A Snapshot of Our Nation’s Bookmobiles

On the road again

April 16, 2013

National Bookmobile Day, April 17, celebrated during National Library Week, is a chance for libraries and patrons to recognize and honor mobile services and the dedicated employees who ensure that patrons who are unable to reach brick-and-mortar libraries can still receive library services. Here are examples of several public libraries that offer bookmobile service and how they are helping their communities:

  • Aurora Public Library bookmobile Aurora (Ill.) Public Library’s Outreach Services Department (OSD) serves residents of the state’s second-largest city with a minivan and a 41-foot-long bookmobile. OSD has bilingual employees who help serve a population that is more than 40% Spanish speaking. The bookmobile makes both school and community stops and is available for special events, including parades and festivals. The minivan makes weekly lobby stops to serve senior citizens (who can also participate in the homebound program, OSD’s fastest-growing service). Additionally, the department provides an express center, deposits collections in nursing homes, has a traveling storytime service, organizes summer stories in the park, provides popular fiction to public middle-school and high school media centers, and has senior programming. It’s a “busy department with enthusiastic staff members,” says Kathleen Butzen, manager of OSD and the library’s satellite Express Center.
  • Jefferson–Madison Regional LibraryThe Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been offering bookmobile service since 1946. The system started with a single downtown library and two bookmobiles that served the surrounding counties; it has since grown to nine brick-and-mortar libraries and one bookmobile. The bookmobile now focuses on preschoolers and senior communities, with a few rural and cul-de-sac stops included. The bookmobile is the only link many JMRL patrons have to the library. Bookmobile Branch Manager Willow Gale says that after one bookmobile patron recently died, the patron’s daughter and grandchildren visited the bookmobile to tell the children on board that reading was important. “One of the best aspects of bookmobile service is the relationship we develop with our patrons,” Gale says.
  • Chemung County Library DistrictThe Chemung County (N.Y.) Library District’s bookmobile serves the entire county and visits senior centers, day cares, pre-K classes, as well as other stops in the community. The bookmobile also appears at Saturday community events and festivals. Bookmobile driver Kimberly Jones shares two stories from both ends of the patron age spectrum: A preschooler once asked the bookmobile clerk, “Are you my grandma?” and made both Jones and the clerk “feel like we really do reach out and touch some lives.” And an elderly patron confided that she had visited the bookmobile as a child, and now that she is elderly and cannot get around easily, would have given up reading if it wasn’t for the bookmobile.
  • Everett Public Library (Photo by Washington State Library)Theresa Gemmer, former outreach librarian at the Everett (Wash.) Public Library, shares two stories from her days on the library’s bookmobile: At a rural stop, a man in coveralls peeked into the bookmobile and asked, “What kind of rig is this?” Gemmer invited him in, to which he proudly replied, “I haven’t read a book since high school.” However, he began to check out car repair manuals and came to the bookmobile for help when he needed to reroof his house. When he married, he brought his wife in so she could get information about plants for making natural dyes and later for books when they were expecting their first child. Gemmer says, “I am willing to bet he still hasn’t read a book since high school, but through the bookmobile he found out that the library has a lot to offer, and he became a library user and supporter.” Another story she shared involves a stop in a subsidized housing complex with many new immigrants. “A small boy came in clutching a library card application and handed it to me saying only, ‘Book?’ As his English improved, he became a voracious reader and stopped to visit regularly even when he had outgrown the collection on our children’s bookmobile. We gave him lots of support as he worried his way through the college application process. That young man received a Gates Millennium scholarship, which he used to earn his college degree at Stanford.”
  • Laramie County Library SystemSusan Parkins, outreach specialist at the Laramie County (Wyo.) Library System, drives the bookmobile 120 miles round trip to serve her most distant patrons. Parkins says of the elementary school in Horse Creek, 40 miles northwest of Cheyenne, “I believe it is definitely a worthwhile stop, even if there are only three students and the teacher. They all love to have the bookmobile stop by and it gives them a lot more options than their small school library can offer.”
  • Rochester Hills Public LibraryThe Rochester Hills (Mich.) Public Library has a fleet of two bookmobiles that cover 72 square miles weekly. They stop at schools, churches, and shopping centers throughout several communities. The second bookmobile (pictured) visits day cares and preschools to focus on children from birth to age 5. Patrons include those with limited transportation, who speak English as a second language, have limited physical mobility, or are job seekers. Karen Wiedman, outreach and bookmobile librarian, shares this quote from a satisfied patron: “I walk to the bookmobile and experience the best that the library has to offer. [Staff members] help me find the hidden gems of books that I would never have considered reading … and their encouragement to branch out from my normal reading patterns has opened me up to new authors and genres.”
  • Wayne County Public LibraryNearly 80% of patrons served by the two bookmobiles at the Wayne County (Ohio) Public Library are Amish. An average of 20,000 items per month are circulated to nearly 3,000 patrons that visit the 75 stops on the three-week schedule. Patti Stevic, bookmobile manager, says, “Our reward is knowing we are bringing a much needed service to a segment of our local population that otherwise would not benefit from all the library has to offer them, as well as others who live in the outskirts of our county who take advantage of connecting to the library through the bookmobile.” She adds, “Just today I had the privilege of checking out to the ‘bookmobile lady’ I knew when I was growing up. I like knowing that I am now ‘the bookmobile lady’ to the patrons I am here to serve.”

To all those who serve and support our country’s bookmobiles, we say thank you. Happy National Bookmobile Day.