Alaska Bookmobile Flies to Far Points : Libraries: The state uses back-country pilots to give all of its residents equal access to education, entertainment and information.


In the back country of Alaska, out of the reach of television, commercial radio or even daily newspapers, thousands of families are staying in touch the old-fashioned way.

They're reading books.

Bush pilots regularly fly library books to some 3,000 Alaskans to fulfill a promise dating from territorial days that all residents should have equal access to public libraries.

For people such as Elaine and Pete Velsko and their two daughters, who live on Tutka Bay, 125 miles from Anchorage, those green mailbags full of books, which arrive once or twice a month, offer both education and entertainment.

"My husband asks for all nonfiction. He wants to keep up with the world," Elaine Velsko says. "But I like my stories. If I didn't get my green bags, I think I'd perish out here."

Elaine Velsko has spent 13 years on Tutka Bay, 14 miles from Homer, managing her modern ranch home and teaching her children, ages 8 and 4, through correspondence courses. Her husband runs the state fish hatchery nearby.

The way some people might flick on a soap opera, she'll pull a novel out of the sack and read.

"We are living more the pioneering life," she says. "It's what we want."

About 175 miles north, in the village of Skwentna, Joe and Norma Delia have spent 40 years on their 10-acre homestead hunting, trapping, running the post office and reading flown-in library books to their two children.

"For my kids, books were a big thing in their lives," Joe Delia says. "They didn't have things that kids in town have to occupy their time."

Begun in 1957, Alaska's bush library service operated for more than a decade out of the state library at Juneau. But it specialized in historical and government material and, for readers, wasn't the same as being able to browse a library shelf or bookstore for a good read.

George Smith, who oversees the $265,000 state grant that pays for the service's postage and library staff, says the service was transferred 10 years ago to the public libraries at Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage to give readers a chance at more contemporary collections.

Only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 people who live in rural Alaska are signed up for books by mail.

One of them is writer Janice Schofield. From her one-room cabin in the Rocky River Valley near Homer, Schofield began a study of grasses and flowers and was inspired to write a book on Alaska's native plants.

Her reference guides were almost exclusively library books delivered by mail plane and left for her at a remote mail shed on Kantishna Bay.

"It was always great--like having this little goody box coming in the mail," she says.

To fetch the books, Schofield and her husband, Edward, hiked or skied to their car, drove to the end of the road, and then hiked or skied another half a mile to reach the shed. There the books went into backpacks and the Schofields made their way back out.

"Discovering Wild Plants," published last year by Northwest Discovery Publications, was the first book she ever researched by mail, letting the library know generally what she needed and then waiting to see what turned up.

Most people in the bush want popular fiction, children's books and popular nonfiction, Smith says.

"They tell us what they want--either they give us titles or they just specify a subject--and then we choose the collections," he says.

Joe Delia, who says he'll often rise at 3 a.m. to finish a Louis L'Amour novel or maybe a spy thriller by Robert Ludlum, has been a patron of the bush library service for at least 20 years, longer than almost anyone else. Once in a while, he says, he'll open a fresh sack of six or 10 books only to find he's already read them.

"The more I read the more I want to read," says Delia, 59.

"When we had nothing to read in the trap line cabins--and this is no joke--we'd read the labels on cans.

"I used to be able to tell you all the ingredients in a can of Carnation milk. I didn't pronounce it all correctly, but I knew them."

In Juneau or Fairbanks or Anchorage, where a computer helps track the book requests, librarians too can follow a family's progress by the books they want. After a few years of being a family's personal book shopper, library workers get Christmas cards or friendly notes.

"We keep up a lot of correspondence," says Brenda Bergsrud, who works with the program at Anchorage's Z.J. Loussac Library.

"A parent will write and say, 'Tanya likes horses, so send us horse books.' And then Tanya will send us a picture of a horse. We start to feel like family."

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