The University of Alberta's Extension Library is one of the province's oldest, best used and most appreciated institutions. It has been serving Alberta for most of the twentieth century and the chances are that if you ask a native Albertan if he has heard of it, he will tell you that at one time or another his family received books from it. Rural Albertans are still receiving books from it.
The library was founded in 1913, and was the brain-child of Henry Marshall Tory. Dr. Tory believed that a fledgling university in a pioneer area was duty bound to extend its resources to all the people of the province. The Extension Library was an obvious means of furthering this aim.
The library began with 1,000 books and a budget of $600 — a far cry from its present book stock of 90,000 volumes and its present costs. The books were divided into lots of thirty to forty and packaged in heavy, grey, wooden crates to be sent as travelling libraries to any settlement in the Province of Alberta which requested one.
The travelling libraries were very popular but it became apparent that more individual choice was wanted by the library's users. In 1915 the Open Shelf Library was started and this soon out-stripped the travelling libraries in popularity.
The travelling libraries have long since ceased to be a major component of the library's service, although they have not entirely disappeared. Blocks of twenty books on a particular subject are still sent to community groups and clubs, but they now account for less than five percent of the library's circulation. The Open Shelf Library service continues to flourish.
Today, the largest part of the library's service is to isolated families in rural Alberta. Although the library does very little advertising, requests for membership are received daily.
Presumably, readers tell their friends about the library and so the knowledge spreads. When an enquiry is received, information about the service and an application form are sent by return mail and books are sent as soon as the completed application form is received by the library. Readers may request from one to eight books in each parcel and may receive one or two parcels per month. Alternatively, they may state that they wish to borrow books only occasionally and will request them as needed. Otherwise books are sent to a reader as soon as he returns those he has read. Readers do not need to write every time they want books, provided that they have given the library a list of the titles they want to read, or a list of their interests, so that books can be selected for them. The library now serves approximately 10,000 individuals and circulates approximately 150,000 books to them each year.
In deference to the principle that information should be free, there is no charge for membership in the library and postage is prepaid. Books are sent by regular mail at the special library rate.
In order to provide readers with as close an approximation of normal library service as possible, the library produces and makes available, copies of its catalogue and booklists. The catalogue is divided into twelve sections and readers select those sections which are of interest to them. There are also over two hundred book lists from which they may choose, on subjects ranging from "Aviation" to "Women's New Role."
The library is now in the process of automating its production of book lists and catalogues. For many years these were updated by hand. That is, they were completely re-typed every two or three years: a long and expensive process. Some years ago a very abbreviated catalogue was entered into the University's computer system. This allowed additions and deletions to be made without re-typing the whole, but the program used was extremely limited and did not allow the library to generate its book lists from this data base. Within the last year the decision was made to transfer the whole catalogue to a system operated by the University's Department of Computing Services (SPIRES: the Stanford Public Information Retrieval System). The result is a temporary suspension of additions to the data base until all corrections have been made and each record has been completed, but the eventual advantages will compensate for this inconvenience many times over. Eventually, the library will be able to generate many more book lists than it currently produces, will be able to dispense with its card catalogue, and will be in a position to automate several of its other functions.
The library's services are not restricted to those already mentioned. A reference or information service is available to the library's members. Information is sought by our readers on a wide variety of topics. These range from materials for continuing education projects, to help with personal and family related problems; from wilderness survival information, to material for a new novel. High school students frequently request information to support school projects. They are, however, often naive about our ability to serve them. One individual wrote "Please rush, report is due next week" and signed himself, "Worried student." Well might he be! Another reader asked for catalogue numbers of some of Holbein's drawing at Windsor Castle. Later, she wrote to thank us for the information. She had visited Windsor and the drawings had been laid out for her to see.
The most important of the library's secondary services is the result of cooperation among the Faculty of Extension, the University Library, and Alberta Culture. This is the inter-library loan service. The Faculty of Extension receives requests from other libraries throughout Alberta for materials wanted by their patrons but which they do not own. Our staff search in our own collection and if unable to find the desired material, search in the University Library which allows a special long loan period. Alberta Culture provides a grant to support the service. The library handled over 10,000 such requests last year.
