Shortly after the birth of the Whitman County Rural Library District in 1945, a library headquarters was established in a Colfax building that formerly housed a saloon.

According to current Whitman County Library Director Kristie Kirkpatrick, legend has it that drunken visitors would sometimes stumble in looking for a drink but leave with books instead.

That is one of the many tales that comprise the Whitman County Library District’s rich 75-year history.

The COVID-19 pandemic means there are no planned public celebrations of the anniversary, but Kirkpatrick said the library wishes to express its gratitude to the communities that have supported it for three-quarters of a century.

She said the library system that has connected folks across the county with books and other important resources has survived because communities on the Palouse value education.

“I think people here are really quite educated and committed to that,” she said.

Catalina Flores, Whitman County Library’s public services manager, said the library’s success hinges on understanding what patrons want from their local library. Flores said libraries provide them with materials they desire, electronic resources they need or simply a place for them to hang out.

“Our mentality is making sure all of our patrons are happy with the services we provide,” she said.

According to Kirkpatrick, the library system began in 1945 thanks to a petition of 300 signatures sent to county commissioners. The district once grew to 25 branches, located in town halls and railroad sidings in places like Elberton, Hay and Belmont. The district encompassed 2,200 square miles.

By the 1950’s, a bookmobile was added to better serve the region, visiting schools, branch libraries and people’s homes. It operated until the 1990s.

“For WCL’s 60th anniversary in 2005, my staff and I took turns following all of the old bookmobile routes through the backroads of the county, to schools, to people’s homes and even grain elevators and highway crossings where it would stop,” Kirkpatrick said.

During the 2000s, there were major library renovations in Rosalia, Endicott and Uniontown, and the district celebrated the completion of $1.5 million dollars in renovations to Colfax Library and The Bettie Steiger Community Center in Colfax.

Now the district has 14 branches and provides not only books, but educational programs for children and adults. According to Kirkpatrick, the Whitman County Rural Library District serves nearly 16,000 people.

Among the toughest challenges the library has dealt with over the years is keeping up with fast-moving technology.

In 1988, the district’s card catalogue was replaced by an automated library catalogue that relied on radios and repeaters. Then, the internet came along in the 1990s.

“It took us so long to get the internet to work between branches,” she said.

It got a boost from Bill Gates, who donated $104,000 worth of computing and connectivity solutions from the Microsoft Foundation in 2002. The billionaire even paid a visit to Whitman County Library that year. Technology now allows people to access the library’s books, movies and classes through its website.

While the pandemic has upended the way it operates for now, it has found ways to reach out to the community.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Whitman County Rural Library District has partnered with Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories to deliver hands-on activity bags, called STEM Kits, to children in grades K-6 at schools across the county. It has even donated its 3D printer to a local engineer to make face shields for Whitman Medical Center staff.

Kirkpatrick said people have called and emailed the library staff saying how much they miss it.

“To me it’s been really affirming that people are so anxious for us to open,” she said.

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at akuipers@dnews.com.

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