Written by Sabrina Jones
It all started with just 300 signatures – during harvest, of course.
The date was August 1944, and the place was Colfax, Washington, a hamlet encircled by rolling hills of grain. Residents there wanted a public library district and took it upon themselves to make it happen. They turned in a petition – filled with 300 signatures – to their Whitman County commissioners, ensuring its place on the voting ballot that fall. Voters approved the measure and the Whitman County Library (WCL) District was born.
“Travel between our small towns could not have been easy when the library district was first formed in the mid-1940s, so the idea that the entire county could work together for library service and funding must have been really revolutionary,” said WCL Director Kristie Kirkpatrick. “Being a library district for as long as we have has given us a rich history of providing quality service while our community members have a real sense of pride and commitment to their small town libraries.”
Launching a Legacy
The library has come a long way from its meager beginnings in the mid-1940s where it was first housed in an old saloon with bare floors and outfitted with war surplus furniture. In 1948, there were 25 branch libraries and 44,000 books in circulation; today, nearly 11,000 registered library cardholders can either visit any of the 13 branches or search the library’s web site and choose from more than 75,000 materials – books, CDs, DVDs, audio books – that are in circulation.
What feeds the success of this rural library district? According to Kristie, the answer is simple: unparalleled customer service, community involvement and strategic planning.
“We do our best to employ people with extremely positive attitudes,” said Kristie. “I look for energy, enthusiasm and a real love of people when filling our jobs. We’ve worked hard to turn Whitman County libraries into the places our communities want them to be!
Throughout its 62-year history, WCL has always been an innovative leader. Whether it was offering bookmobile services to countywide residents in the 1950s, being the first Washington State library to participate in the Collaborative Summer Reading program in 2002, or forming partnerships with local public schools to provide state-of-the-art online career curriculum, WCL seems to always be one step ahead of the game.
Whitman County residents have jumped into action for their libraries over the years, doing whatever it takes to help. When a new library was built in Colfax in 1960, the local Jaycees Club and other volunteers formed a “book brigade,” passing books one person at a time down the block; history repeated itself 40 years later in the town of Rosalia, when that branch library moved to a new location and local students, teachers, citizens and business owners lined the three blocks to personally transfer books to the library’s new home.
“Our first priority, since our inception, has been to instill a lifelong love of learning to the people we serve,” said Kristie. “I think that’s evident in how we’ve met the challenges of a changing society, especially given the relatively recent advent of technology.”
Whether it is writing for grants or devoting budgeted dollars to upgrading its computer system, WCL works hard to stay current in today’s technological world. Through its web site and the Ask Us 24/7 reference, the library is literally open all the time.
WCL recently wrote and received a federal grant that enabled them to partner with 10 Whitman County schools to provide a new online curriculum program called “Building Bridges.” According to Certified Instructor and Project Coordinator Erica Willson, Building Bridges “helps students discover their interests, improve academic skills, prepare for standardized tests and keep an electronic portfolio of their work.” Each school contributed to the cost of the software, while a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) subsidized a large portion of the program’s cost. Erica and another instructor, Lori Brown, visit the schools regularly to teach additional program features and monitor student progress.
WCL also recently installed a new computer system that handles its entire inventory and catalog access via the Internet. WCL Systems Administrator James Morasch states that online customers are now able to search by format and view thumbnail book images. “Our search options have expanded quite a bit,” he said. “But we also tried to preserve the basic look and feel of the system to minimize any confusion.”
The focus on customer service and community outreach has been beneficial to both WCL and the people it serves. Recent elections in Whitman County had library measures passing by more than 75 percent. Most of the taxpayers in the library’s district pay 50 cents per $1,000 assessed value. “We don’t rely on a city or any community groups to donate money to us for our budget,” said Kristie. “I think that makes us unique as a rural library in that we have a set budget we can count on each year.”
One example of this support can be seen in the town of St. John, population 530, give or take a few. Consistently one of the busiest branches in the WCL system, St. John boasts of having the largest children’s program and the highest per capita usage, excluding the main Colfax library. Last November, St. John voters overwhelmingly passed a $500,000, 15-year bond measure to construct a new public library building that will also include space for the town’s city services department and local museum.
“Libraries are as much about people as they are about books,” said St. John Branch Manager Clancy Pool. “Although our book circulation will increase to about half as many more books as we currently have, we need to remember it’s also important to have room for people to sit and enjoy themselves.”
And find room they will. The library will move from its current cramped quarters of 500 square feet to a spacious 1,800, while the number of public computers will double, its hours of operation will increase and wireless internet access will be available.
