County libraries celebrate 75 years; looks to eliminate fees
Whatcom County Library Express sign on Wednesday, Oct. 30. // Photo by Melody Kazel
By Melody Kazel
The Whatcom County Library system will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Thursday, Nov. 7. After being created to provide equity in service throughout Whatcom County, this anniversary will celebrate how the system still lives up to that initial mission, the people who have helped them over the years and all the residents they provide service to.
“We had over two million items checked out last year, hundreds of thousands of visits,” Executive Director Christine Perkins said.
When the Whatcom County Library system opened in 1944, it had an office within the Bellingham Public Library. They built their headquarters in 1972, Perkins said. The Whatcom County Library system and the Bellingham Public Library still have a close relationship, Library Collection Maintenance Specialist and Public Services Assistant Maggie Mae Nase said.
“I like to think of us as roommates,” Nase said. “We have different funding and different policies … We share materials, like when you go into roommate’s closet and borrow her top. We share all of our books.”
Sometimes the Whatcom County Library system and the Bellingham Library even go through changes together. In 2020, they are partnering to make a change to their policies. The Bellingham Library and the county Library system will eliminate charging overdue fines, Perkins said. She said charging fines doesn’t typically change people’s behavior. Sometimes they’re willing to pay a few extra cents a day to keep a book longer.
“That works just fine for people who have some means to pay, but it doesn’t work very well for people who are really down to the wire with their monthly budget,” Perkins said.
The Whatcom Library system also partners with other libraries in the area through their program Whatcom Libraries Collaborate. Anyone with a Whatcom Library systems card can borrow materials from any participating library. They can also return materials to any collaborating library or book return in the county, according to their website.
One of the library collaborations that stands out is Whatcom County Library system’s relationship with Northwest Indian College. The library director at Northwest Indian College, Valerie McBeth, was present when Whatcom Libraries Collaborate first got its name.
“The library directors decided to meet once a month for breakfast and that was when we developed the Whatcom Libraries Collaborate name,” McBeth said.
McBeth said it’s been wonderful that the library directors meet and have a continuous communication going. She said the collaboration has also made collection development easier because she can concentrate on other priorities, like collecting books by Native American authors.
“We are focused on curricular support and particularly the interests of native people here,” McBeth said.
Because of their library’s focus, McBeth said Whatcom’s system allows people at the college to access other materials. For example, sometimes people get movies through it. Northwest Indian College also has a majority of nontraditional students, according to McBeth. She said the college has a higher proportion of parents and even grandparents enrolled as students, compared to most mainstream academic institutions.
“Many of our students are parents and our children’s collections are not huge,” McBeth said.
These library system collaborations help provide equity in service throughout Whatcom County, something the library was originally created for, Perkins said.
Back in 1944, a group of people from the Whatcom County grange movement– a movement focused on the economic needs of farmers and advancing agriculture– wanted to bring library service into rural areas that didn’t have access.
“They got together to put an initiative on the ballot to form the rural library district, which is what is now known as the Whatcom County Library System,” Perkins said.
Recently, the Whatcom County Library System invested in a new bookmobile to drive around and deliver library materials to rural residents of the county, Perkins said.
“The cool thing about the bookmobile is that they have way more person to person interactions with all of their patrons because it’s such a small space. It’s almost impossible not to,” Nase said.
The people working in the bookmobile often try to remember what kind of books people like so they have them available for browsing, Nase said.
Perkins said the bookmobile was added to their service because the library determined it is a cost-effective, efficient way to deliver service to the more rural parts of Whatcom County. The bookmobile was one of the original services provided by the library system when it began and now they’re providing the same service the system did 75 years ago.
To celebrate this history, and the changes the library system has made over the years, all of Whatcom County Library System’s 10 library locations will be hosting anniversary events. There will also be celebrations at the bookmobile, said Perkins.
Nase grew up in Ferndale and recalls what it was like to use the library when she was a kid.
“It was very brown,” Nase said. “The carpet was brown and the shelves were brown … and you just kind of felt enveloped. Not in a bad way, but like all the books were hugging me.”
Nase said she started as a page in the library, putting books back on the shelves, and worked her way up to the job she has now.
For their anniversary event, Nase said they have ordered nearly 3,000 cupcakes to distribute throughout their locations. The cupcakes will be chocolate and vanilla with no sprinkles because it makes it hard on the custodians, Nase said.
“We had to think about the cleanup of sprinkles en masse,” Nase said.
Perkins said it’s exciting, and a little bit nostalgic, to plan this anniversary and look back through the Whatcom County Library system’s history, remembering all of the people who have been involved over the years.
On Nov. 9, two days after the anniversary celebration, the Whatcom County Library system will be hosting a library champions event to honor individuals in the community who have stood up for the library system over the years.
“As the executive director, looking back on our history, I am blown away, time and time again, by how members of the public came together to form the system,” Perkins said.