Custom Library Book Bikes Roll Out Across US

Posted Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 11:13
Libraries from Cleveland to Seattle have adopted special bike programs to carry books and services around town with old-fashioned pedal power
Denver Public Library's Zac Laugheed standing next to one of the library's DPL Connect bikes. The pedal-powered service circulates books, provides a wireless hotspot, assists with library card sign-ups, and more.

In Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where winter temperatures reached a record low of –11°F the first week of January 2014, many bicyclists would have likely opted to drive. But for one librarian and avid bike rider, the weather was no obstacle for his commitment to his library’s book bike program.

“We were lucky with the weather, really,” Eric Litschel, adult services associate at Cleveland Heights–University Heights Public Library (CHUHPL), tells American Libraries. “The worst day I rode was probably a little over 10 degrees.”CHUHPL staff member Brian Hare assists a student at Heights High School in Ohio. (Photo: Sam Lapides)

Sam Lapides, special projects coordinator at CHUHPL, says the library’s Book Bike program, initiated in spring 2013, was supposed to run for only spring, summer, and fall. But the zeal of participants like Litschel made it a successful yearlong program.

Beginning as a pilot in which volunteers and staff rode a custom-made Haley cargo tricycle, loaded with books to give away at local events and facilities, Book Bike is evolving into an extension of the checkout desk. Riders now carry circulating materials to nearby John Carroll University, where people can check out CHUHPL materials using software it shares with the university library. Book Bike riders also carry a tablet with which they can showcase library services and materials, but plans are in motion to turn the tablet into a full-fledged circulation device with OverDrive.  

CHUHPL’s Book Bike program is modeled after a similar one started by Pima County (Ariz.) Public Library (PCPL) in 2012. Also supplied with a custom Haley tricycle, PCPL’s Bookbike program is devoted to simply giving books away.

“We just kind of jumped into it,” says Karen Greene, adult services librarian and Bookbike coordinator at PCPL, who says the library did not have a trial run or pilot program before launching. Simplicity has meant great success. With donations arriving from individuals and a local bookstore, Bookbike gave away more than 12,000 books in 2013. “One of my dreams is world domination by Bookbike,” Greene jokes.Denver Public Library's DPL Connect program brings library services directly to patrons.

The genesis for reference librarian Zac Laugheed’s book bike program at Denver Public Library (DPL) came while he was in library school. “Zac made a quip to a professor who was researching mobile library services, and said, ‘When I come to your class, I’m a bookmobile on a bike,’” Chris Henning, marketing and public relations manager at DPL, tells AL, referring to the heavy reading load. “The class laughed and moved on, but he kept thinking about the idea.”

In 2013, that idea developed into DPL Connect, a bike-powered service that circulates books; provides a wireless hotspot; and assists with research, ebook downloads, and library card sign-ups. For now, the entire program is run by Laugheed.

At Seattle Public Library (SPL), staff riders of Books on Bikes—also started in 2013—travel to city events and facilities using a specially made trailer hitched to their personal bikes, with which riders can provide all services except accepting returns and overdue fines. The trailer carries 75 items at a time from the program’s collection of 400 titles; provides a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot to both patrons and the tablet-carrying rider; and is not mistaken for an ice cream freezer—an issue cited by both CHUHPL and PCPL.

“Seattle has a very strong and rich bike culture, and I wanted to find a way to tap into that while thinking about a way to make library services more nimble,” says Jared Mills, Montlake branch librarian and creator of the Books on Bikes program.

Funding

Funding sources for these projects vary. CHUHPL and PCPL sought outside sources for their custom tricycles, each costing just under $2,000, with CHUHPL receiving a donation from its Friends group and PCPL receiving a grant from the Arizona state library system. Both programs operate with help from librarians and volunteers.

SPL subsidized its program through an internal innovation fund, covering the $3,500 book collection, the $1,000 trailer, and its $200 promotional banner mounted on the trailer’s roof. The program is staffed by 11 librarians and bicycling paraprofessionals.

DPL took a similar route, funding its program with an internal Risky Business challenge—a way to encourage staff to develop innovative ideas. Pedal Positive, a small Colorado-based custom bicycle company, created a prototype tricycle that Laugheed helped design.

How to get started

Lapides of CHUHPL advises librarians interested in starting similar programs to first consider a community’s physical space. Are roads bike friendly—especially if your cyclists will be burdened with a heavy stash of books? He suggests contacting local cycling clubs or advocacy groups to find volunteers. CHUHPL’s Book Bike program owes its ability to venture out into the community—often four times a month—to a core group of volunteer riders from the local Heights Bicycle Coalition.

But even if a program has riders, figuring what the program can do may remain a challenge. Laugheed lauded the benefits of lending circulating materials wherever he goes. Achieving this required DPL’s tech team to set his laptop up with a remote connection to the library’s Polaris database.

Another consideration is training, especially in the case of custom-made tricycles. CHUHPL staffers went so far as to create an obstacle course in the library’s empty parking lot to give volunteers a feel for the unusual bike.

“The real gauntlet is just riding around the city,” Litschel says. “It’s almost like a wild animal; you need to get to know its tendencies.”

PCPL’s Greene provides this piece of advice: “Do it. It’s totally fun, people love it, you will interact with people who have not been in the library for years and get them interested in the library again. It’s great publicity, because everyone falls in love with it.”

CHRIS FRANCIS is the former editorial intern at American Libraries.

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