SLED Links Alaska to the World

Alaska's SLED Web site links isolated towns to a world of information.

by / May 31, 1997
Alaska. The name conjures visions of windswept, snowy tundra, wild animals, untamed wilderness and isolation. In a state where many villages are inaccessible by roads and phone lines are unreliable, Alaska's State Library Electronic Doorway (SLED) is providing Alaskans with access to the rest of the state and the world.

At first glance, the SLED Web site seems stark -- there are few graphics, the text and links are simple and some of the information is inaccessible outside the state. But despite its plain exterior, SLED is a gold mine for the residents of the 49th state.

SLED, , was launched in 1994 as a joint effort between Alaska's state libraries and the University of Alaska libraries at Fairbanks. "SLED was intended to address some of the problems we have with access here in Alaska," explained Steve Smith, assistant director for Rasmuson Library's Division of Computing and Communications at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "We wanted to find a simple, straightforward way to provide communities with public information by connecting the libraries across the state."

SLED is heavily text-based and easy to use, and Smith said they keep it that way intentionally. "Many of our users are coming in from rural areas where their access is very slow, and many of them are coming in on character-based interfaces with unreliable phone lines," he explained. The SLED advisory group, composed of librarians from across the state, also tries to keep the site simple to help people understand it better. "The guiding principle behind the design and the decisions we make is 'Can Steve's mother use it?' We know that if my mother, who has never owned a computer, can use it, it will work," he said.

Beyond the usual links to worldwide news, sports, entertainment and U.S. government sites, most of SLED's links are to sites primarily of interest to Alaskans. This information includes: business and commercial information, like tourism; jobs; Alaska-based ISPs; profiles of communities; access to the state's educational servers; environmental and natural resource links; current legislation, Alaskan statutes and codes, home pages of the court system; library indexes and catalogs; and statewide news, sports and entertainment information.

One of the most entertaining areas of the site is the Alaska FAQ, which features history, maps, demographics and answers to some unusual questions, such as "What is the difference between caribou and reindeer?" and "When and where was the submarine USS Alaska commissioned?" (Answers: "Caribou, a wild member of the deer family, are native to most parts of Alaska. Reindeer, a 'type of domesticated caribou,' were originally imported from Siberia during the late 19th century," and "The USS Alaska was commissioned in New London, Conn., on January 25, 1986.")

Even though all of this information is accessible through SLED, only the FAQ, help files and information on SLED reside on the SLED server. "SLED is not a warehouse for information or a repository for databases," Smith explained. "SLED is simply a gateway through which Alaskans can reach information. We don't want to spend our time maintaining databases." This is understandable, especially since SLED's employees include only one programmer, a part-time trainer, several students who manage the help desk and the part-time attentions of Smith, who gives to SLED what time he has left over from his position at the university. The advisory board is comprised of volunteers.

Today, SLED is available from 95 percent of the libraries statewide. To date, all the larger libraries have direct access, and most of the smaller libraries have dial-up access. As libraries across the state develop their own networks, they will be directly connected to SLED. "We are always looking for arrangements where we can piggyback and ride on the state telecommunications lines
into libraries," Smith said. "But we also underwrite access from AT&T, so libraries around the state can dial up and access the system."

In fact, telecommunications is the largest expense in SLED's budget. The system receives about $300,000 from the Legislature. The university puts in an in-kind contribution with staff and backup, bringing the total budget, including goods and services, to around $500,000 annually. According to Smith, among SLED's strongest allies when it comes to receiving appropriations from the Legislature, are the state's Internet service providers. "The ISPs don't look on us as a competitor," Smith explained. "To them, we are a value-added resource for their customers."

SLED's advisory board has steadfastly maintained SLED as a free access point. They see SLED as an entry point for citizens -- no matter where they are in the state -- to reach the rapidly increasing amount of government information available online. "Particular state agencies may put up a Web server, but the only way people can access it is by putting down their money for an ISP, or to work somewhere with a network connection," Smith said. "SLED is the one point where people can access all this information for the cost of going to their local library or dialing it up on their modem."

Alaska's citizens see SLED as a resource and are reacting very positively to it. Smith said there is an area out in remote western Alaska where a group of citizens put together the "Distance Delivery Consortium," a partnership of school districts, local government, universities, military and medical facilities that received a grant to set up access to remote villages. They use SLED as an entry point, so the local people can reach all the information they need.

So what does the future hold for SLED? According to Smith, the site is in the process of a redesign, which will allow it to use more graphics and other "bells and whistles" now available. With its character-based users in mind, the new system is being designed to support software that will know whether users are coming in with the latest browser or on a telnet session with a stripped-down, text-based machine.

No matter how they access it, SLED will guide Alaska's residents to resources in their state and beyond.

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