I was fifteen when our principal/teacher at our bush school arranged for me to become a rural patron of the Juneau Public Library, several hundred miles away. That's when I was first introduced to the librarians who worked in the mail services program, and I've been in love ever since. I've had books from them forwarded to me wherever I wander in Alaska, when I'm away on jobs in the summers, or housesitting, or visiting relatives. The library's books have had many adventures with me over the years. They traveled to their home with me on a ferry trip once, and I was able to return them in person to the Juneau Public Library and meet at least one of the librarians who spent so much time and energy on getting me exactly what I was looking for whenever I made a request.
The books, to reach me, are flown by jet to Ketchikan, then to the nearby village by floatplane. We then go pick up the once a week mail by skiff, braving rain, snow and waves to get it. Not to mention the tide. Lugging a heavy bag of books up the beach is not on my dad's all-time favorite list, and I usually hear about it.
I remember having to walk a log to shore once, with the mail and library books in hand. The log was slippery on one end and I slid off, splashing into thigh-high water. I yanked the books out of reach of the water, but I'm afraid the mail didn't fare so well. I've even, though not recently, made the arduous trek by land to the village, packing mail and books to the post office.
What can I say? I love books.
Over the years the librarians have changed, but I've had wonderful relationships with all of them. I still keep in contact with some who left the library years ago, like Brooke, who's a Civil Air Patrol pilot on her downtime and built her own plane with her husband to fly Alaskan skies. Cheryl, Dian and Lynn were my librarians for many years. They were the ones who established putting the books in plastic at my request after I explained about the open skiff ride the books take to get to me, in all kinds of weather. They also understood that sometimes I couldn't make the due date on some books because of weather and they generously renewed the books until I could get them to them.
I didn't have Internet until this year, so they offered to look up research questions for me online and then mailed me, at their expense, stacks of print-outs. The time and effort they spent on figuring out exactly what I wanted never failed to impress me. I think librarians are next door to being mind readers, or at least very insightful psychologists. Besides uncannily always knowing exactly which book out of several on a topic I would prefer, they would leave no stone uncovered when it came to Interlibrary Loan requests. They made sure the other libraries understood my situation--mail once a week, weather permitting--and gave me lots of time to read the books and get them back.
This year, JPL and its Mail Services program has been nominated for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. They certainly deserve it. Originally they served SE Alaska, but now they serve the entire state, sending books hundreds of miles to isolated, far flung places few people have ever heard of, let alone visited. They pay for the postage to send materials to patrons, we pay to send them back by library rate in their dedicated, self-addressed mailing bags.
There are four employees in the Mail Services program, now that they have the entire state to take care of. They are Max, Marjie, Julie and Ani and I have with them the relationship you can only have with librarians. You know what I'm talking about, right? You trust them and share your interests with them in a way you might not with anyone else, and you feel that they will do all they can to further your interests and introduce you to new books and materials that are tailored to your likes and curiosity.
Let me introduce you to them.
Max was originally encouraged to work part time at the library by his sister who already worked there, while he applied to medical school. Two years later he found himself taking on a permanent position in the Mail Services program.
"Although it was not my intention to remain at the library permanently," he says, "I'm proud of the work I do and the positive changes I've made to this department to ensure it runs efficiently....In particular, I remember a note you sent us which described the epic journey just to retrieve and return library books, a chore we in the city certainly take for granted. I related your experience to some out-of-town friends who were visiting, who said that your story was the most influential advocacy for literacy they'd ever heard. I think this is absolutely true."
Max spends some of his time away from the library climbing mountains and ridges, getting lost in alpine meadows and muskegs, and wading through waist high flooded running trails. "My sister," he explains, "is my training partner and best friend, so it's quite convenient that our cubicles share a wall, allowing us to scheme while we're working."
Marjorie, unlike many who love books, is "not an introvert." She moved to Alaska with her husband from New York City and started working for JPL right away, despite not having any library science training or degree. "But that's Alaska, is it not?"
She took time away from the library for several years to have a family, travel and cope with her husband's successful battle with cancer. In 2013 she returned to the library as Curator of Public Programs (in the museum) and a year later also began working in the Mail Services department. "I think my favorite part of serving our remote customers," she says, "is what I might call 'the hunt.' It has been fun to research on behalf of so many people who are not necessarily reading what I read, and learning about different authors, topics, sources of recommendations, etc."
What Marjorie loves about Alaska is the sense of community--"I love the community for support and friendship and the daily, casual connection I have to almost everybody I run into"--and the way the environment shapes everything and everyone--"most folks vaule it and interact with it almost daily, fishing, hiking, skiing, photographing, etc."--and the opportunities--"For example, one of my daughters is passionate about music and theatre and she gets terrific opportunities to do real, big things, like she sang a solo with the Juneau Symphony this past June....In a larger city, competition would be fierce for those things....in Juneau she gets these opportunities. And I got the opportunity to be hired at the library, despite the lack of a library science degree!"
Julie has lived in different areas of Alaska, from the largest cities to small communities in the Interior, and finally in SE Alaska in Juneau. She says, "Having come from N. Dakota, I've always enjoyed the milder climates in Alaska."
She was a newspaper editor in Fairbanks and Anchorage, taught journalism at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and had her own business. It was when she was in McGrath that she reluctantly became a librarian and found she loved it. "Who knew that all that time I spent reading and working with authors and illustrators would come in handy!"
She loves selecting books and movies for Alaska's far-flung residents, and spending as much time as possible outdoors. She also, like so many Alaskans, enjoys quilting.
Ani grew up in Juneau and was always a reader, as well as studying piano and active in theater. "Reading," she says, "is still always near the top of my list of what I'd rather be doing, preferrably at home, on my couch, with a cup of tea."
Like many people who grew up in Alaska, Ani has tried her hand at a wide range of occupations: pre-school teacher, piano teacher, commercial troller, gardener, book-keeper and, of course, librarian. This last, and current, job, is her favorite. "I love trying to match the right books with the right people, and I love spending that much time immersed in books. I always have way too many books checked out."
She's married with three kids, who are all readers so she gets to be their personal librarian as well. She also loves hiking and spending time outside.
I recently had an online conversation with avid readers who shared with me their love of libraries and librarians. One of them shared this story: "My late brother was hired to manage an old-style ice cream parlor years ago. He took out a bunch of library books about ice cream and never returned them. I returned them for him (he'd moved to another city) expecting a large fine. The library rep said due to my honesty, there was NO charge....My late mom was a librarian at a public library."
I think that anyone who has contact with librarians at a formative age never forgets that first love of books. One of my closest friends is a former school librarian and we trade books through the mail, all the time.
Another online poster said: "I loved the creaking floors, the long wooden tables and the librarians. They knew magical things....They knew where the good books were." The library of her childhood has since changed, but what has not changed, "is the kindness of the librarians."
I responded that libraries are the repository of the world's knowledge monitored and shared by some of the most intelligent, funny, caring people around. And then I told them about the Juneau Public Library and its Mail Services librarians. They were instantly interested and hoped that the library wins the award they have been nominated for. Readers love libraries and librarians....how could we not?
I don't think I'm biased in thinking that my library and the librarians are special and I hope they win the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which "honors outstanding institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. Selected institutions demonstrate extraordinary approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach."
You deserve it, all of you, over the years, who have ever worked in the Mail Services department. Thank you.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)