Why a bookmobile? Well, how about a little bookmobile history

With public libraries having multiple branches in a variety of locations, the growth of the internet, and the relative ease of private and public transportation, you may wonder, why a bookmobile?  First a little history, then the big reveal.  Stick with me, it’s worth it.

A little (Texascentric) bookmobile history

(Texas information drawn largely from “‘How Can We Fail?’ The Texas State Library’s Traveling Libraries and Bookmobiles, 1916 – 1966” by Jennifer Cummings, published in Vol 44, No. 3 of Libraries & the Cultural Record)

1890s – 1900s

Bookmobile services started in a less connected time, at the turn of the twentieth century, when roads were largely unpaved, rural citizens were isolated by location and a hardy, time consuming way of life, and the public library was just beginning to resemble its current incarnation.  In particular, many Texas communities were without public libraries and those libraries that did exist spent all of their time and effort to stay afloat.  These libraries did not have the time or resources to expand their services in new ways, but rather focused on building a necessary foundation.  In this environment, traveling libraries and bookmobiles emerged, not from the library, but from the community.

Backed largely by women’s clubs devoted to education, the earliest traveling libraries were mainly resource-sharing endeavors in which boxes of books were shipped from location to location.  Houston’s own Ladies’ Reading Club led Texas in number of circulating materials, with over 400 adult books and 1200 children’s books spread throughout Harris County.  These materials were packed 50 books to a hinged case that could be transported from place to place (302).  To participate in this traveling library program, the community had to fill out an application and a community volunteer had to step forward and claim the title “librarian”.  These community members were not trained librarians and found themselves having to mix the often complicated task of running a library with their normal lives:

Once the collection arrived, the volunteer custodian was burdened with an abundance of duties that included receiving the library, checking the shipment against a typewritten list, and sending confirmation of the box’s contents to the state library. He or she then had to display, arrange, and dust the books while reminding patrons of proper handling practices and keeping a record of those to whom books were issued.  Additional chores included collecting fines for overdue, damaged, or lost books and advertising the traveling library with signs provided by the state library and created by the custodian.  All of these tasks were expected of a volunteer who likely had not been trained in librarianship and who certainly had to attend to the demands of his or her own life (305 – 306).

1920s – 1940s

These traveling collections gained in popularity and demand, and by the late 1920s, the Texas State Library had taken over the program, expanded its selection with donated books, and started circulating special school collections.  The program’s popularity continued, straining the TSL’s resources and budget, leading to the consolidation of the adult, children, and school materials into one card catalog and the need to hire individuals to oversee these collections.  At the same time, Texas libraries were starting to boom with the addition of county libraries in 1920.  By 1935, Texas had 14 country libraries, by 1940, that number had doubled and continued to grow, with the existence of 30 county libraries (308).  These new libraries brought new librarians with the time and opportunity to innovate.  Combining the still relatively new automobile with the concept of the traveling library collection, the bookmobile started to gain a foothold over the traditional traveling libraries.

1940s – 1960s

The inherent mobility of the bookmobile was a huge advantage – while cases of traveling library books may have sat untouched in certain locations, the bookmobile was able to move between multiple communities in a single day.  Moreover, the bookmobile was in itself a welcome wagon – an introduction to library services on wheels, with a smaller, less intimidating collection overseen by trained library staff.  It fostered face to face interactions between community members and the library, creating new connections with each stop.

The Jefferson County bookmobile: The first bookmobile in Texas

The first bookmobile in Texas was a donation from W. C. Tyrrell, a local philanthropist in Beaumont.  In 1930, the Tyrrell Public Library received a bookmobile that could hold 14,000 items, with shelving on the inside and outside.  This first bookmobile was actually rented out across the county, with the TSL itself borrowing the bookmobile multiple times (309).  The bookmobile bug spread fast throughout Texas, with 33 bookmobiles traversing the state by the early 1940s.  Nationwide, the bookmobile boom was in full swing by the 1950s, and Texas was no exception, with bookmobiles reaching more than 40 Texas counties between 1958 and 1960.  The bookmobiles were welcomed by communities, with “baked goods, music by the school marching band, or a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony” (314).  Sadly, the excitement over the bookmobiles did not match their staffing or funding.  Across the nation, bookmobile numbers peaked in the 1960s and then steadily dropped to current levels.

Bookmobiles in operation

Present day

Now, bookmobiles are a rarity in many areas.  The entirety of Texas had only 12 bookmobiles in 2005 (as reported by the State Department of Education) and the number of reported bookmobiles dropped to 8 in the 2009 Public Libraries in the United States Survey.  Considering that Texas is third among the states in number of public libraries (with 559) and is second in land area, there is a very real gap in library resources and library services.  And that’s where we come in.

The big reveal

As Cummings so eloquently puts it, “traveling libraries and bookmobiles were products of the ideals and concerns of their times” (318).  In a time when few had access to libraries, let alone books, traveling libraries and bookmobiles brought the books to the people, removing the distance between readers and their libraries.  “In both programs librarians wrestled with the challenges of poor funding, poor support, and too few staff stretched too thin” (318) – sound familiar?  If you work in a public library, visit your public library, or just watched or read your local or national news, it should.  Libraries today find themselves facing these same problems – poor funding, poor support (largely from the government, the public is pulling out all the stops), and too few staff stretched too thin.

The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library leaps through time and space to connect the very best elements of bookmobiles with current needs.  Just as the first Texas traveling libraries sprang out of community involvement, the BPTL is harnessing the power and passion of its local community and supporters around the country to crowdfund its start.  Just as early librarians recognized the immense outreach opportunities of the bookmobile, we (as two recently minted information professionals) dream of the potential positive impact on the community, connecting community members with needed resources.  And just as libraries once struggled to fully support their patrons due to lack of materials and funds, libraries now struggle to maintain staff and resources to provide outreach.

So that’s why we’re here.  We’re here for you – community members in need of information (whether that’s how to write a resume, where to learn about new technologies, or just a good book), organizations who lack adequate resources or just need a little extra (like a public library who wants to get library cards in the hands of people who aren’t coming to the library or a school who wants its students to get excited about learning and reading), and most of all, anyone with a desire to better themselves and their world.

We’re YOUR bookmobile.  So invest in yourself, invest in your community, and invest in the future of culture, information, and lifelong learning.  Become a member, spread the word, and above all, get excited, because we are.


3 thoughts on “Why a bookmobile? Well, how about a little bookmobile history

  1. Pingback: Critical Linking: October 20, 2012 | BOOK RIOT

  2. Pingback: The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library Hits the Road

  3. Pingback: Go West, Young Library! (or, The Giraffes Died of Natural Causes) | The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library

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