight purse strings could stop legislators from signing off on the increase.
Senators Pete Kelley (R-Fairbanks) and Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla) have both said that there may simply not be room to start adding zeroes to the project’s budget for this year.
Currently, the budget constraints have led AEA to delay the overall timeline for the dam by one year. If the current schedule holds, they plan to apply for a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission near the end of 2016.
The release of the Arctic Deep Draft Port feasibility study has been put on hold, indeterminably. The Alaska U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had said the study would be issued for public review the first week of March.
However, in a recent Joint Transportation Committee meeting, Lorraine Cordova, Project Technical Lead, said the entire port project is being pushed back a “few months.”
The delay stems from port options multiplying rather than diminishing. The corps began with eight possible port configurations. That number has jumped to 23 possible configurations. The increase derives, Cordova said, from D.C. corps headquarters asking for more information and iterations on the sites rather than narrowing options.
These sites include Nome, Port Spencer, and Cape Riley. The port would be built as a combination plan at two or even three of these locations. However, the most likely result, Cordova said, will include Nome and Point Spencer.
“It looks like there is going to be a combination plan of Nome and Point Spencer that will probably bubble up to the top,” Cordova said.
Cordova said, the corps will select the port design with the greatest national net benefit. Nome and Point Spencer’s infrastructure, naturally deep water, and proximity to mining deposits elevate them as best options. In lieu of a feasibility report, the Alaska corps will release a “tentatively selected plan” for the port in early March.
Despite the effort of trailbreakers, Mother Nature has thrown plenty at mushers during the race. Almost every team has arrived with a story about a mishap on the trail.
Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory are going to be keeping a close eye on Shishaldin Volcano over the weekend.
The volcano emitted a small ash cloud that was identified early Friday morning. AVO geologist Chris Waythomas said the cloud drifted south of the volcano and dissipated.
“However, Shishaldin is a very frequently active volcano, and this could mean that we’re heading into an eruptive period,” Waythomas said. “But it may not necessarily, but it wouldn’t surprise us if the volcano started getting more — more active.”
Shishaldin was upgraded to a yellow alert level last week after abnormal behavior began. Waythomas said this ash cloud seems to have come from a combination of magma close to the surface, and increased steaming and temperatures in the crater.
Waythomas said some of the seismic monitoring stations that track Shishaldin are still out of order. He said they are relying on two functioning stations to look for earthquakes inside the volcano and other changes that could foretell an eruption.
“It can be explosive, and it could put ash clouds up to flight levels,” he said. “That would not be unusual for this volcano to do that.”
Shishaldin’s eruption in 1999 sent ash plumes as high as 45,000 feet above sealevel. It last erupted in 2004, and the last time it showed unrest like this current period was in 2009.
Shishaldin is the highest peak in the Aleutians. It’s also the world’s most symmetrical glacier-covered, conical volcano.
Waythomas said the two other yellow-alert volcanoes in the Aleutians –Cleveland and Veniaminoff — are mostly quiet right now.
The Y-K Delta Regional Committee has selected a small steering committee and charged them with drafting strategic plan for the YK-Delta. The 16-person panel is tasked with coming up with a strategic plan by the end of the year.
Robert Beans will be a co-chair of that steering committee.
“We need to develop a region-wide strategic plan that’s very comprehensive in that it takes up subsistence, economics, governance issues, and bring this to the region, work with an emphasis on bringing up the young people, our young generation,” Beans said. “Because they’re going to be taking over.”
Beans said the scope of the plan is still up in the air –there are no hard goals, timelines, or benchmarks at this point. On the committee, there are seats for each of Calista’s 11 administrative units, plus three non-profits and Calista leadership.
Elias Kelly is a member of the Pilot Station Traditional Council and the steering committee.
“Now the next step is what’s next, and that’s where this steering committee that they’ve created will be able to address that, what’s the next steps. They can hopefully come back and give us some sort of guidance, what to address,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the meeting has allowed for the sharing of common challenges, ideas, and ways to creatively solve problems.
