Missouri Business

Mail-order lending program brought books to unreached Missourians

If asked to imagine it, you would probably claim you could live without internet for learning and recreation if you had to. At least you would still have books, right?

Here’s the clincher: Imagine you had no library access either.

That was daily life for the majority of Missourians in 1929, according to a March article in our magazine that year.

“Fifty-three percent of the population of Missouri does not have the use of a library,” said Jane Morey, a librarian serving as secretary of the Missouri Library Commission. Her job was to help change that.

The scarcity was felt mainly in rural areas, and in a time when books were a primary source of information and entertainment, it posed a significant hardship. And so the commission was organized “to give aid in establishing public libraries, to furnish direct book service in the form of traveling libraries to schools, communities and individuals otherwise without library facilities,” Morey said.

Anyone could submit a request for reading material. Books were mailed out to small-town homes, farming families, women’s clubs and more.

“Going by parcels post, freight or express, 45,000 books reach 225,000 people annually,” the article reported.

Old classics and works fresh off the press were equally popular.

“Tradition is strong in the country and the books father read as a boy are enjoyed to the utmost by his sons today,” the article’s author wrote. “On the other hand, the very latest in fiction and non-fiction are called for.”

Small public libraries that might have been able to spend only a few dollars a year to purchase books could borrow through the program too, the article said. Additionally, the commission offered small traveling libraries, which were hosted at local churches or community centers.

“Whether the book desired be light fiction, science or philosophy, an effort is being made by the Commission to place in the hands of rural readers the books that they need and want,” the author wrote.

One-room rural schools could also be lent collections to keep throughout the school year.

“These are the first supplementary books that have been in the school for years — the children will never forget them,” wrote one rural teacher.

According to the latest state data, Missouri now has 366 tax-supported library locations and 24 bookmobiles. Like others all across the nation, our libraries have rapidly evolved to stay relevant in the digital age. In addition to vast book and media collections, patrons enjoy an incredible variety of free services — including Wi-Fi and computer access, educational programs, and community events. Libraries also drive business and impact workforce development through their valuable research support, skills training, job search assistance and similar services.

Today, more than 91 percent of Missourians have access to these public libraries.

Morey would be proud.