By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — Nine months into a new effort to provide a library-in-your-mailbox service to rural residents, the Blue Earth County Library is making another attempt to promote the program that serves as the replacement for the traditional bookmobile that previously motored across the county every two weeks.
It's free, it's easy, it's relatively fast and Library Director Tim Hayes isn't sure why the mail-based alternative isn't more popular.
"It's kind of gotten off to a little bit of a slow start," Hayes said. "We just wanted to remind people that it's out there."
The service is available anywhere in the county that doesn't have a public library. Essentially, that means anyone not living in Mankato, Mapleton or Lake Crystal. Residents of those cities are expected to make their way to their branch library, but any other county resident can request a book, magazine, DVD or other library item by phone or online and it will be mailed to their home.
Along with the book comes a postage-paid envelope to use when returning the item.
Hayes said the system has worked well for the people who have tried it, and those people tend to be repeat patrons. Word of mouth also is helping it to grow.
Still, he thinks there are many people, including teens and other younger readers on farms and in small towns, who would love the service if they gave it a shot.
"It's that first leap of faith (that's required)," Hayes said.
The only other thing that's required is a library card, and Hayes said even that can be obtained over the phone or online.
The mail service is one of two approaches the county has implemented since dropping bookmobile service, which the county had contracted with the North Mankato Taylor Library to provide bi-weekly to towns such as Madison Lake, St. Clair, Garden City, Good Thunder, Vernon Center, Pemberton and Amboy.
The other service provides a variety of books at a public location in each town, using the honor system rather than a traditional check-out. Residents can take any book and return it when they're done. The library intermittently changes out the books.
The mail service, though, should have real appeal. Patrons can request not just books and movies on the shelves of the Mankato library (which will be mailed that day), they can also ask for items at any other library in Minnesota via the cooperative sharing agreement between libraries statewide (although that means a longer wait).
The Blue Earth County Board cut its payment to North Mankato for bookmobile service from $35,000 to $10,000 as part of a budget-cutting process in 2011. In 2012, citing changing technology among readers, the board eliminated the service completely.
Considering the cost of the bookmobile, Hayes says there's no danger of the mail-based service ending up being more expensive if the program takes off in coming years. The library doesn't have to pay first-class postage, and costs are controlled by a rule limiting patrons to five mailings a month.
People interested in trying the program can click on the "rural library services" line on the library website or call Kathy at 304-4021 to request a book or other item by phone. Because it's web-based and the phone number includes voicemail, the service is available a bit more often than either the bookmobile or the branch libraries.
"You can call it at 2 o'clock in the morning," Hayes said. "It's available 24/7."