ARLIS goes to the White House

From the Anchorage Chronicle October 16, 2002.

First Lady, others plan to present long-delayed national award this month

By Rose Ragsdale
Business editor

For most Americans, Sept. 11, 2001, will live in memory as a day of terror and tragedy. But for six librarians in Anchorage, it also will be remembered as a near triumph.

That morning, Robert Martin, the newly appointed director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, was scheduled to announce the winners of the 2001 National Award for Museum and Library Service.

The Alaska Resources Library and Information Service (ARLIS) in Anchorage topped the list. The other five winners were: Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, San Jose, Calif.; Hancock County Library System, Bay Saint Louis, Miss.; Miami Museum of Science, Miami; New England Aquarium, Boston; and Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.

Bestowed yearly by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the awards enable the federal agency to highlight the work of the nation’s 10,000 museums and 122,000 libraries. The awards recognize museums and libraries that have uplifted individuals’ lives, improved their communities, and made the nation better for it, according to a Sept. 11, 2001, press release. First Lady Laura Bush praised the honorees in the press statement and announced a White House ceremony to be held in their honor on Sept. 17, 2001. But the ceremony was canceled in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

More than a year later, ARLIS will get another shot at the spotlight. A Rose Garden ceremony has been scheduled for Oct. 29 to honor both the 2001 and 2002 winners of the National Award for Museum and Library Service. ARLIS’ staff has been invited to travel to Washington, D.C. for the presentation. “We all had worked very hard and it felt like somebody had taken something away from us on some level,” said librarian Nancy Tileston, recalling Sept. 11 a year ago.

The disappointment of not receiving the award soon paled in comparison to the trauma of the terrorist attacks, but the experience undermined the reality of winning the award for Tileston.

“For me, it’s still a little bit of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” even though plane tickets have been purchased and reservations have been made, she said.

Carrie Holba, ARLIS’ reference services coordinator, said the award is a tremendous honor because it is the only national award given to libraries across the nation.

ARLIS was chosen for the award because it consolidated and preserved more than 150,000 Alaska natural and cultural resources from seven federal, state, and university libraries slated for closure or downsizing. “ARLIS’ staff literally saved the collections from extinction,” the Library Institute’s Martin said in a statement. “In the process, ARLIS became the single largest source of Alaska resources information. ARLIS’ knowledgeable staff facilitates wise development and conservation in Alaska by providing unbiased and universal access to information for scientists and the public,” he added.

Since ARLIS opened in 1997, the library has focused on making available to the Alaska scientific community and the public a vast storehouse of information, including a circulating collection of animal skulls, skins and mounted birds. ARLIS also offers books, technical reports, journals, maps, videos and photographs.

The library operates with team-based management. In addition to Tileston from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Holba from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, ARLIS is managed by Team Librarian Julie Braund-Allen, from the University of Alaska Anchorage Environment and Natural Resources Institute; Team Librarian Tina Huffaker, from Minerals Management Service; Collection Development Coordinator Celia Rozen, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; and Budget Coordinator Cathy Vitale, from the Bureau of Land Management.

Holba said ARLIS is unique. “You have consortium arrangements between libraries, but there’s nothing like us out there,” she said. “We actually consolidated nine collections into one building.”

Though ARLIS functions as one organization, its librarians still work for their respective agencies, which have different holidays and different operating procedures. The library’s $1.5 million annual budget also is funded by different sources with different fiscal years.

In addition to its member agencies, the library serves a diverse audience, including educators, other federal and state agencies and the general public. ARLIS, for example, serves as UAA’s science library, Holba said. In fiscal 2002, ARLIS recorded 20,000 visitors and 13,000-15,000 reference requests. It also processed 15,000 interlibrary loans.

Putting it all together is very challenging and requires lots of paperwork and coordination.

Add to that growing budgetary constraints.

Holba cited a recent major rent increase at ARLIS’ quarters at 3150 C Street. To make ends meet, ARLIS’ publications budget took a $30,000 hit, she said.

“While we can’t spend glory, the publicity from the award will hopefully call attention to our budget plight and ultimately bring about some relief,” Holba said.

Meanwhile, the library is making do, but needs additional funds to catalog a huge backlog of donated collections to enable patrons to use them, the librarians say.

ARLIS’ staff is hoping to gain legislative authority to bring in funds from other sources to pay for the cataloguing and other needs.

“We just need more partners,” Tileston said. “This is one of those instances where throwing money at the problem would fix it.”