Regional library celebrates it’s mail order service

By Michelle McNiel

Bo Brooks, coordinator of NCRL’s Books-By-Mail program, stacks envelopes with books inside to be mailed out in June of 1968. This was the first shipment of books by mail sent out by the library. (Provided photo/NCLR-Wenatchee World archives)

The first mail order library in the country is turning 50 this month.

North Central Regional Library’s 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 NCRL’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.”

Mail order librarian Kim Fullerton prepares books for mailing from the distribution center in Wenatchee last week. (Provided photo/NCRL)

The new “Books-By-Mail” service officially started on June 3, 1968, with a special grant from the Washington Library Commission.

An editorial in The Wenatchee World at the time 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 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.

During the year-long experiment, the library received numerous inquiries from interested libraries across the country, and as far away as Australia.

Mail order manager Shelley Small pushes a cart of packaged books to go out in the mail last week. (Provided photo/NCRL)

Over the next few years, the mail order program was expanded and by 1973 it 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.”

Walters, who grew up in Douglas County outside of East Wenatchee, added, “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.”

 

Michelle McNiel is communications manager for the North Central Regional Library.