The following article was published in the Sourdough Journal 1986, volume 23 no. 1. Reprinted by permission of Barbara Berg, author.
Mail Services Grants Bring
Library Resources to
The American Library Association's recent radio commercials feature celebrities urging people to visit public libraries to help their children learn to read, and to find answers to their own reference questions. However, if you and your children live in a remote logging camp in Southeast or in a mining camp in Red Devil, Alaska, it isn't easy to take a trip to the nearest library .
Fortunately for the residents of many remote communities, Alaska has been providing information services to them for over twenty years. Books for every reading interest and answers to all reference question have been and still are no further away than the nearest mailbox, airstrip, or float plane dock. Alaska's rural residents can receive monthly shipments of library rooks, magazines, audio cassettes, and paperbacks through a program funded jointly by the state and federal governments. Officially named Regional Servires, the program is known locally as Mail Services. The program began at the State Library in Juneau, but today it is administered by regional centers in Fairbanks, and Juneau.
How to Participate
To qualify for monthly book shipments, an individual or family must live in a place with no access to other library services. Sane participants live without road access; others have access completely cut off by bad winter weather.
Remoteness is the only common denominator among Mail Services participants. Some register as families, others as individuals. Sane are students, others are artists, fishermen, technical personnel at mining sites, trappers, miners, biologists, teachers, doctors, ministers, or persons living off the land. Some need technical or school-related information; others are looking for recreational reading materials. Reading interests are as diverse as circumstances.
The Reading Interest Profile
Anyone who wants to receive books contacts a regional center, and, if qualified, fills out a profile of reading interests. This profile is the first item in a file of correspondence that gives the Mail Services staff an idea of what the individual or family likes to read. Every month to six weeks, the library staff mails 10 to l5 books based on the profile and any special requests received. When the net shipment is received, an older box of books is returned. The only cost to participants is that of mailing back the books.
It is truly a challenge for Mail Services staff to look over a few notes, glance through some letters, then try to think like another person (or a whole family), and select books. Often the staff does this 20 tines a day! Sometimes they make mistakes, but more often the books chosen are "just right. "For example, a Copper Center resident wrote: "What a wonderful selection of books you sent us this month! In the words of My Fair Lady, "You should have heard the oh's and ah's."'
You might think that the service would be impersonal since so many miles stand between participants and the library , but that isn't the case. Likes and dislikes are communicated freely, and letters are personal as well as informative such as the following from a Point Baker resident: "Dear helpful librarian, It's good to receive your services. They enlighten and amuse our lives...you are my fingertips to all that is known, even if you don't know it.
Occasionally, participants visit the library in person, and the staff feels that they are meeting old friends for the first time. An Alexander Creek resident mirrors those feelings: "You seem to be able to read us like a book, which is how a good librarian should be. You seen to know us...Reading makes our lives seem much more meaningful a 00 rich, yet without a careful and serendipitous selection we would not be as joyful as we are when we see our book box arrive every month.
Mail Services staff in each regional center process a mountain of books each month. Juneau sends out and receives nearly 4,000 books a month, and the other regions hare similar workloads. No region has a large staff. Juneau now serves over 300 files representing more than 900 individuals with a staff of one fulltime and two halftime employees. Fairbanks has two fulltime and one halftime employees and serves rural community libraries in addition to families.
Costs and Benefits
There are times when we wish we had more staff to do the job, but today the Mail Services program is one of the most efficient uses of the state's dollars. For a small cost, Mail Services provides a very tangible benefit to rural residents of the state. The Mail Services staff not only does the usual work of the library staff, but also does the additional work getting the books to and from the library.
Need and appreciation for the program are expressed by a Little Port Walter resident: We all really appreciate the books here at Little Port Walter. We trade around and make good use of the books. ...I read about 30 to 40 rooks each month and my husband reads about 10. Our neighbors read a good many of our books. Please don't take this service away from us. I would not like to live out this way without books.
Growth and Change
Mail Servires has grown with Alaska and changed with the times. To supplement monthly mailings, participants may now also order specific titles from a catalog of paperbacks. The growing use of computer networks in libraries makes it easier to share resources and get library materials to remote locations. Participants often write letters on word processors, too!
Even in the computer age, as long as people in Alaska continue to live away from population centers with libraries, and as long as they continue to have inquiring minds, there will be a need for a program like Mail Services.
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