Since the demands on the library were expected to lessen as new libraries opened in the rural areas, various new services were added to those mentioned above. In fact, demands on the library's service have not decreased (circulation reach almost 173,000 last year) but the new services went ahead anyway.
About five years ago, the library instituted its service to the fire-towers. A letter was sent to the Forestry School at Hinton offering library service to fire tower personnel. The offer was seized upon with delight and the special service to fire-towers is now flourishing. Letters requesting service begin to arrive as early as March and the first shipment, double the usual quantity, is sent to coincide with the arrival of personnel on their towers. At the end of the month, half the shipment is returned so that patrons still have books to read whilst awaiting their next parcel. Special arrangements are made regarding overdue books because of the limitations imposed by our readers' dependence on occasional helicopter service.
Another service that was started approximately four years ago was the service to the provincial penitentiaries. "Books by mail" simplifies security procedures and parcels can be sent back and forth without frisking personnel or wasting prison officials' time and energy in endless checking. The service has caused some amusement in the library. Inmates, never loathe to test the limits, asked for books on how to make marijuana, how to crack a safe, etc. After it became apparent that such requests were fruitless they settled down to using the library in more appropriate ways, and although there are still strong demands for fiction, many ask for scholarly materials. One is left to wonder how people with such ability found their way to prison.
One of the library's less successful efforts has been its service to the handicapped. A deposit of talking books was provided by Alberta Culture but, in spite of extensive advertising, the service did not grow. It seems probable, now, that those with handicaps severe enough to entitle them to use the talking books find it necessary to live near enough to urban areas to be within reach of medical facilities. Consequently, these people would not be entitled to membership in this library because urban areas provide their own library services.
Two new services are now being introduced. Last September, the library was invited to assist the Faculty of Education in the provision of learning resource materials to students doing their teaching practicum in areas outside Edmonton. The library's staff was glad to help in this way and we are hopeful that the service will be continued and extended next year.
The other new service is the provision of texts and resource material to teachers of English as a Second Language. Alberta Advanced Education and Manpower provided the materials and the library received its first request for service in April, 1981.
Of course, today, no library's service would be considered complete whose materials were restricted to the English language. The Extension Library's major collection is in English but it has a small collection of French materials and has at various times borrowed materials in Ukrainian, German, Hungarian, Chinese and Spanish from Alberta Culture's Multi-Lingual Biblio-Service. The library has always aimed to provide a highly personalized and responsive service to its readers. When the big, orange crates full of book parcels arrive in the library each morning and the parcels are opened, the signal is given to prepare new shipments for the readers whose books have just been returned. The attempt is made to ship the new parcels back to our readers with twenty-four hours. On some days too many parcels arrive and it is impossible to complete the cycle within the allotted time, so some members are kept waiting. The choice is between mindless efficiency and careful, personal service. A library cannot choose to pursue the first alternative. It is perhaps indicative of our readers' positive attitude toward the service that they always blame the Post Office, not us, for delays (even when it's our fault!) In fact, few letters arrive which do not contain high praise for the service and an incredulous gratitude that it continues to exist. One lady wrote in panic when her books were not waiting for her when she returned home after a six month absence, "I dread to ask if the Extension Library has folded up, as after decades of reading from it, I would be lost indeed were that the case." Another wrote, "What a great service to offer! When you live thirty miles from a library it's sure a nice feeling to know that you have your books safely at home and ready access to more."
And what of the future? The library provides rural Albertans with access to a major library collection, and probably few libraries have been so greatly appreciated by their clientele. With the advent of the home computer, teleconferencing and other means of achieving distance adult education, the Extension Library will presumably be in even greater demand as support for these activities becomes a matter of urgent necessity. Distance education, should require distance library service, and Extension is in a position to provide it.
Published August 1981.