Reimagining the Bookmobile

How libraries are adapting outreach services to COVID-19

June 25, 2020

Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services Past-President Susan Parkins and President Cathy Zimmerman
Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services Past-President Susan Parkins and President Cathy Zimmerman

How has the pandemic changed the way libraries provide services beyond their brick-and-mortar spaces?

At “Outdoing Outreach in a Post–COVID-19 World,” a June 25 live session at ALA Virtual, two Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS) board members discussed how their work has evolved in the face of coronavirus.

“We woke up one morning and the entire world had changed,” said Cathy Zimmerman, ABOS president and bookmobile associate at Scott County (Iowa) Library System. She remembered that after the first few days of sheltering in place, she took a deep breath and thought: “Okay, we can work with this.”

Zimmerman and ABOS Past-President Susan Parkins, senior outreach specialist at Laramie County (Wyo.) Library System, were used to outreach methods rooted in face-to-face relationships. They recounted all of the work they—and other bookmobile teams across the country—were doing leading up the pandemic: visiting daycare centers and homebound people; bringing fidget quilts and travel-themed activities to memory-care centers and seniors; offering hop-on programs, where users could board the bookmobile; and marketing their library’s services at community events.

And now?

“We are a resourceful group. We are daily reimagining our outreach world,” said Zimmerman. Adaptation has heralded creative additions, including making contactless deliveries and quarantining materials; reading stories and poems by phone; hosting virtual versions of game shows, like Family Feud, Jeopardy!, and Wheel of Fortune; and relying heavily on virtual tours made available by zoos, museums, and other cultural institutions.

“We are spending more time on the phone with patrons, sending emails,” said Zimmerman, “and where possible, we became Skype and FaceTime friends.”

Still, some services remain the same. Parkins explained that bookmobiles continue to provide Wi-Fi to areas with low broadband internet connectivity, and some have resumed hop-on programs, albeit only letting one or two people board the bookmobile at a time.

“We have always disinfected the inside of our vehicles, especially when we go to school stops,” said Parkins. “This practice isn’t new, but we’re meeting it with new diligence.”

The central mission of the bookmobile hasn’t budged either, as Parkins reminded the audience that it’s still about finding your target audiences or stops, providing services for those who may not be library users, setting goals to expand capacity, and partnering with organizations in your area for maximum effectiveness.

She encouraged viewers to take advantage of ABOS resources, such as its website, social media, membership, and listserv.

“Library outreach, a lot of time, is a solo job. Whatever types of outreach you’re doing, know that you’re not alone,” said Parkins. “Networking is very important, especially during these times.”


By the Numbers: Bookmobiles

Stats on the fleets that deliver library services

Bookmobiles on display at the 2019 Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services Annual Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, October 23–25.

Bringing the Library to the People

Highlights from the 2019 ABOS conference