Nancy Ferrell, a freelance writer who lives in Juneau, Alaska, wrote the following article. It was published in Library Journal March 15, 1983. Copyright 1983 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Library Journal.


Alaska's Flying Library

Although many American libraries provide service to isolated and remote patrons, there are few states with the variety or the challenge found in the vast expanses of Alaska.

While other libraries operate bookmobiles to supply library service to those distant users, Alaskans fly the materials. Considering the size of the state, the small total population (about a quarter of the size of Miami, Florida), plus the terrain and weather, the effectiveness of a vast highway system is limited. Flying is more practical.

At the present time, two Alaskan mail services furnish library materials to patrons where library facilities do not exist. From Fairbanks, library materials are sent to those in the northern half of the state, and the southern half is supplied from Juneau.


Goodnews Bay to Clam Gulch
Library items sent from Southeast Regional Mail Services in Juneau reach readers over an area larger than Oregon, Washington, and California combined. From the southern most tip south of Ketchikan, sweeping in an arc to the western branch of the Aleutians, books are flown, airdropped, sailed, motored, hiked, and yes, even in the modern day, mushed by dog sled to eager patrons. Destination addresses hint at stories in themselves: Farewell Landing, Goodnews Bay, Gold Creek, Red Devil, Clam Gulch, Bear Cove, Little Port Walter. Former staff member Barbara Pavitt pinpointed the scope of the program: to a school as far north as Norton Sound, to teachers on the Pribilof Islands, to a logging family on Prince of Wales Island, to a bookkeeper on Atka along the Aleutian chain. To reach this last location-most distant from Juneau-the distance in air miles is comparable to that between New York City and Denver, Colorado.


Return postage only
The program began in the late 1950s, before Statehood, and operated on a part-time basis for years, according to Kay Rosier, the first full-time mail staffer. At that stage, books were sent any way the mail traveled, and often took weeks to reach their destinations. In those days Juneau supplied materials for the entire State. Since the early 1970s a steady effort has been made to increase the ever-growing clientele, and to serve these remote patrons even more effectively. Increased air travel is helping to achieve this goal. Funded totally by a State grant, library operations are administered by the city public library system which only recently took over this function. Cost to the participants is minimal - return postage only.


The typical collection
For the individual, borrowing procedures prove simple. A patron fills out an application with personal information - including reading interests - and forwards it to mail services in Juneau. The staff, currently under the leadership of Hetty Barthel, gathers a collection and boxes it. Normally a collection consists of ten books, five records, one cassette, and one art print packet. Clients may alter this to any combination, and may also request special information or periodicals. Another department in the same building provides a separate service for films.

Prospector Fred Bronniche of Gakona (formerly Minnesota), now 76, has used mail library services for over 20 years. He tells of delivery by dog team in winter, and car during the summer. Still an active patron, mathematics buff Bronniche comments: It is nice to get a box of books each month.I think it is marvelous that very seldom do I get the same book twice. /when you think that in 20 years, ten books to the month, just how many chances there would be to get repeats. About 2400 chances!

Fred is but one of the more than 550 participants receiving materials on a scheduled basis. The users of the library service represent a broad range of occupations: fishermen, loggers, teachers, adventurers, military personnel, bookkeepers, homemakers, children, nurses, and government personnel, to name a few. A more courteous and appreciative audience is hard to find. Other than their regular mail, the books may be the only outside contact for months on end.


Selections from the bush
The first choice for these lonely borrowers are books on Alaska. Since many readers live in the bush, subsistence and how-to books are a high proportion of the count - farming, boat and cabin building, food drying, home crafts, and such. Clients also lean heavily toward entertainment reading - mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. Not far behind are requests for children's books and special interest reading. One client is more concerned with length than content, specifying fiction, but it must contain 400 or more pages. Another user, an author, returns her books with snips of notes inside. These mini-reviews are crisp and to the point: Couldn't get into it! Good, but gets a bit much in places. Super. Couldn't put it down.

On the whole it is smooth sailing or flying for the library mail service operation. The borrowed books like the pilots who fly them, wear their air miles well. In the course of all the miles of travel, however, accidents do happen. The weather, an ever-present rogue, writes its own script. Consider the patron who returned the books early in April because the landing strip on the ice is going bad, and we may not be able to get any mail in and out for six weeks. Do not send any books for quick return until the first of June. A letter addressed to former employee Verda Carey reads, I am very sorry these books are damaged,. They got wet in our skiff while bringing them to town to mail them to you. One patron set his return carton of books on the beach in readiness for the mail plane, but forgot that the tide was coming in, not going out.


Books in the river
Quite a few families request paperback books only. They explained why: My husband has to walk 15 - 20 miles to pick up these things and mail them back. I have to run a dog team 60 miles to pick up the mail, and paperbacks are lighter to carry.

In the summer some of the airdropped books land in the river rather than on the shore, but not all problems are weather or water related. One customer apologized for a damaged book because she had dashed from her cabin to see whales in the cove, and ...some wretched squirrel had made off with pages 104 through 117 of the book!

Now and then something as simple as a equipment breakdown halts the mail. ...I'm substituting for our post mistress while they're on vacation; and the weight scales are not working, so I cannot mail back to you our box of books. In rare instances, a few people move away and the postal station is simply phased out. Imagine the shock of the Juneau mail staff when a box of books returned smeared with blood. A letter inside explained that a moose was cut up on the table above and blood from the animal leaked through to the collection of books below. Then there was the mother who came back to her cabin to find a bear inside. She managed to reach a rifle, but because of the rifle's hair trigger, she shot the box of library books by mistake. One might wonder how the regional staff would have reacted if both the bloody books and the books riddled with bullet holes were returned in the same collection!


Overdue, but no fines
Like library patrons the world over, remote Alaskans occasionally forget to return a book on time. Teachers in isolated villages, understandably, tend to hold library materials longer than the loan period. In a close community, a really excellent book passes from one family to another until everyone has read it. Finally the book makes its way back to the regional office late of course. Since reading is the point of the whole service in the first place, fines are never charged. Damaged or lost books are expected to be replaced.

Given the nature of the service the regional library provides, one might expect an impersonal, distant relationship between staff and patron. Not so. Letters afford a link of sorts, and, on occasion, the clients themselves drop in - some to browse through the books, some to visit. Employees always find it satisfying to meet the person behind the name. Alaska's flying library is a boon to its isolated clients, allowing them to travel anywhere, do anything through the pages of books. In this fast paced, urban world it is refreshing to see a library service that operates on a more human level. Alaska's Southeast Regional Mail Services continuously tries to preserve this personal element. They literally keep in touch.



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