Business Law

Life After New York Library Land

Steve Johnson |

Steve Johnson managed the library at the Wildlife Conservation Society, formerly New York Zoological Society, from 1982 to 2007. Since then he has been Systems Coordinator/Management team at Alaska Resources Library and Information Sources.

Three years ago, at the 2007 New York Chapter holiday party, I said good-bye to Library Land as I had known it since moving from Madison, Wisconsin, in 1979. I was getting ready to move to Anchorage, Alaska, and a new job, after working for one employer in one city for more than 28 years. At that party, someone suggested that, after I got settled, I write something about the move for the SLA-NY newsletter. Hence, I finally wrote this note about the move and the comparable elements of Library Land in New York and in Alaska. I also have some suggestions for others who may be making similar moves. These notes are based on my experiences related to moving to Alaska.

In 1988, I joined SLA. Like many members, it took me several years to become active in chapter activities, first as a regular at meetings, then as a volunteer and officer. Once I started coming to meetings, most every month brought occasions when I met with other SLA members at trainings, Executive Board or Advisory Committee meetings, and social events ranging from the annual holiday party to more frequent breakfasts, luncheons, and mixers. And when I was not at an SLA event, I often encountered SLA members at meetings of other organizations, such as The Metropolitan New York Library Council (Metro).

To summarize, in the New York metropolitan area, I was never far from an instance of SLA Library Land. Opportunities to meet and to learn were abundant.

Is There Life in Library Land in Alaska?

In February 2011, The SLA membership directory listed just 13 members for the state of Alaska. Three of us work in one building in Anchorage. I've known a fourth, in Fairbanks, for more than twenty years, from former work in the zoo world. But that’s another story. The SLA membership database listed more than 850 members for the New York chapter. That’s a big difference even when you take into account members who opt-out from being listed.

In Alaska, the corporate library sector barely exists. The Alaskan business libraries of twenty years ago have largely disappeared. Government libraries have contracted out as well. Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS), where I work, was founded by merging the collections, but not all of the staff, of five federal libraries, two state-of-Alaska affiliated libraries and one university institute library. Since the founding, ARLIS has absorbed the collections of several other closed libraries in the government and private sectors.

If one wishes to meet in person with library colleagues in Alaska, one has to pay attention to all the possibilities, from the annual meeting of the Alaska Library Association to the committee meetings of local consortia. Discussion lists, webinars, and instant messaging can bring one closer to colleagues worldwide, but with far less of the candor and engagement found in face to face meetings at the mixers, luncheons, breakfasts, and other library-related functions so commonplace in New York City.

Library Cooperation

When comparing Library Land in New York and Alaska, library cooperation stands out as a strong strain of continuity. In New York, my library was active for decades in METRO. An OCLC Online Computer Library Center affiliation was core to metadata creation and sharing, document delivery and interlibrary loan activities. In Anchorage, my library represents a cooperative effort of five federal bureaus, two state agencies, and one state university. My library shares a catalog with a university system and a public library. Again, OCLC remains a core tool for interlibrary sharing of resources.

Journey to Work

For me, comparing journey to work in New York and in Alaska shows both continuity and change. In New York City, I bicycled to work several days a week, from March to November. It was often a one-way bike ride, in the morning or evening alone. In the other direction, my bike and I would catch a ride with my wife, who worked for the same organization. My route from home in Yonkers to work in the Bronx was nine miles in each direction. The ride took about one hour.

In Anchorage, I bicycle both directions, five days per week, twelve months per year. The duration of my ride ranges depends on route. I live two miles and change from my workplace. From November through April, when the temperature ranges from -20 to +30 Fahrenheit, I take the most direct, route to work, which takes about twenty minutes, depending on traffic and condition of the roads and sidewalks. From May through October, I usually take longer, more pleasant routes, mainly via the trail system which connects much of Anchorage.

Winter weather in Anchorage is more stable and generally more bike friendly than winter weather in the New York City metropolitan area. Once the ground freezes and a layer of snow and ice are in place, riding is not difficult. On those occasions when the winter temperature rises above freezing, the results are a dangerous mess, disliked by bicyclist, pedestrian, and automobile drivers.

After my first winter in Anchorage, I switched to a bicycle with studded tires, which provided more stable acceleration and stopping on ice or snow covered surfaces. All year long, I ride road bikes with leather saddles and dropped handlebars. I don't ride mountain bikes or snow bikes (“twenty-niners”).

During the dark months in Anchorage—roughly the same as winter months—my headlight is an LED lamp driven by a generator in the bike's front wheel. It is wonderful not to deal with batteries (except for tail light and the back-up, battery-driven headlight).

