AK: Connecting

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.

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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.

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