‘Tech in a Northern Town’

Guest post by Amy K. Marshall. Library Director of The Craig Public Library in Craig, Alaska. Amy recently participated in a videconference- her first- with Cooperating School Districts’ and the Kemper Art Museum. Amy shared the experience with us:

I’m showing my age here, but I’ve always loved that catchy tune from the one-hit-wonder The Dream Academy: Life In A Northern Town. We don’t have a Salvation Army Band, but it is, for the most part, a staid life in Craig, Alaska on Prince of Wales Island.  People fish, hunt, gather berries and other resources—there is a strong subsistence-based population here. If you came to visit, you might not notice it so much, except when the herring are spawning and everything is “Fish Egg” Excitement like it is, well, this week!

Into this place, technology has touched a toe to the water. The Craig Public Library, thanks to the generosity of the AlaskaOWL Project (and the US Department of Commerce, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation, and other contributors) is linked! The first link came with the installation of a T1 Broadband connection. The second link came with the installation of videoconferencing equipment that truly opened the world for the Prince of Wales Island Community. That the purveyors of the AlaskaOWL thought to train library personnel for the installation and use of the equipment is nothing short of inspired. And, when librarians from around the State of Alaska converged on The Golden Heart City of Fairbanks for the AKLA Conference in February, the AlaskaOWL Team had one more surprise for us: CILC.

“It’s there for you to use.” Alaska State Library’s Head of Development Sue Sheriff’s simple statement rang out as nearly a challenge for all the librarians in the room. We now have the technology. We need to put it to work for our communities and videoconferencing was one way in which to do that.

The first videoconference the Craig Public Library conducted was with the Mildred Kemper Art Museum: “History, Heroes, and Symbolism: A Visual Analysis of George Caleb Bingham’s Iconic Painting,” I was terrified. I know my patronage, and I knew there would be people who would want to be there for it, but I also had that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling hostesses get when they realize they could be planning a party that no one will attend. I should never have worried. And, when Anchor Point out on the Kenai Peninsula, 750 miles away, joined us, the party stretched more than 3,000 miles across the Earth. Groups of people separated by these distances were able to see one another and exchange ideas: that is the power of this technology.

Our host, Allison Taylor, led us through a discussion of the painting, pointing out other period-specific works of art from which Bingham drew inspiration. We talked about the use of propaganda in art, how what was propaganda at the time could be viewed through the lens of history and somewhat softened (or not) depending upon the subject matter. What Allison probably did not realize, although she could see us talking, was that, when we politely muted our microphone on the Craig end, there were three or four in the group who were telling other stories, gesturing to the painting and scribbling notes. It was a far better party than I had imagined.

And now … a poem. As I watched eyes widen around the tables in Craig and Anchor Point, I thought, no one’s going to come to another party again. It was a writing exercise—for us to write an Ekphrastic Poem. We had fun with the word, because it’s so fun to say, but it is, in the end, a poem inspired by a work of art. Allison led us through it, and I was happy to see everyone scribbling notes, setting down words, following the instructions, heads bent, eyes narrowed, scanning the picture for colors, shapes, objects, for movements (no “ing” verbs allowed), implied or otherwise.

“Now,” Alison said, still smiling, “I want you to write five sentences or so, and link your nouns to your verbs in ways you wouldn’t expect.”

Here’s mine:

Rifles set at shoulders
Grey-blue skies billow as a
Shadow’d bird leans into the wind.
Branches brown and broken
Whip away the sun in set
As light glows against the
Red and brown of horse-borne hope.

After the videoconference ended and we all waved good-bye from our respective locations, the group around the tables in Craig remained rooted. We all shared our poems. We all shared our thoughts on the experience. We talked for over half an hour past the time of the video conference. Around us, other patrons drifted in to use the public use computers, to thumb through magazines, to take in the view of Klawock Inlet… and I knew they were there, but in that moment, there was just… us. There’s something about a shared experience. There’s something about creating anything in a group—be it a poem, a story, a building, or a fresh-baked pie. There’s a greater understanding of it. You see a collective process—how each individual approaches it. You’re better for it. That’s also the power of the tech and of presenters like Allison and programs like that of the Mildred Kemper Art Museum. We’re all better for it.

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2 thoughts on “‘Tech in a Northern Town’

  1. Wow, what a wonderful experience! I really like that you were afraid, but yet still persevered! It looks like you all had fun learning collaboratively and that you are willing to do this again. As I read your blog post, I am encouraged that others will read this and try to integrate videoconferencing into their classrooms and learning experiences. Thanks for sharing Amy!

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