Why do we need a library in Ester?

by Deirdre Helfferich, former JTEL president

June 19, 2011

Sometimes the JTEL is confronted with questions like, Why do we need a library in Ester when there are libraries in Fairbanks? What possible services can an Ester library offer that the Noel Wien or Rasmuson Library cannot?

The short answer to this is that the Ester library is here, in Ester, while the other libraries in the borough are several miles away. The Noel Wien Library, for example, is a wonderful institution that offers excellent resources not only to the borough but to libraries across the state (in the form of inter-library loan services, which are very expensive). These services include a bookmobile that serves Ester twice a month—for two hours at a time. The problem, of course, is that a library is far more than than a bunch of books and movies. A library is a place. It builds community, creates a safe space for children and adults, and provides a civic center. A bookmobile, or a library building several miles away, cannot do this.

Nearby location is not merely a matter of convenience—it can be the difference between using a library and not using one at all. In the JTEL’s community survey, 81.1% of respondents said they would use a library more frequently if there was one closer to their home. While these other libraries aren’t far for drivers (Noel Wien is about ten miles from Ester), there is no public transportation between Ester and Fairbanks, and children cannot drive. There are approximately 450 people under the age of 18 living in the Ester area. A 20- to 40-mile round trip (depending on where one lives) by bicycle or foot is too far for most people, adult or youth. Having a library in Ester reduces travel time (and also gasoline use) for Ester-area residents. Having a library closer to home, especially in the winter, is also safer: driving in downtown in the winter means traveling through more intersections, ice fog, and darkness. Traffic is also higher in the city.

Neighborhood libraries are cornerstones of local civic life, serving as centers of wider community learning and development, and acting as guardians of local history and culture. The Ester library includes in its mission and goals an emphasis on Ester-area culture and history: local music, mining, history, writing, performance, and art. This local emphasis is reflected in the library’s collections, programs, and events. This is not something on which other libraries in the Fairbanks North Star Borough can be expected to focus. Nor can they foster the life of the Ester community the way the local library can, simply because they are located in Fairbanks.

In the survey, 87.2% of those polled feel that Ester needs a community gathering place. Community libraries help serve this function, creating a space that serves everyone in the area regardless of age or economic status. Right now, Ester has only one public space that functions this way: the Ester Community Park. The park is, naturally, limited to outdoor functions. The new library building will have a reading porch, a conference room, a lounge area, and a foyer, as well as a children’s area, the circulation desk, and the regular stacks and study areas. The library will also have outdoor gathering and reading spaces on its grounds, the first of these being the Ida Lane Clausen Gazebo, which was completed in summer 2010. While Ester does have other gathering places, these are more limited in their scope. Hartung Community Hall is a rental space available to Ester Community Association members; the Ester Post Office is a business where people meet but cannot sit or study; and the local saloons are limited to those 21 or older or accompanied by a guardian.

Ester has no school or other place for study or research—except the JTEL. Community libraries are invaluable for lifelong learning, after-school study, home schooling, business research, or other educational pursuits. The current Ester library is not large enough to accommodate many of the normal functions of a local library, which is one reason why the new library building is necessary.

Libraries offer public computing and internet access. The JTEL will also offer these services. For many people in Ester, this will be a vital feature of the new library building, because internet service in many parts of the Ester area is slow or unavailable, and driving into to town to use the internet is not always practical or desireable. Local saloons have internet service, but again, access is limited to those over 21 and is not in a smoke-free environment.

Community libraries provide support for local businesses and job seekers. Again, location is not a matter of mere convenience: time spent traveling costs money, and a local library means less travel time for area residents and businesses. Programs such as tax preparation help, resumé-building workshops, and materials for self-help and job preparation aid job seekers and assist business owners. The Ester library has resources on business management, nonprofit organizing, fundraising, and resumé and business plan writing.

These are only a few of the reasons why libraries are important to their communities. The American Library Association has links to many studies that show the economic, social, and educational value of libraries, including How Libraries Stack UpPublic Libraries and Employment, and other documents.