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Noel Wien Library built on runway graced by Howard Hughes

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Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2012 11:45 pm

FAIRBANKS — So what do reclusive moneyman Howard Hughes, Noel Wien Library and ping pong have in common?

Hughes, who once said, “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire,” attempted a round-the-world aviation record in 1938, that included him refueling in Fairbanks. He was flying a special Lockheed plane that had compartments filled with ping pong balls so it would float if it crashed in the ocean.

While fueling was underway, a Pan Am employee, named Clyde Smith, opened one of the compartments and the ping pong balls spilled out on the runway, upon which he was personally rebuked by Hughes, who warned him not to keep any samples.

That runway was on Weeks Field, which was originally a baseball field that early pilots began using for landings. It’s also the site where Noel Wien Library was built four decades later. The old Pan Am hangar is across Cowles Street and the site of Arctic Bowl Bowling Center.

These are some of the things I quickly learned about Weeks Field during the transit of Venus when the library was hosting a series of activities around that solar event, including informative speeches broadcast world-wide by NASA and the Institute for National Aeronautics.

A lecture on Weeks Field was pulled together on short notice, but it was one small part of a huge event. Thousands of people came to the library and surrounding Weeks Field Park to safely view Venus crossing the face of the sun using an array of telescopes and free sun-viewing glasses, to make and fly rockets, and enjoy a variety of activity booths. 

The library staff is used to looking upwards, for they’ve been regularly scanning the library ceilings for five years looking for new signs of leaks from the faulty roof. That problem’s being fixed, and although there’s a bit of noise and general commotion involved, it’ll be worth it.

It was in the quiet and dry library auditorium that Randy Smith Middle School student Diana Lanni was honored last week. Diana wrote an essay about her favorite Robert Service poem, “The Three Voices,” and how the words in the poem and the reading of it influenced her life.

Diana’s essay was one of two national middle school winning essays in the “Literature About Literature” contest sponsored by the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book. The winners get two prizes: a $500 gift card to Target, and they can choose a library to receive a $10,000 grant from Target for children’s books, materials and programs. 

Diana is a gifted writer, and a sensitive and intelligent reader and observer. Her prospects in life are promising, and it didn’t hurt that she had excellent resources supporting her at Randy Smith’s library, and Noel Wien Library.

Our community values libraries more than some. We all know that kids who love reading grow up with powerful advantages in communications and comprehension skills. They grow up to help create a stronger local workforce and spend far less time in jail.

Studies show spending money on any aspect of school libraries, from buying more books to painting the walls, results in improved reading scores. So why are some places cutting libraries out of existence?

California is one such place. Their Governor Brown has cut all funding for public libraries from his annual budgets. Since cities like Cordova, Calif., already have closed all its school libraries, where will students go to complete homework assignments? It’s as bad in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere around the country. 

On the flip side, two guys in Wisconsin, Rick Brooks and Todd Bol, have founded the Little Free Library movement. They make and promote birdhouse-sized structures with plexiglass doors that can protect 20 or so books on various topics and genres, and signs reading “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” They began placing them in local neighborhoods and now these little libraries have spread all over the Lower 48. Good examples can be seen on the website.

Sterner measures are needed in places like California and Texas, where libraries are being dismantled bit by bit. In this Age of Information, having a reliable source for it and guides to help navigate are crucial to students of all ages, in and out of school.

For as Howard Hughes said, “Once you consent to some concession, you can never cancel it and put things back the way they are.”

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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