If the weather in Anchorage is too absolutely awful to consider riding the bike—perhaps three or four days per year--I can easily walk to work in forty minutes. In New York, I walked to work only when I lived in the Bronx, near the New York Botanical Garden, before moving to Yonkers.

A walkable and bike-friendly journey to work was a key requirement when my wife and I selected housing in Anchorage. My wife identified our new home via the Internet before we ever visited Alaska. A visit confirmed the intersection of location, features, and price.

Working Environment

In New York, I managed a library staffed by two professional librarians, including me, and one or two student assistants and the occasional volunteer. My work included management of the library web page, e-journals, databases, computer systems and archives, as well as reference. My library was located in an administration building within the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. The users of the library were dispersed throughout the world.

In Alaska, I am one of four full-time professional librarians at my library. Other colleagues include a full time network administrator/computer manager, three part-time professional librarians, several full-time and part-time paraprofessionals, and a half-dozen student workers. My responsibilities focus on management of a website, remote authentication for computers, ejournals and databases, and database development. Monday and Friday afternoons I work a three hour shift on a reference desk. Users of the library in Alaska are scatted through the state, making for strong continuity with my New York experience. My library occupies 20,000 square feet on the first floor of the three story Consortium Library on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Anchorage campus.

On rare occasions, I miss the variety of my work in the much smaller library, particularly the archival work. In general, I appreciate and enjoy the opportunities to focus on a narrower range of responsibilities in my new position.

Conference and Other Travel

I recently attended a conference in Sitka, Alaska. From another attendee, I learned that my round trip fare from Anchorage to Sitka was higher than the round trip fare paid for travel to Sitka from Washington, D.C., via Anchorage, on the same airline. This pricing reminds me of in-state/out of state long distance pricing back in the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties. Getting anywhere outside Alaska from Anchorage usually requires an expensive air ticket with a departure time between midnight and two thirty in the morning.

A highlight of my move to Alaska was taking the Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska. I recommend this two-day trip to anyone who enjoys rail travel. The scenery is wonderful and the journey relaxing. The Alaska Marine Highway carries cars as well as people, and rooms are available. Pets are permitted in vehicles only except when in port. With Jenny, our long suffering Airedale terrier in mind, I recommend against taking a dog on the Alaska Marine Highway.

What Would I Do Differently?

Hindsight is 20-20. Most advice seems as relevant as life lessons related to teenagers by grandparents. Nonetheless, I do have suggestions for anyone contemplating a career and geographic move comparable to mine.

Take some time between jobs. (I didn't.) If there are local museums or parks you haven't visited—take an extra week to visit at least some of them before you move. Freely substitute other venues for “museums” or “parks.” After you start your new job, you probably won't take much time off.

Before you move across the country, take time to slim down your possessions. Moving is expensive. Look at the goods you have accumulated in past decades. If you want to give anything away, do that before moving. If anything is worth selling, it is probably easier to sell and worth more in New York than in Alaska or another remote location. (Who in Alaska wants all my old science fiction books and magazines?) That is advice best taken months in advance of a move. It is tough advice for those who accumulate books, magazines, bicycles, computers, radios.... My wife and I managed to find a computer museum in New Jersey which would accept a closet full of computers, computer books, and software dating from the days of CP/M and eight inch disk drives.

Before setting dates for a move, get professional advice on taxes, even if you or your partner has done them for years without difficulty. At the very least do some serious dry runs on current and next year tax bills to minimize surprises. Be aware of the tax year in which termination payments occur, especially if subsequent pension payments may also come into play. Lack of planning may be as expensive as moving that book collection.

If you have a partner in life, consider whether you really want to leave that partner at the old home for weeks or months, to handle all the details of moving, while you get started on the new job in the new location. That division of labor and location is common, and it certainly worked for my wife and me. (She sold the house, did the move, and we are still together.) However, more equal sharing of the move would probably benefit both partners.

If you move to Alaska, move in December, not January. A move the first week of January will cost you a first year's eligibility for the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). The PDF is Alaska’s annual payment to eligible residents. In recent years the payment has been $1200 or more.

The Last Word

Early in my career in New York, I occasionally heard the saying “No one's career ever suffered because they left [insert name of well known employer here].” Although the statement seemed intended to buck up the feelings of those who were let go, as well as those left behind, I kept that phrase in mind as I contemplated and then made the move from New York to Alaska. The statement may not be true for everyone and every institution, but such sentiments can reinforce the will to make a move.

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