Circum Polar Librarians: Serving the Entire Top of the Globe, Arctic Centre Librarians Dissolve Political Boundaries While Working to Save the Region's Resources

Article excerpt

Last week they researched the difference between Russian and American oil pipelines. Tomorrow they'll fact-check a journalist's story about arctic warming, or update the database of cell-phone towers in western Siberia. They deliver climate-change data to NASA, compile customs regulations, and negotiate the acquisition of Russian documents. And always, they're on the lookout for new international projects to get involved in.

These are the librarians at the Arctic Centre Information Service in Rovaniemi, Finland. In a quiet corner of Lapland, they're organizing and disseminating the information they hope will preserve arctic resources and culture. They're dissolving political boundaries in ways that might serve as a model for all, and their high-tech approach is a lesson in efficiency. With typical Finnish skill and grace, they're redefining what it means to be a librarian.

The Arctic Centre--a partner with the University of Lapland--is an international research center, museum, and library. Its architecturally striking home, called the Arktikum, is carved into the banks of the Ounasjoki River, around the corner from the world's northernmost McDonald's and just a short hike from the Arctic Circle.

If you need to study the arctic, this is the place to be. When Sverre Pedersen, research biologist for the state of Alaska, was looking for a place to learn about environmental impact assessment and oil drilling in the arctic, he turned to the Arctic Centre. Planning to spend a Fulbright semester in 2006 there, Pedersen says, "I'm hoping that by working with those folks for a few months I'll be able to draw on their experiences sufficiently to help shape our efforts in promoting sustainable development on Alaska's North Slope."

Although there are several areas of research at the Arctic Centre, the work on global climate change attracts the most international attention. It takes on new urgency as data confirms the surprising rate at which the arctic is warming: Arctic research is the canary in the mineshaft.

A small group of permanent researchers here coordinates the work of other researchers around the globe. Recent projects include mapping reindeer pastures using a combination of traditional ecological knowledge and remote sensing, ice core analysis to extract past climate information, and studying the roles indigenous peoples play in international politics. Supporting all this work--answering questions, gathering information, creating databases--are the Arctic Centre librarians.

Serving every time zone

What does it mean to be a librarian at the Arctic Centre? Most visibly, they're museum librarians. The Arktikum's physical library is small, but it attracts about half of the museum's 80,000 yearly visitors. People might have questions about salmon in northern rivers or they might ask about the burning of Lapland during World War II. Librarians also work closely with museum exhibit builders.

But museum work is just one part of the job. Reference librarians Liisa Hallikainen and Mikko Hyotyniemi serve the entire top of the globe--all 360 degrees of longitude, in every time zone. E-mail has made them available to every researcher with an internet connection. Where are the monasteries in northwest Russia? What are the nutritional properties of garden angelica, used by the Saami people--a group of indigenous people of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia--for treating the plague? How about predicting the occurrence of northern lights?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The digital age has changed the nature, as well as the scope, of what they do. Libraries have traditionally collected information, with dissemination of that information just a sideline. That's changing at the Arctic Centre. Experts suggest the only way sustainable development will succeed is if the scientific and political realms come together. Librarians at the Centre are doing their best to make that happen. …