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Vending Machines Take Place of Libraries in Rural North Dakota

Rural parts of the state are seeing 24/7 book vending machines in places like city halls. The machines are meant to bridge the gap for areas not populated enough for a full-time library.

a person looking at books in a vending machine
(TNS) — McClusky Mayor Bryon Belile isn't sure why his city and surrounding Sheridan County don't have a public library.

"I guess it never occurred to anybody. Nobody really pushed it, I suppose," he said.

McClusky residents instead have a book swap by the grocery store, which also buys and sells used books "because there's no other deal in town, really," but for school libraries, the mayor said.

Now readers in one of North Dakota's least-populated counties are getting a new option: a book vending machine available 24/7 year-round at City Hall.

"I like it. I know a lot of the people in town are pretty excited about it," said Belile, a Louis L'Amour fan who has his own library of 300-400 books, which he chuckles he's halfway through reading.

North Dakota's State Library is using over $913,000 of federal American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus aid to fund the statewide project, including books. The 10 machines cost $772,000.

Five counties in North Dakota have no public libraries within their borders — Oliver, Sheridan, Sioux, Slope and Steele — and nearly two dozen don't have countywide library service.

The machines are a response to the coronavirus pandemic, albeit "a little bit late," State Librarian Mary Soucie said. Most public libraries were closed for a short time in 2020, and almost all did some form of curbside service for patrons.

The machines are a way to get materials to people who have no access to libraries or the State Library's ebook collection, "bridging the digital divide," Soucie said.

"Part of our mission is to serve the unserved or those who are underserved," she said.

The State Library initially leaned toward bookmobiles, but arrival time, weather and staff to drive the vehicles were concerns. The machines were "a better solution" and don't require additional staff, Soucie said.

Oliver County has no public library but for the school library in Center. That facility has limited hours, and many residents don't know about it, County Extension Agent Rick Schmidt said. His office neighbors the book vending machine delivered recently to the County Courthouse.

"There's a wealth of knowledge in this world, and I think people need to have access to a place to go and find that information," he said. "I'm a believer that it's better for us to have it in a book form than it is to be glancing at our phones for long periods of time, too."

He expects good utilization of the machine when it's in operation and accessible at least during work hours. The county is awaiting books for the machine.

"There's an audience there that I think this is going to be very beneficial for," Schmidt said.

The State Library is eyeing the end of March to get the machines fully operational and to catalog their books.

One machine was installed recently at the state Capitol, what Soucie called "a great opportunity" for state employees and lawmakers to see the machine. It will be there through February, then go to a permanent location to be determined.

Other machine locations, all indoors, include:
  • Mountain Lakes Human Service Zone Office in Fort Fotten
  • Burke County Courthouse in Bowbells
  • McHenry County Courthouse in Towner
  • Sargent County Courthouse in Forman
  • Sioux County Courthouse in Fort Yates
  • Slope County Courthouse in Amidon
  • Agassiz Valley Human Service Zone Office in Hillsboro

The machines are of no cost to the communities, which provide electrical and Internet access.

Two collections of books — which came in more than 250 boxes weighing nearly 4 tons — will fill the machines, one collection each for five machines, enabling the State Library to swap out books. Other items such as DVDs might come down the road, Soucie said.

Each machine holds 228 items, a mixture of adult and kids books. Adjusting the machines' weight-bearing components could allow up to 400 items inside, Soucie said.

Patrons walk up, scan their State Library card, browse the machine's collection, make a selection and pull the book from a door. Patrons also may return State Library books to machines.

Anyone within North Dakota can obtain a State Library card. The State Library mails books to patrons through interlibrary loan service. Soucie said the machines could eliminate or minimize patrons' postage costs for book returns.

The machines will be permanent, unless local partners determine "that it's not working for them to host; then we could move them to another location," Soucie said.

McClusky's mayor said libraries enable people to educate themselves and peruse books they might not want to buy.

"I don't know if there's a book club yet, but I imagine there will be because there's a group that book-shares now, and they're the ones that are really excited," Belile said.

©2023 The Bismarck Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.