WCL Board Trustee John Kehne is consistently amazed at how WCL “offers the most for the least” in its programs, materials and services. “Our director [Kristie] possesses the innate ability to inspire everyone on her staff,” he said. “And our library customers see it everywhere: from the person checking out their books to the one leading a Storytime program – it’s catching, and it’s great.”
Karen Goettling, assistant program manager for library development at the Washington State Library, couldn’t agree more. “What sets the Whitman County Library system apart from other like-sized districts is the energy of its staff and its ability to get out into the communities it serves,” she said. “They have really learned about marketing and they apply that knowledge in their promotion efforts.”
Harvesting for Readers
Whitman County is often referred to as “the Palouse,” for its rolling, fertile fields of grain, from wheat and barley to peas and lentils. For decades, most residents have worked in the farming industry in one capacity or another, whether it’s been as a landowner, rancher, hired man (or woman!), parts dealer, chemical sprayer, commodities employee or a high school student just looking for a way to make some extra money. Out here, farming is the way of life.
During harvest, the days are often as long as the traffic on I-5 in Seattle, with nothing but wide expanses of crop surrounding you. To St. John Branch Manager Clancy Pool, this meant a captive reading audience. This summer, Clancy called area grain companies and asked if she could put a box of books in their country elevators.
“The main reason I started this program and suggested it to all the branches is because the main goal of the library is to serve all of our residents,” Clancy said. “Harvest crews seemed to be an underserved population since they work 12 hours a day, seven days a week and are only free to come to the library if it rains.”
Clancy filled boxes with a variety of genres, but went heavy on Western and Suspense since “most of the truck drivers are men.” As an additional plug for the library, she inserted a Whitman County Library bookmark that listed its toll-free number, web site address and hours of operation.
“When we received our box of books from Clancy, we were excited to be able to use the books to help encourage reading,” said Beau Duff, assistant manager of the St. John Grain Growers. “We offered them to our employees and to the truck drivers who were coming through with their loads.” St. John Grain Growers manages six grain elevators – Ewan, Willada, Sunset, Pleasant Valley, St. John and Juno – that collectively handle over three million bushels of wheat in a typical harvest. At the height of harvest, each elevator has about 150 harvest trucks come through their doors each day.
According to Inland Empire Milling Company President Jerry Schauble, the books they received were put to good use. “Some books have obviously been thumbed through, some were taken and a few are still there,” he said. “It sure was a nice gesture and I received a lot of positive feedback from our grain elevator operators and truck drivers that they appreciated the library thinking of them.” Inland Empire Milling Company is a privately-owned commercial grain and seed company that was started as a flour mill in 1919 by Jerry’s grandfather, Ernest Schauble. The company has four separate grain elevators, one in Pine City, two in St. John and one in Pleasant Valley.
An Appel a Day
Colfax-area farmers Eric and Shannon Appel, who work 2,000 acres of land, don’t know what they would do if they couldn’t check out books on tape for harvest, as well as for fall and spring work.
“Every harvest my husband sends me to the library and I peruse up and down the rows of books on tape,” Shannon said. “He still has the old-fashioned cassette player in his combine and tractor, so I jokingly told him he’s either going to have to upgrade to a DVD or his only options will be westerns and romance!”
At the Appel homestead, farming is a family affair. In addition to Eric, Shannon and their five children who help out in various capacities, Eric’s brother, a Gonzaga University professor, drives semi-truck while a family friend from Seattle takes a week of vacation to drive truck for them.
Usually consumed by the typical activities associated with raising five children, Shannon was finally able to spend some time working in the field. “I worked half days driving truck,” she said. “It was great! I got to listen to books on tape; I was able to read in an air-conditioned environment. I had quiet time!”
With eyes fluttering awake at 5:30 a.m. and dishes being washed around 9 pm, it doesn’t leave much spare time to stop by the library. “I go to the Colfax Library prior to harvest, come up to the counter with my arms loaded and check out books-on-tape in each of our names,” Shannon laughed. “When Kristie sees me coming, she starts laughing because now she knows what I’m up to!”
While their long days are often filled with grain raining down from combine spouts, the Appels have also enjoyed discovering new authors. “I gave Eric a Dean Koontz book on tape to listen to the other day and he wasn’t so sure about it at first,” Shannon said. “But before I knew it, I was back at the library looking for the next book in the series! Without our library, we’d have to listen to a radio station that wouldn’t come in very well and listen to the same songs over and over. Having these books on tape is a great resource for us out here on the fields.”
While the winter wheat quietly grows under an insulating blanket of glistening snow, you can bet that WCL administration and staff are readying for another successful harvest – of reading, of course.
Sabrina Jones is a freelance writer who doesn’t farm, but watches harvest from her window in St. John. She can be reached at email@example.com.