Mail order anniversary
The first mail order library in the country is turning 50 this month.
Our groundbreaking mail service started in June 1968 as an experiment to get more library books to people living in remote and rural areas of Douglas County. The project drew national attention, was copied by other libraries across the country, and was later expanded to include all of Chelan, Okanogan, Grant and Ferry counties.
The public library district will celebrate the milestone with an anniversary open house on June 27 at its headquarters building in Wenatchee. The event will be from 2 to 4 p.m. at 16 N. Columbia St. The event will also honor the late Robert Woods, a founding member and the first chairman of North Central Regional Library’s board of directors, who first proposed the idea of mailing books. Several members of his family will be in attendance at the open house.
“Providing equal services to rural populations has been a struggle for libraries all over the world. But innovative library services such as NCRL’s Mail-order delivery, bookmobiles, and classroom collections has bridged the gap for many of our customers to have a true library experience,” said Barbara Walters, acting director of the library district. “Our mail-order library not only serves our most rural customers but is also used by residents that are homebound or have busy family lives.”
While the mail service began in 1968, concerns about how to best provide library service to rural residents in the far-flung library district really began soon after the formation of North Central Regional Library in 1961. Many libraries across the five counties contracted with NCRL to provide service in cities and larger-populated rural areas. Bookmobiles visiting remote schools and making occasional stops at county crossroads were the only way of reaching people who didn’t live near community libraries.
In the mid 1960s, many smaller libraries began closing down, including ones at Stevens Pass, Twenty-five Mile Creek along Lake Chelan, Riverside, Nighthawk,
Hartline, Ardenvoir in the Entiat Valley, Wenatchee Heights, Monitor, and Stehekin.
In October of 1966, the library formed a committee headed up by Woods to look at whether bookmobiles were the best way to get books to rural residents.
A year later, he presented a plan to the board for discontinuing all bookmobile service and starting a new mail order concept using a catalog of selected book titles. The board agreed to test the idea in Douglas County..
The new “Books-By-Mail” service officially started on June 3, 1968, with a special grant from the Washington Library Commission.
“Being a pace setter in library services isn’t new to the five-county NCR Library here. Its success at regionalization has become a model for libraries everywhere,” an editorial in The Wenatchee World said at the time.
The article also quoted the Washington State Librarian as saying, “This is something that has never been tried anywhere in the United States. Libraries everywhere are trying to find a better way to get books to people. If this experiment is successful, a whole new Mail Order Library [concept] may be started.”
In an interesting side note, NCRL made a request to cartoonist Charles M. Schultz to use the image of Snoopy from his popular Peanuts cartoon strip to promote the new mail-order library. But Schultz declined, saying all the Peanuts characters were exclusively committed to an advertising campaign for bakery products at the time.
When the first catalogs were mailed out in late May 1968, library staff fretted over whether anyone would use the new service, Bo Brooks, coordinator of the Books-By-Mail Program, wrote in a June 6, 1968, guest editorial in The Wenatchee World.
But within a few days of the catalogs going out, order cards started rolling in.
“We were overwhelmed,” Brooks wrote in the editorial. “Each card requested five or six books. People from other [library] departments came in to help prepare the almost 1,000 books for mailing.”
In the first five days, 408 Douglas County families had ordered some 2,500 books — in a county where an average 200 people used bookmobile services in an entire year. More than 1,000 families had requested books by the end of the first month.
The most popular book ordered from the first catalog was Women of Pine Creek by Allis McKay, written by a local author and set in North Central Washington.
During the year-long experiment, the library received numerous inquiries from interested libraries across the country, and as far away as Australia. Then-NCRL-Director Mike Lynch was invited to talk about it at a national library conference in Atlantic City.
An editorial about the mail-order service that appeared in a July 1969 Wenatchee World quoted a Michigan library director who used NCRL as a model to start a similar service as saying, “Ordering books leisurely from an illustrated, annotated catalogue is much more convenient than trying to make connections with a bookmobile that appears at a country crossroads or driveway for only a few minutes every other week.”
The library director went on to say he wouldn’t be surprised “to see libraries everywhere adopt the mail order technique pioneered by the North Central Regional Library.”
By 1973, mail order was offered to all rural residents in the NCRL district.
As the 50-year anniversary approaches, NCRL has received numerous letters of support from users of the mail system — some who have been ordering
their books by mail for more than 40 years. Many said they live in rural areas that don’t have a library, and are older, disabled or homebound.
One Grant County woman wrote that she orders every cookbook and how-to book featured in the mail order catalogs. “My life would be very empty without your service,” she wrote.
A patron from Chesaw wrote, “During the winter months, it is about a two-hour round trip to town and our trips are very limited. … Receiving library books at our rural home truly enhances our daily life.”
“My mom was single and raising four children, so getting to the library was never an simple task. To keep her voracious little readers happy she supplemented our trips to the library with books through the mail-order program. We would sit around the kitchen table and look through the catalogs and put marks next to the books we wanted and they would magically appear in the mail a week later,” added Walters, who grew up in Douglas County.