WCL District Connects with the Rural Communities it Serves
Written by Sabrina Jones
It all started with just 300 signatures – during harvest,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
A similar article appears in Alki, the
Washington Library Association Journal, Dec. 2006
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