“For me coming to an open meeting this this, it’s like I’m information-rich for what I can bring back to my community. For what can we use to help our community develop economically and especially how we can address our social issues,” Kelly said.
The meeting wrapped up Thursday afternoon after a hard look at ANCSA and tribal governance issues. After two days and an evening, the long-awaited committee finished its first order of business to make the steering group. Robert Beans says the meeting set a solid foundation for the group’s work going forward.
“In all the years the years I’ve been involved efforts with the politics within the region, I’ve never seen an effort like this before,” Beans said. “Never.”
The first ever-regional committee meeting featured over 130 attendees from all around the Y-K Delta.
Rural Alaska communities are not known for having good internet connections, cell phone reception or, really, many good ways of connecting to people and programs outside their area. But rural public libraries do now have those types of connections, thanks to a program through the Alaska State Library that connects libraries all over the state – and country – for a variety of programs and purposes.
William Shakespeare probably didn’t have this mind when he imagined his plays being performed.
On a cold and dreary evening in Southeast Alaska, library patrons gather to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. *The catch? They aren’t in the same room:*
“The news is brought that Hamlet has returned to Denmark….
If it sounds like Craig Librarian Amy Marshal is on a Skype-like connection, that’s because she is. Marshall was physically in Craig, but joined online by people at the Haines and Kenai libraries using the Online With Libraries program, called OWL for short.
Owl connects more than 100 public libraries in Alaska and is used for a variety of programs. People from Nome to St. Paul and Ketchikan can join a clean energy presentation being hosted in Fairbanks. A seminar at the Smithsonian can be simultaneous beamed to any library that wants to join.
The recent Shakespeare series was a little different. This event epitomized the program by taking full advantage of the interactivity OWL offers, allowing library patrons across the state to be online and interactive together. Haines library aide Jedediah Blum-Evitts helped coordinate the Haines group for the Reader’s Theater.
“It’s super interactive. Usually we’ve been doing some sort of presentation where so-and-so teaches everybody else, but this is like, ‘OK we’re going start and everybody’s going to be talking and we’re going to go back and forth,” Blum-Evitts said. “It’s just super fun, it’s like playing games with each other and reach out community to community.”
Using OWL for a reader’s theater event is sort of like Skype-ing with participants in Craig and Kenai, except without that occasional annoying delay or garbled speech you can get with a less than ideal internet connection in many parts of rural Alaska. That’s because the OWL program uses its own internet connection, as Haines library director Patty Brown explains.
“Basically, what people are looking at is a very large TV screen,” Brown said. “But that is connected by one line to the internet so we have uninterrupted speed so we can connect to libraries anywhere actually.”
During the reading of Hamlet, and the next week, A Winter’s Tale, the participants from Craig and Kenai were projected on the 60 inch screen in Haines. Blum-Evitts put the script on another nearby screen and moved the camera around so the other libraries could see all the Haines participants. And the dramatic – or comedic – interpretation of Shakespeare’s prose came across clear.
While the reader’s theater is one of the more interactive uses of OWL, Brown says the Haines Library has taken part in several programs, like an Anchorage Symphony orchestra program. And other libraries have joined to take part in annual Culture Days at the Haines Library. Once, Brown said, the Homer Library wanted to host a talk with Haines author Heather Lende. Instead of trying to get Lende to travel by ferry and plane all the way to Homer – usually a two or three day trip– she drove five minutes from her Haines home, sat in front of the OWL camera and screen and had an interactive chat with patrons in Homer.
Funding for the OWL program comes from the U.S. State Department, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Library. The dedicated internet connection is provided through a statewide network just for the libraries, which makes it more affordable.
Brown says the program has limitless possibilities for what it can offer patrons and residents now.
“We are able to offer things that we absolutely did not have the resources before,” Brown said. “To me it’s just exciting and the more people realize we have the equipment, I just hope it gets used more and more.”
As for the reader’s theater, OWL provided a connection for small town Shakespeare lovers that helped ward off the winter blues.