Bookmobiles: A Proud History, a Promising Future

Posted Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 10:27
On National Bookmobile Day, the mobile libraries are running strong
El Paso Public Library’s bookmobile brings technology and internet access to one of the poorest counties in the country.
The Salem County (N.J.) Bookmobile Library delivers services to migrant workers, one of the country’s most vulnerable groups.

Bookmobiles have a proud history of service dating back to the late 1850s, when a horse-drawn collection of books began making the rounds in Cumbria, England. Here in the United States, the first bookmobile is widely attributed to Mary Lemist Titcomb, a librarian in Washington County, Maryland, who in 1905 posited “Would not a Library Wagon, the outward and visible signs of the service for which the Library stood, do much more in cementing friendship?”

Today, bookmobiles are still going strong, with more than 900 such mobile libraries still providing the same spirit of community—indeed, friendship—through innovative new services in cities, towns, and rural areas.

“I truly feel that most people would tell you that the physical library is an important and necessary part of any community,” says Brad Thomas, outreach manager of the Tulsa City-County (Okla.) Library and president of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services. “But for those of us who relied on bookmobile service for economic, geographic, or physical reasons, the bookmobile was not only the library, it was our library. When we couldn’t make it to the library, the library came to us,” Thomas said.

Over the past several years, bookmobile services have expanded to include new materials—computers, internet workstations, DVDs, video games, and even e-readers—and new programs, such as storytimes, career readiness, and English-language classes.

For the Memphis (Tenn.) Public Library and Information Center, introducing their new mobile job and career center, JobLINC, allowed the library to provide job-readiness workshops, one-on-one job search assistance, information on training opportunities, résumé help, and community information and referrals. Without the bookmobile, many members of the community may otherwise not have had access to these important library services.

At El Paso (Tex.) Public Library, the bookmobile plays an integral role bringing technology and internet connectivity to one of the poorest counties in the country. It makes regular stops through its city of 800,000, where 28% of the population lives below the poverty level and one in three adults is functionally illiterate. The library offers classes for adult learners at all branch locations, but lack of transportation can make it difficult for some patrons to attend. With funding from the “American Dream Starts @ your library” grant, the library was able to purchase bookmobile laptops for conducting job searches, filling out job applications, and computer training.

Another “American Dream Starts @ your library” recipient, the Salem County (N.J.) Bookmobile Library, added two new stops—one at a local convenience store and a second at a church—to its 43-stop route. The effort will help the library reach one of the country’s most vulnerable groups: migrant workers. The library stocked the bookmobile with new dictionaries, phrase books, language videos, and Spanish-English books.

Bookmobiles have a proud legacy of service, which continues to this day. This National Bookmobile Day, lend them your support so they can serve generations to come.

JOHN AMUNDSEN is communications specialist for ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services.