Looking to the library in times of crisis

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by Krystal Corbray, courtesy of the Yakima Herald-Republic

Dec. 7, 1941, is a date ingrained in the minds of most Americans, marking the attack on Pearl Harbor and the inexorable entrance of the United States into World War II.

At the time, Yakima (WA) was home to just more than 27,000 residents, and only a few weeks earlier, on Oct. 24, 1941, the Yakima Public Library had made its own, much more pleasant sort of history — by debuting the city’s first bookmobile.

Officially known as the A.E. Larson Traveling Branch Service, the Bookmobile was funded through donations and had taken two years of careful planning and negotiation to bring to fruition.  The new service was met with eager patronage in each of the neighborhoods and schools it visited, and staff enjoyed getting to interact with the public in a “personal and neighborly way.”

For head librarian Helen Remsberg, the only downside to the service was that because so many children frequented the Bookmobile, staff were often hard-pressed to provide one-on-one attention.  But this, she conceded in one of her library reports, was a lovely problem to have.

Library records from the autumn of 1941 paint a picture of a busy small-town library, one facing many of the same issues still encountered by public libraries today.  In her notes, Remsberg reported that inadequate staffing was a challenge, as was limited space for library materials. And the need for additional funding loomed ever-present.

These were normal troubles; mundane even. Then, Pearl Harbor happened.

On the morning of Jan. 1, 1942, Remsberg began her Annual Library Report for 1941, observing: “World shaking changes in the year just ended are reflected in the use of the library.” She noted that, in a time of crisis and shared uncertainty, adults and children alike looked to the Yakima Public Library for information, guidance and comfort.

Library staff saw a marked increase in patrons seeking “books on the philosophy of totalitarian states and the practices of the dictators.”  Meanwhile, others came to the library for help researching how the U.S. Navy compared with other world navies and how the war would affect the agriculture industry.

Unsurprisingly, Remsberg also reported: “Many calls have come for books on health, especially in relation to nervous tension.”  It quickly became clear that the library was needed more than ever and library staff fervently went about their duties.

The Civilian Defense Council used the library to distribute information to the public; book selection practices had to be augmented to account for an increased interest in technical and military topics; and librarians set aside a special area where patrons could find “books and pamphlets on planning for a post war world.”

But while Remsberg and her staff did what they could to meet the needs of a community preoccupied by war, they also realized that life, necessarily, must continue as normally as possible.

So, as was always planned, the new Bookmobile routinely made four half-day stops in different neighborhoods throughout Yakima, in addition to noon-hour school visits.  By 1942, the service had grown so popular that one teacher told library staff, “The bookmobile is as eagerly awaited as the popcorn wagon and is much more generally patronized.”

This news pleased Remsberg immensely, as she had always thought a Bookmobile was an ideal way to reach patrons of all ages, many of whom otherwise might never use the library.

Bookmobile services continued through the war years and beyond, with it — and the Yakima Public Library — serving as unspoken yet incontrovertible emblems of the values that the U.S. and its Allies had fought to defend.

Because even in the midst of crisis and fear, ours was a community buoyed by its library and united by books.

• Krystal Corbray is programming and marketing librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries.